The public perception of pitcher injuries is oversimplified, as tends to be the case with the public perception of anything. But the public perception of an injury to a pitcher's elbow is that it's too bad but not a huge deal, while the public perception of an injury to a pitcher's shoulder is that the pitcher might be &@#$ed. Some pitchers make it back from shoulder injuries, while other pitchers do not. Shoulders are mysterious. They're like your closet when you turn off the lights.
In 2010, Johan Santana injured his shoulder. He injured it pretty bad - he needed surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule. It isn't important to understand the physiology. It's important to understand that, at that point, Santana's future was a question mark. And he was just ending the third year of a six-year, $137.5 million contract! The Mets were positive that Santana would eventually return, but they had to be; the truth was unknowable.
In 2011, Santana kept right on recovering. He made two appearances for single-A St. Lucie. He threw a combined five innings. He was a non-factor.
Coming into 2012, Santana looked ready for action. He made five appearances in spring training. Sometimes he looked good, and other times he looked less good, but he was healthy, and he was given the nod to start on Opening Day against the Braves. Opening Day means meaningful baseball. Thursday afternoon, Johan Santana finally got back to meaningful baseball.
And he looked good. Sometimes real good. In his first major-league start since September 2, 2010, Santana worked five innings without allowing a run.
The other numbers were encouraging, too. Two hits, two walks, five strikeouts. Santana was only removed after five innings because the Mets are monitoring his pitch counts right now, and he was due up in the next frame.
Santana didn't even pitch in a jam until the top of the fifth. He retired 13 of the first 14 batters he saw, and then after the Braves loaded the bases with two out, he got Michael Bourn to tap a full-count fastball back to the mound. That's what allowed Santana to jog back to the dugout to an ovation.
The five Braves batters Santana punched out:
Didn't even have to get a cheapie by striking out Tommy Hanson. Santana worked his fastball in the high-80s, and while that's slower than he used to throw in his Minnesota prime, it's still plenty fast enough for him to be effective.
I don't know which of two things is my favorite thing about Johan's Thursday start, so I'll provide them both. First, Santana threw 84 pitches. Of those, 50 went for strikes, and of those, 33 were on swings. Of those 33 swings, 13 missed. Santana got Braves hitters to swing through 13 pitches, which is a remarkably impressive total given his pitch count.
My other favorite thing is this:
Johan Santana had a changeup. Johan Santana still has a changeup. It can still make hitters do that. That's the pitch that'll allow Santana to succeed at reduced velocity, if his body can keep from breaking down.
Johan Santana is one start in. The memory of his shoulder problems will never fade away, and whenever he takes the mound, Mets fans and officials will have their fingers crossed. But Johan Santana is finally back to taking the mound, and he demonstrated today that he's more the same as before than different.
(The Mets won.)