Like so many young pitchers, Jeremy Bonderman's significant promise was hampered by the injury bug. He caught it in 2007, starting with blisters and ending with pinched lateral cartilage in his right elbow that cost him most of September. In 2008 matters got worse. After 12 largely ineffective starts he hit the DL again, this time requiring shoulder surgery. His 2009 comeback didn't quite work out, leaving concerns about his ability to recover and become the pitcher scouts once envisioned he could be. But in 2010, he has started to change some of those negative opinions.
Last night's start ranked among his best of the season. Facing the Washington Nationals, Bonderman pitched seven innings, requiring just 95 pitches to record those 21 outs. He allowed just five hits and walked none. His biggest, and perhaps only, mistake came in the seventh, when Adam Dunn hit one over the wall in right-center. With the score then 7-2 it didn't much matter. Bonderman went on to retire three of the next four hitters, ending his night in a strong fashion. He ended the night with seven strikeouts, giving him 59 in his 75 1/3 innings .
What stood out about Bonderman's night was his slider usage. In 2006 and 2007, the best years of his career, he went to his slider about 35 percent of the time. That level of usage was justified because it was clearly his best pitch. But pitchers who throw a high percentage of sliders appear to be at risk for arm injury. Bill Bray, Kiko Calero, Brad Lidge, and Mike Wuertz are recent examples of slider-heavy pitchers who have spent time on the DL with arm injuries. Bonderman, it appears, understands how the usage affected his arm. He threw it just over 20 percent of the time last year, and is at around 25 percent this year, still a significant drop from his 2006-07 usage.
The 26 he threw last night was right in line with that percentage, and as usual Bonderman used the pitch effectively. He generated three swings and misses, all of which came on strike three. The only mistake he made with it was hanging one to Dunn in the seventh after throwing him two earlier in the at-bat. The slider might not be all the way back, as hitters laid off it half the time. When Bonderman's slider is at its best hitters will chase it more often, either making weak contact or swinging and missing.
To compensate for the lower slider usage, Bonderman has employed a two-seamer, and with much success. It has been an effective, if not slower, pitch this season. In 2006 he averaged 93 miles per hour with the fastball, and in 2007 that was still at 92. This year he's averaging just over 90 mph with the fastball. Last night, though, he averaged 91.7 mph and maxed out right under 94. Hitters had trouble with the pitch, too, as they swung and missed seven times in 55 pitches. That made for an overall 11.7 percent whiff rate, 2.5 points better than his season average.
Jeremy Bonderman might never be the pitcher that scouts envisioned when he was a first-round pick in 2001. It appears, however, that he is far from done. Not only has he pitched well so far this season, but he has demonstrated improvement, especially in his last few starts. His two-seamer, slider combination has been an effective one. He is well on his way to a solid season, no small accomplishment for a pitcher who missed the bulk of two years after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Joe Pawlikowski is a writer for FanGraphs.