Flamethrowers Joel Zumaya and Matt Anderson Sign New Deals


A pair of guys that are members of the triple-digit club are in the news today. The Detroit Tigers have avoided arbitration yet again by signing reliever Joel Zumaya to a one-year, $1.4 million deal for the 2011 campaign. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Phillies made a signing of their own. They inked Matt Anderson, the former number one overall pick in the 1997 draft, to a minor league deal.

On it’s surface, these two signing have nothing to do with one another. Zumaya is just 26 years old and will get his chance at a free agent payday a year from now. Anderson, now 34, hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2005 – a year before Zumaya made his big league debut. When you look deeper, however, you’ll see they aren’t much different.

Zumaya became the darling of fans and media alike when he began his big league career. The man with flames tattooed on his right arm never failed to amaze the crowds, and the hitters, with his ability to consistently reach back and throw fastballs that were clocked at 100 mph or higher with relative ease. In his rookie season, Zumaya fanned 97 batters in just 83.1 innings.

Anderson, like Zumaya, could also throw 100 mph. When the Tigers made him the first pick in the ’97 draft, the Rice product was immediately the closer of the Tigers future. With exactly 41 innings of minor league experience, during which time he posted an amazing 0.66 ERA, Anderson was brought to the majors in 1998. It was clear he was advanced and in those days, guys that could throw that hard weren’t nearly as commonplace as they are now.

Anderson battled control problems, as many young fireballers do. In his first two seasons in the big leagues, Anderson walked 66 batters in 82 innings. As he matured, his control improved to the point that the Tigers traded away their closer, Todd Jones, and gave Anderson the job full-time in 2001. He responded with a 22 save season in which he posted a career-best 2.9 walks per nine innings. Things went south early in 2002.

In late spring of that year, the RedWings were in the midst of another Stanley Cup playoff run. Before a baseball game, the Tigers held an octopus throwing contest in which they would give away tickets to a hockey game. Anderson joined in the fun, but a few hours later, he was doubled over in pain while warming up in the bullpen. He had torn a muscle in his armpit. It’s hard to say whether throwing the octopus had anything to do with the injury, but since the two events happened within hours of each other, you have to wonder.

Zumaya followed his dazzling rookie season with a litany of injuries. In 2007, a ruptured tendon in his finger limited him to just 28 appearances. After the season ended that year, Zumaya was at his family home in southern California. Wildfires were rapidly approaching the area and Zumaya was helping his dad clear boxes out of the attic. In his second freak injury in less than a year, a box fell onto Zumaya’s right shoulder, causing a severe separation. He would miss the start of the 2008 season following surgery. Though he pitched through it for a while, the shoulder damage also caused a hairline fracture. Eventually this would require another surgery and cut short his 2009 season. He appeared in only 78 games in the three years following his magical 2006 debut.

Finally healthy again, Zumaya began last season with the Tigers pitching in middle relief. Despite the shoulder problems, Zumaya was still routinely firing fastballs that registered at 100 or higher on the radar guns. He had also begun to rely on his secondary pitches and was enjoying the best control of his career, walking a career-low 2.6 batters per nine. Then on June 2, Zumaya’s career suffered yet another set back.

While delivering a pitch in a game in Minnesota, Zumaya crumpled to the ground in agony. His olecranon (the bony tip of the elbow) had shattered due to the force of his arm speed.

When Anderson returned to the mound, his fastball did not. He stayed with the Tigers through 2004, but worked mostly in the minor leagues. Without his trademark heater, Anderson didn’t stand a chance. He caught on with Colorado in 2005 and made nine appearances out of their bullpen that year. It wasn’t pretty. He wasn’t thrown a professional pitch since being released by the White Sox in 2008.

For Zumaya, we can only hope that his fastball continues to come back each time. Despite the two shoulder surgeries, Zumaya maintained his velocity last year. If his fastball comes back again following his third trip under the knife, Zumaya may yet avoid the career path that befell Anderson.

Reports say Anderson is throwing in the mid-90s again. While that’s not 100, it’s far better than the high-80s fastball he featured in his last years of pro ball. For Anderson, his new deal with the Phillies guarantees him nothing more than a chance to pitch again. Here’s hoping he can make it all the way back.

Zumaya, like Anderson, may be getting his last shot – at least with the Tigers. Another injury-shortened season will cost him millions in potential income on his next contract. If he can maintain his health, Zumaya still has a very bright future.

Two right handers, both men know the feeling of throwing a baseball over 100 mph. Both have had their gifts taken away, at times, by the baseball gods. For Zumaya, one more chance to prove himself. For Anderson, perhaps his last chance to call himself a professional ballplayer. Fitting that on the same day, these two star-crossed relievers get one more chance at reclaiming their careers.

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