Janssen has his 'stuff' back
Blue Jays reliever Casey Janssen fields a ground ball during practice at the club's spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., Feb. 22, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
It's a situation no young pitcher wants to contemplate, but at some point it happens to most. He throws a pitch and suddenly his elbow, or maybe his shoulder, is on fire. Life, as he knows it, is over.
How a pitcher reacts to a devastating injury obviously has a massive impact on a career. But not all of it has to be bad.
In 2007, Janssen had a breakthrough season with the Blue Jays as the club's eighth-inning setup man. He even earned six saves that year. The next spring, while competing for a job in the rotation, something popped in his elbow. Shortly thereafter, he had Tommy John surgery and was done for the year, resigned to a lonely, frustrating year of rehab.
"When I came back the next year (2009), it was like I had brought a knife to a gunfight," he recalled. "I had a weapon but it just wasn't good enough for where I was. That was with every pitch ... the life on my fastball, the life on my slider, the life on my curve ball. I took my lumps and it was a tough year. Tough mentally, tough physically.
"That next year, it all came back and the ball was jumping out of my hand a little bit better."
That 2009 season may have been torture but it's where Janssen truly learned how to pitch. The doctors and trainers warned him that it would take a full season to find himself.
"But you don't want to hear it," he says. "Nobody (in the game) feels sorry for you. The hitters aren't up there thinking, this guy's only 12 months out (from surgery), let's take it easy on him.
"More than anything that year, I had to learn how to get somebody out with average stuff. Now the stuff is back, after having to learn how to pitch with nothing, and now I'm able to incorporate it with pitches that have some extra life."
We're talking about Casey Janssen here but manager John Farrell, no stranger to crippling arm injuries, says the same could be said of so many others.
"That's not an uncommon realization when you come back from an injury," he said. "You're in tune with your body and it heightens an awareness when you're in the moment of competition. When you're young and full of vinegar, you might just rely on your raw stuff. When you have a situation that forces you start over and build back, you become that much more aware.
"You learn who you are. You can't rely on being able to reach back. You've got to have more smarts."
At the age of 41, Darren Oliver is having some of the best years of his career as a wily old left-hander. He began his career as a power pitcher with the Rangers in 1993.
"I was a little wild, never consistent with my release point.
Now, I don't have the same stuff I had 15 years ago, but I know where it's going. I sometimes wish I had it all, but that's just the way it is.
"When you get hurt, you have the chance to sit back and observe what's going on and begin to know yourself a little bit better," says Oliver. "The guys that can take something from it usually pitch a lot longer than the guys who don't.
"It's been awhile since I've been hurt, but going through that really does help. I'm kind of glad I got hurt when I was really, really young, because who's to say they would have kept me around to let me get to the stage I'm at now."
Oliver has had a nifty six-year run as a left-handed specialist and is looking to make it seven. Since the start of the 2006 season, he has parlayed his wisdom into 348 appearance, covering 402 innings, allowing an ERA of 2.98.
"I try to treat it like golf when I'm out there on the mound ... stay in my lane, be repetitive in my delivery, keep it all simple," he said. "I now have the ability to slow the game down on the mound. I only wish I could slow the game down on the golf course."
Janssen is just 29 and expects to be able to parlay his talent and his experience for a good long time yet.
"There's still a big portion of my career left where I can apply everything that I've learned," he says. "People talk about your ability and then your experience. At some point in your career, your experience takes over from your ability.
"We talk about it with the guys I work out with. It's a cliche but it's a case of 'if I knew then what I know now, what kind of pitcher could I have been?'"
DRABEK FLYING UNDER RADAR
Given his struggles last season, Kyle Drabek is, relatively speaking, flying below the radar this year. Perhaps he is destined for triple-A again, but not necessarily, as far as GM Alex Anthopoulos is concerned.
"It's in there," says Anthopoulos of Drabek's potential. "He's so young. And I always use Clay Buchholz as an example. He came up, did great early on. It took two years before he finally was established, but his stuff was always there. A lot of people felt it was going to come.
"I think Kyle's in the same boat. So it could come at any time. It could come in camp here, it could come during the year."