Among all the match-ups on Opening Day — no, not that Opening Day, or that one, you know, the other one — one of the more intriguing for fantasy purposes might have been Atlanta opening their season in New York against the Mets, despite each club coming off 2011 campaigns they’d just as soon forget. (For radically different reasons, of course.) That’s because it allowed us to finally see some real, live data on two immensely talented starters each attempting to return from serious injuries, Johan Santana & Tommy Hanson.
Santana’s situation is well-known at this point, so we’ll just hit on the basics. Once one of the best pitchers in the sport while with Minnesota, he joined the Mets after 2007 and put up two-and-a-half solid (if not quite vintage) seasons in New York before succumbing to left shoulder surgery that cut his 2010 season short on September 2. Santana never did make it back in 2011 despite several attempts, perhaps not an altogether surprising outcome considering that the surgery he required had rarely been performed on a big league pitcher before, with the procedures which had occurred yielding considerably mixed results.
Hanson is six-and-a-half years Santana’s junior and not nearly as accomplished, though his three short years in the bigs have quickly proven him to be among the brightest young pitchers in the game. Hanson’s three-year FIP puts him right in between Cole Hamels & Matt Cain, while his swinging strike percentage over that same period is equal to that of Zack Greinke & Adam Wainwright. The Atlanta righty had increased his strikeout rate to nearly ten per nine in 2011 before seeing his season come to an end on August 6 after shoulder tendonitis. He was able to avoid surgery, but did manage to further terrify both Braves fans and fantasy owners alike by getting into a car accident in February which resulted in a mild concussion.
So after months of speculation about whether either would even be ready for April and what caliber of pitcher they’d be after their arm troubles, Santana and Hanson squared off against each other on Opening Day in Queens. All things considered, their outings could hardly have gone better. Santana made it through five scoreless innings, working out of a bases loaded jam in the fifth while striking out five overall. Hanson took a shutout of his own into into the sixth, though that may have been one inning too long; he allowed the first three men to reach before being lifted for Kris Medlen, who retired the next three Mets with no further damage.
Simply by getting through their outings by putting up solid performances with no reports of shoulder pain, these really should be taken as positive outings. In particular, Mets fans were ecstatic about the return of their ace, and with how little they’ve had to cheer for over the last few years, it’s hard to blame them. But in the same breath, any exhortations that Santana or Hanson “is back” really needs to be tempered with some reality, because neither was able to get near their pre-injury velocity levels. (I especially can’t wait to see the back page of the New York Post when it comes out. Can you award a Cy Young on April 6?)
According to our own Jeff Zimmerman, Hanson was down 2.3 MPH from last year, while Santana was 1.9 MPH under his 2010 performance. Those are significant variances, and the readings can’t simply be chalked up to a miscalculated radar gun, because every other pitcher who appeared in that game showed velocity at or near their usual levels. Neither pitcher was able to dial it up past 90-91 regularly, with Santana down into the mid-80s by the end of his stint.
Now, whether that’s a step on the comeback trail or the new normal remains to be seen. No one expects a starting pitcher to be in mid-season form on Opening Day, particularly two pitchers coming off serious arm issues, and so as they continue to rebuild arm strength, it’s hopeful that at least some of the velocity can return with it. For now, keep expectations in check, because each will be handled very gingerly for at least the next few weeks.