John Lamb made his 2013 spring training debut on Sunday against the Rangers. It didn't go particularly well, as Lamb gave up four hits and one run in one inning of work. A nicely timed double play and a well-placed curveball to strike out Yangervis Solarte with runners at first and third kept Lamb's 2013 spring debut from being worse.
But for the Lamb, the bigger concern has to be his velocity on Sunday. The lefty sat in the mid-80s for most of his inning of work. He never touched 90 mph.
If Lamb’s below-average velocity had first cropped up in this first spring outing, it could easily be written off as a pitcher rounding into form in spring training. But now 19 months since he had Tommy John surgery, Lamb has yet to regain the velocity that once made him the Royals' best pitching prospect.
When he made his pro debut, Lamb was a lefty who could paint corners with his 89-91 mph fastball that would touch 94. As he matured and filled out, Lamb's fastball added a tick, turning into a consistent 90-95 mph heater, and his command remained above-average for a young pitcher. Lamb's rather speedy ascent through the Royals' system hit a detour when he suffered an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery in June 2011. Generally Tommy John surgery is now considered a one-year setback. Pitchers return to the mound roughly a year later with roughly the same stuff (or sometimes better) than what they had before the surgery. It often takes a little longer for pitchers to get comfortable with their breaking ball and their command.
|2011 Tommy John Surgeries|
|RHP Adam Wainwright||91.1 mph||90.1 mph|
|LHP Jorge De La Rosa||92.7||90.5|
|RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka||90.3||90.9|
|RHP David Aardsma||94||91.5|
|LHP Brett Anderson||90.9||91.5|
|LHP Rich Hill||90.7||92|
|RHP Jenrry Mejia||94.6||93.9|
|RHP Rubby De La Rosa||95.4||94.4|
|RHP Joba Chamberlain||94.3||94.7|
When Lamb returned to the mound last year, tendinitis in his foot set him back. He did show an 88-91 mph fastball in his first outings last year, but he more generally sat at 85-89, much like what he showed in his first official spring outing of 2013.
On Sunday, Lamb's excellent command was once again in evidence, but it's also fair to say that if one had a choice between Lamb demonstrating exquisite command or premium velocity in his first spring outing, it would be preferable to see the velocity return. After all, there are many rusty pitchers in spring training who have yet to find the command they will have when May rolls around. But it's a lot harder to find a missing five mph. And most pitchers who have Tommy John surgery are back throwing at their normal pre-injury velocity a year after the surgery, much less 19 months later.
Looking at other pitchers who had Tommy John surgery in 2011 like Lamb, most of them regained soon after they passed the one-year mark of their surgery. Using the Tommy John tracker on MLBDepthCharts and the Pitch/FX average fastball velocity information compiled at Fangraphs gave a list of nine Major League pitchers who had Tommy John surgery in 2011 who returned to the major leagues in 2012. Of those nine, only two, Jorge de la Rosa and David Aardsma, saw their average fastball velocity dip by more than two mph. Six of the nine saw their velocity return within one mile per hour of its pre-injury average.
There’s also the possibility that Lamb just needs some more innings in spring training to get his arm speed back to where he wants it to be, but it's worth noting that fellow Royals' prospect Yordano Ventura was touching 99 mph in his first spring outing. Mets prospect Zack Wheeler was flashing 97 mph fastballs; Bruce Rondon has shown his 100 mph fastball. It's too early in spring for pitchers to be going through their dead arm period, so for pitchers coming off of their winter layoffs with fresh arms, this is a time where many of them are showing midseason velocity, if not always showing midseason control.
Sometimes pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery take a little while before they feel comfortable fully airing it out. That could be the case with Lamb as well, but it’s something the Royals and scouts throughout baseball will be keeping an eye on through the rest of spring training.