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The Red Sox Not-So-Secret Secret Weapon

Much has been made of the Red Sox search for another starting pitcher. Currently three starters in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz are expected to head up the rotation in some order. Beyond that, well, the Red Sox are sort of still working on that one. They are going to give bullpen mates Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves shots at the rotation (though nobody seems to think Aceves will stick there), and they have signed a plethora of veterans ostensibly to compete for a rotation spot but mostly as insurance against injuries.

Right now if you had to make out a starting rotation depth chart, it might look something like this:

1. Jon Lester
2. Josh Beckett
3. Clay Bucholz
4. Daniel Bard
7. Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva, John Maine, Vicente Padilla
8. Profit

With a quantity of options though little in the way of quality past the top three, most people seem to expect the Red Sox to acquire, in some fashion, another starting pitcher. And indeed they may do so, but with the news that a recovering Daisuke Matsuzaka has thrown off a mound (presumably of the pitching variety), maybe it's time to re-think Dice-K's place in the discussion of the 2012 Red Sox starting rotation.

But, you say, Matsuzaka is coming off of Tommy John surgery and hasn't pitched since June. How can you count on a pitcher coming off of major elbow surgery to be an important part of the starting rotation?

According to Corey Dawkins and Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus:

Most players start formal physical therapy around the end of the first month, have their full motion back by eight weeks, and can begin bench-pressing after around three months. A throwing program starts around the fourth month, but pitching has to wait until the sixth month from flat ground and about four to six weeks longer from the mound. Pitchers can expect to start pitching in competitive situations anywhere from nine to twelve months after surgery, although gradual improvement can be expected for up to two years after surgery.

Matsuzaka underwent surgery on June 10th and Tuesday he threw 21 pitches off a mound. December 10th was the six month anniversary of Matsuzaka's surgery, and Tuesday marked seven weeks following that anniversary. That means Matsuzaka's recovery is going pretty much according to the time line set out by Dawkins and Lindbergh above, which is good news.

If you extrapolate forward, Matsuzaka should be ready for competitive situations somewhere in between March and June. But even if that timetable gets pushed back, Matsuzaka should still be available to pitch in the major leagues sometime before the trade deadline at the end of July.

That's all fine and dandy, but the Red Sox already have Padilla/Cook/etc. They don't need another mediocre pitcher. What can the Red Sox expect from Matsuzaka when he returns? Outside of a crystal ball, that question is impossible to answer with certainty, but we can take an educated guess based on how other pitchers have reacted to the surgery in the recent past.

Last season Matsuzaka posted the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of his major league career. While he's never been known as a control pitcher, it's likely that at least some portion of those unfavorable numbers were due to the elbow problems that led to his requiring surgery. One further quote from the excellent piece by Dawkins and Lindbergh above:

The vast majority of injuries that result in TJS stem from a chronic, cumulative effect that chip away at the UCL’s integrity until a single episode sets it over the edge. One study involving Dr. David Altchek found that the average amount of time between the onset of elbow pain or symptoms and surgery was 24.5 months.

Matsuzaka's major league record is spotty, bouncing from excellent to mediocre and back within just about any time frame you care to mention. It's likely that the injury which eventually required Tommy John surgery began sometime in 2009, or even perhaps earlier. This is important to note because the pitcher we Sox fans have been accustomed to seeing over the past few seasons, an inconsistent and frustrating pitcher capable of throwing a gem one week and walking the ballpark the next, could be at least in part the result of injury.

Over at Sons of Sam Horn, commenter Hairps does yeoman's work in noting that it took Edison Volquez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Stephen Strasburg, three pitchers who recovered from Tommy John surgery to pitch in the majors last year*, an average of 234 days following surgery to throw their first bullpen. Matsuzaka took 232 days. If he continues to follow the path of Volquez, Zimmermann, and Strasburg, Matsuzaka would be ready to begin his minor league rehabilitation on May 1st, and pitch in a major league game on June 6th (a home game against Baltimore).

* Zimmermann and Volquez had their surgeries in August of 2009, while Strasburg had his in September of 2010.

It should be noted that Volquez and Zimmermann were not world-beaters immediately upon returning from surgery and directly comparing Matsuzaka to Stephen Strasburg would be silly. The point isn't that these pitchers are the same, but that recovery along a certain time line with tangible results in line with previous career norms is possible. It's not only achievable for Matsuzaka to return during the year, it's likely he'll do so before the All Star break. It's further likely that Matsuzaka will be within ten percent either way of a league average pitcher during his time on the mound in 2012. That may not sound like Superman coming to the rescue (and it isn't) but recall that had the Red Sox had a pitcher capable of 6 innings of 100 ERA+ ball last September they would have made the playoffs.

Not acquiring a good veteran pitcher at a fair price because the team thinks it has 130 good innings from a rejuvenated Matsuzaka coming its way would be foolish. But as I hope I've shown, it isn't unreasonable to expect Matsuzaka to return during the approaching season, and to do so in a reasonable facsimile of his pre-injury form. In contrast to last season's dearth of pitching down the stretch, Matsuzaka could be an important part of a playoff-caliber pitching rotation once again in 2012.