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What can we expect from Tyler Thornburg as he nears his return?

Is it time to get optimistic about the reliever?

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We have seen Tyler Thornburg in a Red Sox jersey exactly twice since Dave Dombrowski traded away Travis Shaw, Mauricio Dubon and two other players to the Brewers during the 2016 offseason in exchange for the right-handed reliever. Both of Thornburg’s outings with Boston thus far have come in spring training, and believe me when I say that I am the exact opposite of a person who thinks spring training stats mean anything. (See Rick Porcello’s 2016 spring stats vs. him winning the Cy Young a few months later). I just find it slightly humorous that Dombrowski, who had trouble putting together an effective bullpen in Detroit, trades for a guy coming off a breakout season and that stud promptly posts a 47.25 ERA over those two spring training appearances, then we don’t hear from him for a year. It’s great!

Well, get ready folks, because it looks like Thornburg is well on his way to a big-league return - and his regular-season Boston debut - following offseason surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome. The 29-year-old has made four rehab appearances between Pawtucket and Portland as of late. It’s still unclear exactly when Thornburg will return to Boston and manager Alex Cora has indicated that the Sox won’t rush him. The general consensus from Thornburg’s rehab efforts seems to be mostly positive up to this point. Cora discussed the reliever’s progress last week, saying Thornburg’s fastball has topped out at 97 mph while his secondary pitches have been “phenomenal” - according to MassLive’s Christopher Smith.

It sounds like Thornburg is also feeling pretty confident about his recovery and that’s huge in this city and this sport. The Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato wrote recently about that confidence.

“As far as velocity and breaking balls are concerned, I feel like there’s still more in the tank. … But from what I feel and what is still there, I’m really hoping that I can be as good if not a little better than I was before.”

Well, good. He clearly thinks he can still compete. If I had the ability to make a baseball look like a wiffle ball five to ten times a night, I would probably feel pretty confident too.

Boston Red Sox Photo Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

His first few appearances with the big-league club will be crucial. If he starts with a rough outing, the Hot Take Express may drive itself directly into the Charles River. But if Thornburg can get back to something resembling his 2016 form, the trade may finally prove to pay off for the Red Sox. Thornburg’s age-27 season was arguably his best yet. Over 67 appearances, he posted a 2.15 ERA and struck out 90 of the 263 batters he faced. According to FanGraphs, his swing and miss percentage was at a career-high 12 percent and batters made contact with only 73.9 percent of his pitches, also the best percentage of his career. Granted, these numbers were posted two years and one major surgery ago, so grain of salt and all that.

Thornburg has faced adversity related to an injury in the past, though, so it’s clear that the resilience needed to come back from a season-ending injury is present. The 2016 campaign also served as a resurrection for him after he missed most of 2014 with an injured UCL, which he said he partially tore in high school according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He eventually ended up receiving a PRP injection in his right elbow that ended his 2014 season after just 27 appearances. He appeared in 24 major-league games the following year and spent a good portion of the season in Triple-A, where he posted a 5.28 ERA over 17 starts. Upon his return to Milwaukee, he was used exclusively out of the bullpen and hasn’t started a game since.

As we’ve written in the past, coming back from TOS has proved to be a pretty trying task for major-league pitchers, with the most memorable lack of success being Matt Harvey, who had surgery in 2016. Since then, he has been DFA’d by the New York Mets, who used a first-round draft pick on him in 2010. His fate wasn’t necessarily sealed by the surgery, though. His reported refusal to accept a demotion to the minor leagues after a rough start to the season is what did him in. He’s also had a handful of off-field issues that I assume were at least mentioned when decision time came for Mets GM Sandy Alderson.

My hope is that Thornburg’s status as a reliever will help make his transition back into the majors a little easier than other pitchers who have had the procedure. Career starters Harvey, Tyson Ross, Phil Hughes, Jaime Garcia and Mike Foltynewicz assumed a similar workload upon their return. Thornburg pitched a career-high 67 innings in 2016 and that was an injury-free campaign where he appeared in back-to-back games or on one day’s rest 34 times. Even if his return is as imminent as it sounds, he likely wouldn’t come all that close to his 2016 workload this season.

Difficult to come back from? Yes, but impossible? Not quite. Doctor Robert Thompson - who performed the surgery for Harvey, Ross, Hughes, Garcia and Thornburg - authored a scientific study that used advanced statistics for pitchers diagnosed with TOS to determine the effect surgery had on their performance. He determined that of the 13 known players who underwent the surgery between 2001 and 2014, ten returned to professional baseball and managed to “play at or above pre-injury levels.” According to FanGraphs, Garcia was the only pitcher mentioned above who saw a spike in his fastball velocity following his procedure in July 2014. He was also the only one of the five mentioned included in Thompson’s study.

I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see Thornburg have similar success as he’s already shown that the velocity is still there. It helps that he’s not necessarily expected to be the bullpen savior he was brought in to be. A reliable bullpen was a major concern for Dombrowski going into the 2017 season, which is why he originally acquired Thornburg and Carson Smith. This year, though, the Red Sox have had one of the most consistent bullpens in baseball, hovering in the top 10 for ERA, walks allowed, strikeouts and WHIP. And with the way he’s looked in rehab it’s hard to imagine a healthy Thornburg doing anything to hinder that success.