Everyone is excited about Spring Training and baseball being played. This is great, with the exception that we see plenty of hyperbole. “Player X is in the best shape of his life and could be an MVP,” “Player Y has a new changeup grip and will win the Cy Young,” “Player Z changed his pre-game routine and will play 155 games this year.” You get the idea. Everyone’s looking for a small positive and turning it into the biggest deal ever. Optimism is in the air like influenza in 1918. And while some of that’s understandable, there was nothing incorrect with the reaction to what Matt Harvey did upon his immediate return form Tommy John surgery, no matter how extreme the feedback may seem. For example:

And, I mean, if you’d like to fact-check that, here’s the footage (keep an eye on his velocity):

Yeah, pretty much inhuman, especially considering the circumstances. Let’s be realistic and keep in mind this guy hadn’t pitched in a baseball game for 590 days. To come out firing in the upper 90’s with the ability to locate and mix in a new curveball, which has the power to make him even filthier, that’s just plain silly. Matt Harvey was something else last Friday, and while he’ll have work to do to keep that filthiness up longer than six batters, things appear to be headed in the right direction.

But all of this post-TJ, Matt Harvey talk got me thinking about one of our own, Patrick Corbin. When asked on a recent episode of The Pool Shot who we thought the best pitcher at the end of 2015 would be, both Ryan and I respond with Corbin. He’s the best pitcher they have right now, he’s just not able to pitch. Once he is, he’ll be their best active pitcher again and we’re all looking forward to that. But, he will be coming off of the same injury that sidelined Harvey, one of the game’s brightest young stars. So how does Patrick Corbin pull a Matt Harvey?

I’m not a physical therapist and I don’t even play one on TV. That’s probably a good thing for all parties involved. But what I do know is that it seems like the longer a pitcher waits to return from Tommy John, the better he performs when he retakes the mound.  As the rash of UCL injuries has taken hold of the baseball world in recent years, tracking the success of returning pitchers has been inevitable. Most return unscathed for the most part. Some lose a little velocity, some don’t. Others struggle with command while some guys seem like they never left the mound in the first place. For most, it’s a routine surgery that happens once and they move on with their careers. Unfortunately, a handful of pitchers, such as Daniel Hudson, get bit by the bug again, whether it’s due to a botched surgery, poor mechanics, genetics or some combination of all three. By and large, however, the recipe appears to be getting the surgery done, taking about six months off before rehab and returning to the mound in about 12 months.

But Matt Harvey did something different, and it wasn’t his choice. He took nearly 18 months off before returning to pitch, mostly due to the timing of his original injury in August of 2013. Sure, the Mets could have pushed him for a late summer debut last season and gotten a few innings out of him, which Harvey wanted, but they wisely shelved him for the entire 2014 campaign to let him heal up. While Harvey was resistant to the idea at first, he eventually accepted it. From Jeff Passan’s work last month:

Whatever disappointment Harvey had in not returning last season has vanished. Eventually he recognized that he’s one of the lucky few – the pitcher who gives his arm even more time to heal than the standard 12-month timetable – and that while no data exists to prove longer recoveries equal better results, enough experts agree on it to give him comfort..

“I was looking at a 17-month recovery, even if I didn’t want it. And it was the best decision,” Harvey said. “Going into a fresh season at 17, 18 months, I couldn’t feel any better about it.”

The strategy to wait it out appears to have paid off for the Mets, but they’re not alone. Other teams, such as the Indians, have begun handling Tommy John recoveries on a longer timeline than was originally devised so as to allow a more fully-healed pitcher to retake the mound. From Eno Sarris at FanGraphs:

…some of the timing of (Danny Salazar‘s) rehab schedule sounds familiar, too. “You don’t start throwing bullpens until eight months after surgery,” Salazar said. Even then, post-op pitchers throw only fastballs for about a month and then add the change-up. LikeJarrod Parker said last year, you leave the breaking pitches out of the bullpen until later when you’re coming back from Tommy John surgery. The sliders Salazar said he threw in rehab were from 60 feet, “during the throwing program,” and not at max effort, “so you don’t get hurt.”

But there was something the Indians did differently with respect the timing of his rehab. Danny Salazar‘s first game action in the minor leagues after his Aug. 1, 2010, surgery came on Aug. 3 of the next year. The surgeon told Salazar that he’d be able to pitch in “nine-to-10 months,” but the Indians had a different policy: “They always go for 12 with everyone,” Salazar says. “They give you an extra two months, just in case.”

Why wait? What’s the beneift? Some research would suggest that the additional time has helped pitchers transition more fully back into the game, in addition to minimizing their chances of needing a second Tommy John Operation. Sarris continues:

Coming back from Tommy John surgery is tough enough. In an article for the 2013 Hardball Times Annual, Jeff Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright found strikeout and walk rates are usually 5% worse the first year back from surgery, before regressing their way back to career norms the next year. But the 28 pitchers who returned quicker than 12 months from Tommy John saw their control get worse in the second year. It’s only on the order of 2% worse, but those pitchers didn’t, as a group, get the second-year bounce in control that other Tommy John pitchers have seen.

If you’ve been listening to the buzz out of Phoenix, it sounds like Corbin won’t return before June. At least that’s what we’ve been told. Should he be on track to make his return at that time, Patrick Corbin would have had 15 months of rest. That’s not 18, but it’s certainly more than the usual 12. If this extended recovery time thing is indeed important, it sounds like the organization is on board with it. Sure, they could rush him quicker as plenty of pitchers have returned more quickly that that, but what’s the point. By June, the Diamondbacks could and should expect to be out of the race for the NL West crown (although there’s some hope that they won’t have fallen out of the wild card discussion by then).

Getting Corbin a couple of months of work will suffice, no matter the win-loss record. The idea has to be to get him back into competitive action for a few months, let him work out any kinks, re-find his groove, then let him turn it loose in 2016. He should log somewhere between 95-110 innings in that time, depending on where he picks up in June. That will not only allow him to get back to “normal,” but also provide a shot in the arm for a rotation that projects to be worst in the majors. Diamondback fans will be ecstatic to see him back, but the only person more excited will probably be Corbin himself. Yet that excitement will likely be held in check by an innings count from the team. Protecting the team’s best pitcher is in everyone’s best interest as the big picture remains relatively bright for Arizona despite the team’s winning percentage in 2015.

How he returns is a mystery, however. No one really knows as all of these cases are truly unique. He could take the mound, not skip a beat and pick up where he left off. He could be under a directive to use his slider less and his changeup more, provided he has the feel for the latter, to keep some stress of his surgically repaired elbow. He could feel discomfort and head back to the disabled list as the team will likely take no chances with their ace. We simply don’t know.

What we do know is that by delaying his debut until the summer, Arizona is following, at least loosely, the well-regarded precedent of other teams. And that has to be a welcomed strategy for all parties as what’s good for Corbin is good for everyone. Well, maybe not the guy he bumps out of the rotation, but at least everyone else. A healthy Patrick Corbin is what we’re all hoping for, and by taking the extra time with his rehab, we have a better chance of receiving it. For now, we’ll have to remain patient, as hard as that may be.

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