Jeremy Bonderman is working his way back to Detroit. He is making progress toward becoming a major league pitcher again. The righthander first appeared in the big leagues as a 20 year old flamethrower with a wicked slider, and learned on the job for the 2003 Detroit Tigers, losing 19 games as a rookie. The potential for greatness has always been there. Bonderman was acquired by Detroit in a 2002 trade the sent Jeff Weaver to the Yankees, Ted Lilly to the A’s, and Carlos Pena, Franklyn German, and Bonderman to the Tigers. His best season was in 2006, when the then 23 year old lead the AL with 34 starts, posting 202 strikeouts and a 14-8 record for the surprise pennant winners. But consistency has eluded Bonderman throughout his career.
Although he featured a mid-90s fastball and high-80s slider, he has never been able to master a quality third pitch. Early in the 2008 season, it was apparent Bonderman was losing velocity. He was diagnosed with a clotting disorder in his throwing shoulder and had season ending surgery after just 12 starts.
Bonderman’s numbers in his past few minor league starts have been very encouraging, with the exception of the number on the radar gun. The nerve damage in his shoulder has been corrected, but the velocity has not returned. The guy who used to be able to touch 98 with his fastball, has routinely been clocked 10 MPH slower. This has been cause for alarm for many, including Bonderman himself, but he has been making adjustments. He is now featuring a changeup, a pitch he has toyed with unsuccessfully in the past. Reports form Toledo have been encouraging regarding his location and command of his off-speed pitches. With an 88 MPH fastball, Bondo knows he needs to become more of a pitcher, less of a thrower if he plans to get hitters out consistently.
Like Bonderman, Frank Tanana got the big leagues at an early age. For parts of six seasons with the Angels, Tanana dominated the AL. Although teamed with Nolan Ryan, it was Tanana that posted the better numbers for much of their time together. Tanana suffered an arm injury in 1979, and faced many of the demons now facing Bonderman. The lefthander with the great fastball was gone, left behind was Tanana to rebuild his game.
Eventually, Tanana re-emerged. Armed with a big, slow curveball and high-80s fastball, he once again became an effective starting pitcher. The southpaw had routinely racked up 200 strikeout seasons before the injury, but would never again top 160 in one season. Still he pitched 14 years after the injury, and finished his career with 240 wins over his 21 seasons.
Bonderman’s old velocity may yet return, or it may not. At this point, he will have to make due with the arsenal he has. Bonderman has been in contact with Kenny Rogers. The former Tiger and 200 game winner had similar surgery during his career, and was able to come back as a finese pitcher when he returned to action.
Bonderman will need to heed the advice of Rogers moving forward. If he is to become a successful pitcher again, it may be that the career paths that Kenny Rogers and Frank Tanana took are the same as the one Bonderman needs to take. Bonderman must learn to pitch without his old velocity. He will no longer be able to overpower hitters. He’ll have to mix his pitches, change speeds, and spot his fastball on the corners. He’ll have to pitch like a “crafty lefthander”, but he’ll have to do that from the right side.