Tyler Thornburg’s Long Road Back

When any team plays as poorly as the 2015 Brewers have, injuries will bear some portion of the blame. As stars and role players alike fall victim to various maladies, the club will find itself gasping for air. Indeed, several contributors to the Brewers have missed time because of injury this season: Jonathan Lucroy, for a broken toe; Adam Lind, for a tight back; Khris Davis, for a hurt knee; and many more. Even injuries that haven’t transpired in this calendar year can take a present toll on players who’ve incurred them.

For Tyler Thornburg, that’s been the case.

The Brewers picked up Thornburg in the third round of the 2010 draft. He cruised through the minors in 2011 and 2012, to such an extent in the latter year that BP deemed him the 100th-best prospect in baseball. Making his first extended run at the major-league level in June of 2013, he excelled, posting a 2.02 ERA and 2.82 DRA over 66.2 swingman-ish innings. Thornburg looked like a hurler that would help Milwaukee for years to come.

Then, the injury bug bit. After laboring through 29.2 innings of 4.25-ERA, 4.31-DRA ball to start the year, Thornburg hit the disabled list with an elbow strain. It eventually caused the team to shut him down for the remainder of the season, and although he didn’t undergo surgery, he still spent most of the offseason rehabbing. The residual effects of this would hamper him at the beginning of 2015, when he posted a 5.49 ERA across 9.2 frames of relief before heading down to the minors. He didn’t fare any better there — the club moved him into the rotation, and he responded by allowing more than five runs per nine innings in his 17 starts. This post-injury Thornburg didn’t have much appeal.

The thing about injuries, of course, is that they require different amounts of recovery time for different players. Sometimes a player will attempt to play through it, a decision that can aggravate it further and set them back. Other times, they’ll just need some time to shake off the rust before they can make their way back. As Thornburg discussed with Tom Haudricourt at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel earlier this week, he spent most of spring training doing just that. Thornburg’s struggles early on certainly testify to how effectively that went.

Thornburg rejoined the major-league club at the beginning of August following the trade of Jonathan Broxton. This iteration doesn’t look rusty in the slightest. In fact, he appears to have regained some shine: During the stint, Thornburg has a 2.61 ERA in 20.2 innings. With the elbow woes behind him completely, Thornburg has at long last made a full comeback.

In the aforementioned JS piece, Thornburg emphasized that full command of his secondary offerings required a clean bill of health:

Thornburg’s fastball has averaged just over 92 mph, down a click from last year before he injured his elbow. But his changeup and curveball are just as important in his scheme of pitching, and he has made progress with command of those secondary pitches.

“I’ve gotten back to pitching like myself,” said Thornburg. “You have to build back that comfort of every pitch. Getting command of the fastball as well as getting the feel of the curveball to be able to throw it for a strike. The changeup is such a feel pitch and that’s been a big pitch for me the past few years.

Walks undid Thornburg last year — he doled them out to 16.0 percent of the batters he faced — and the changeup’s measly 53.9 percent strike rate contributed the most to that. Now that it’s bounced back to a rejuvenated 68.8 percent, the free passes have dropped off as well. Thornburg’s put up a 6.0 percent walk rate during the past month-and-a-half. Here, a better feel for the pitch has allowed Thornburg to reap its full rewards.

The curveball has more than better command behind its rise. During Thornburg’s 2013 run, it gave him a 25.3 percent looking strike rate and a 63.6 percent ground-ball rate, making it one of the more valuable pitches he possessed. Those abilities largely vanished the next year, and for the most part they stayed away as he came up short in April of this year. Since making his comeback, though, it’s surpassed even those early benchmarks. Thornburg’s curve currently sports a 28.1 percent clip of called strikes and a 75.0 level of grounders. The former has helped the right-hander strike out 25.1 percent of the opposition’s men, and the latter has limited their contact to the weaker variety.

While command plays a role here as well, the curveball’s movement has also improved. Thornburg has actually lost some velocity on the pitch compared to years past: Its current average of 75.5 MPH can’t match up to his 77.8-MPH mark for 2013. It does, however, offer quite a bit of drop — 8.8 inches of it, much higher than the 6.8 it averaged two years ago. Even at the start of 2015, Thornburg could only coax a seven-inch drop out of his bender; now that he’s 100 percent again, he can make it dip as he pleases.

Thornburg’s fastball has done as well as ever, on top of these two. Now that they’ve come back around, he’s rid himself of the bases on balls that fettered him in 2014 and the paucity of strikeouts that bit him early in 2015. Pitching effectively out of the bullpen could earn Thornburg another shot at the starting rotation (a spot where he’s wanted to go in the past), especially if Wily Peralta, et al., continue to implode.

For players of any pedigree, an injury can derail everything they’ve worked their entire lives for, or at least inhibit them significantly as they try to accomplish their goals. Thornburg experienced this during 2014 and part of 2015, but he appears to have moved past it after an extended recovery period. To this point, the results have emphatically made the case for him staying with the Brewers long-term.

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