There was a time when Jake Peavy was mentioned in the same breath as pitchers like Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander. There was a time when Peavy might have been better than all of them -- the best in the game, in fact.
The last year he started 30 games was in 2007. That season he led the National League in wins, ERA, strikeouts, fewest baserunners allowed per nine innings and most strikeouts per nine. He was the only starter in the major leagues with an ERA under 3.00. He collected all 32 first-place votes in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.
"I can definitely get better," Peavy said after winning the award. "I've got a long way to go to be who I want to be." Maybe he was referring to not throwing a complete game that season. Maybe he was referring to Game No. 163, the playoff tiebreaker in Colorado. Peavy gave up 10 hits and six runs in 6 1/3 innings in a game the Padres eventually lost in the 13th inning. He was 26 years old, a Cy Young winner with two ERA titles under his belt, but he still wanted to prove he was the best pitcher in baseball.
This isn't the way he wanted it to happen, but it's May 2012 and right now Jake Peavy is back on top: He's the best pitcher in baseball. That's right: Better than Halladay or Verlander or Clayton Kershaw or Jered Weaver.
It's an amazing comeback story from a guy who has battled four years of injuries, and not just the routine battle scars that pitchers have to overcome. In 2010, he feared his career could be over. A quick look back at that list of injuries:
2008: He went on the disabled in May with a sore elbow, missed a month and ended up making 27 starts and posting a 2.85 ERA.
2009: Strained a tendon in his right ankle rounding a base in late May, an injury that eventually landed him on the DL. Traded to the White Sox while disabled, Peavy returned in September to make three strong starts. In 16 starts, he finished 9-6 with a 3.45 ERA.
2010: In July, Peavy ruptured the tendon that attaches the latissimus dorsi muscle to the rear of the right shoulder. He became the first major league pitcher to undergo an experimental surgery involving stitches and titanium anchors. His season was over after 17 starts.
2011: Missed time at the start of the season with shoulder tendinitis, later pulled a groin and then was shut down in September due to arm fatigue. He made 18 starts.
Now he's healthy for the first time in a long time. "I’m a different guy than since you've probably ever seen me, just as far as feeling OK on the mound, being able to worry about making pitches, worrying about game planning not sitting in the trainer room the whole time in between days," he told ESPN Chicago a couple starts ago.
Watching him pitch on Wednesday, he looked like the Peavy from his Padres heyday, mixing his fastball, cutter, tight slider, curveball and changeup from that slightly herky-jerky delivery of his. For all the talk of Yu Darvish's wide arsenal of pitchers, Peavy also throws a kitchen sink repertoire. He cruised through six shutout innings against Cleveland before surrendering a run in the seventh as the White Sox scored an 8-1 victory. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 28 batters and while he rarely topped at more than 90 mph on his fastball, he pitched with precision while changing speeds.
Best in the game? A bold statement, yes, but through seven starts nobody's been better. Check the numbers:
4-1, 1.89 ERA, with just 11 runs allowed in seven starts.
Tied with Felix Hernandez for most innings pitched.
.189 batting average allowed, .221 OBP allowed (third behind only Matt Cain and Jered Weaver), .482 OPS allowed (fifth).
What's impressive about this seven-start run is Peavy has had to face most of the hard-hitting lineups in the American League: two starts against Detroit, plus Texas, Boston, Baltimore and Cleveland. He has one start against Oakland. Weaver, for instance, has faced the Twins in three of his seven starts and hasn't faced Detroit, Texas or Boston.
Now, whether Peavy can keep it going and remain healthy is another issue. Entering his Wednesday start, he was the most extreme fly-ball starting pitcher in the majors, although he has allowed just two home runs. He did induce groundballs on nine of his 15 non-strikeout outs on Wednesday, but skeptics would suggest that his home run rate isn't sustainable. That's certainly likely, but you can see from his heat maps that while he's been pitching up in the zone, he's doing a good job of keeping the ball away from hitters.
Amazingly, Peavy isn't the only comeback story for the White Sox. Designated hitter Adam Dunn's career appeared to be in jeopardy for other reasons after suffering through one of the worst seasons in major league history last year, with a batting average I don't even want to repeat.
Dunn, however, has been one of the most valuable hitters in the game so far, slugging his 10th home run on Wednesday, a two-run bomb off Jeanmar Gomez in the first inning. Dunn is hitting .243/.384/.586 and he's tied for third in the majors in homers and ranks ninth in RBIs and 15th in OPS.
Whether Dunn can keep this up is also a fair question. His strikeout rate of 34.1 percent is close to 2011's 35.7 percent, both figures well above Dunn's career mark of 27.7 percent. Basically, last year his fly balls were caught; this year, they're landing on the good side of the fence. But he's also lofting the ball more than a year ago; only four players are hitting a higher percentage of fly balls than Dunn. When you're as big and strong as Dunn, fly balls are a good thing.
Still, you have to connect with the sweet part of the wood. And White Sox fans have hearing that sweet sound so far.
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