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Welcome Back, Joel Zumaya

Perhaps more than any other pitcher in the game, Joel Zumaya is associated with radar gun readings. After every fastball that the Detroit righty throws, flames literally shooting down his tattooed arms, fans turn to see if Zumaya cracked the triple digits.

The Tigers’ 11th round pick in the 2002 draft was developed as a starting pitcher, but he was shifted to the ‘pen upon reaching the majors. His rookie season back in 2006 was excellent — averaging 98.6 MPH with his vaunted fastball, Zumaya had 10.48 K/9, 4.54 BB/9 and a 3.93 xFIP. His control wasn’t great, but he garnered swinging strikes 13.4 percent of the time (9.3 percent MLB average for relievers) and compiled 1.9 WAR in 83.1 innings pitched. Zumaya’s heater wasn’t just a high-velocity novelty act — it was worth +1.43 runs per 100 pitches thrown.

After dominating hitters in ’06, Zumaya spent the better part of the next three seasons on the surgeon’s table or on the rehab trail. Joel’s injury woes actually began during the 2006 postseason, as he missed part of the ALCS with forearm and wrist inflammation suffered by rocking a little too hard on “Guitar Hero.” He then ruptured a tendon in his right middle finger in May of 2007, requiring surgery that sidelined him until August.

That off-season, Zumaya injured his shoulder moving boxes in his father’s attic as a California wildfire approached. He went under the knife again to repair his separated shoulder. Zumaya didn’t pitch in the majors until June of 2008, but he was shut down with a stress fracture in his shoulder in September. Last year, he began the season on the DL with shoulder soreness and then had yet another procedure on his shoulder in August.

When Zumaya did take the mound from 2007-2009, he wasn’t effective. He struck out 8.07 batters per nine frames, issued 6.24 BB/9 and had a 5.40 xFIP in 88 combined frames. After looking like a shut-down reliever during his rookie year, an ailing Zumaya contributed all of -0.2 WAR from ’07 to ’09. He still threw hard, averaging 97.5 MPH in 2007 and 2008 and 99.3 MPH in 2009, but hitters didn’t tremble at the prospect of getting a Zumaya fastball. The pitch had a +0.71 runs/100 value in ’07, but declined to -0.86 in ’08 and -0.94 last year.

In 2010, however, Zumaya again looks like a relief ace. In 26.2 innings, he has 9.79 K/9, 1.69 BB/9 and a 2.97 xFIP. With 1.1 WAR, the 25-year-old trails just Jonathan Broxton among relievers. Chucking his fastball (averaging 98.4 MPH) a career-high 84.2 percent of the time, Zumaya has a +2.48 runs/100 value with the heat. Joel is getting first pitch strikes 66.7 percent, and batters are chasing plenty of pitches — his outside swing percentage is 31.5, compared to a career 24.4 percent average and the 25.7 percent big league average for relievers.

I have no idea if Zumaya can remain healthy. Given his lengthy injury history and the stress that he puts on his shoulder with each searing fastball, he could be a ticking time bomb. But whatever the future holds, Zumaya’s pitching like one of the best relievers in the bigs right now.