Did Strasburg Have The Best First Start After Tommy John Surgery Ever?

When Stephen Strasburg made his Major League debut in 2010, his jaw-dropping 14-strikeout performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates was considered by many to be the greatest professional debut for any starting pitcher…ever. Despite the massively high expectations, the rookie from San Diego State University made grown men look foolish as he demolished multi-year veterans with a dizzying array of 99 MPH fastballs and knee breaking curveballs.

As someone who saw that event in person, I know it as a game that I will never forget, and in all likelihood it will go down in the record books, regardless of how Strasburg’s career pans out, as one of the biggest statement games in history. It is seldom that a player can rise to the opportunity when unreal expectations are laid upon them, as they were for Strasburg, and it is even rarer when that player is a rookie. On Tuesday night, he made his triumphant return from Tommy John surgery. While the start was much anticipated, and his solid performance was reassuring, it shouldn’t be overlooked that his outing may have been nearly as historically impressive as his MLB debut just over a year ago.

In his very first game back from Tommy John, Strasburg pitched five shutout innings Tuesday, allowing only two hits, no earned runs. A modestly strong start by the young ace’s own standards, however when you go back in recent history and compare that outing to other player’s in their first start from the same surgery, few can compare to the success that the 23-year-old had this week. 

Here is how other notable starting pitchers have faired over the past several years in their return from Tommy John surgery:

AJ Burnett:  Vs. NYM, 4 IP, 5 H, 2ER, 0 BB, 4 K, Loss

Chris Capuano: vs. ATL, 2 ip, 1 h, 2 ER, 3 BB, 0 K Loss

Chris Carpenter: vs ATL, 4 IP, 5 h, 1 ER, 2 bb, 2 k, No Decision

Tim Hudson: vs. FLA, 5.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5K, Win

Josh Johnson: vs LAD, 5.0 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 6K, No Decision

Francisco Liriano: vs. TB, 5.1 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 4K, No Decision

Kerry Wood: vs. HOU, 6.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, Win 

Jordan Zimmermann: vs. STL, 4 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 4K, No Decision

Of course, one could argue that the performance in one game is pretty insignificant overall, and in the grand scheme of things they’re probably right. After all, Jordan Zimmermann as we know struggled in his first outing after Tommy John surgery, but in the very next start he allowed just one hit over six innings while striking out nine Marlins batters. Branching out further, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, and Josh Johnson had mixed results in their very first return from the surgery, but all three went on to have an immediate impact for their team that season.

What IS so impressive about Strasburg’s start, however, is that when you consider his general lack of MLB experience prior to his surgery, the lack of rust he displayed in all aspects of his game is truly remarkable. For many 23-year-olds it takes a full season in the Major Leagues to pitch with consistency the way he did Tuesday night. For one who just had a year-long layoff after just 12 career starts prior, it makes it that much more imposing.

With Zimmermann, we saw the right-hander struggle with his control as well as his velocity for the entirety of his 2010 campaign, and that was after Zimmermann had made 16 MLB starts in 2009. Tuesday night on the other hand, we saw great control from Strasburg, who allowed no walks, while constantly pitching in the high 90 mph range. His maturity and overall skill level just continues to impress anyone who sees the phenom pitch, and his strong recovery from such a temporarily debilitating surgery makes even the most jaded Nats fan excited for the future. It has been no secret that he has ramped up his conditioning during his rehab, which means that once his arm is firing at 100%, we may see a hurler unlike anything we have ever witnessed before.