Had the Texas Rangers pushed it, had they followed the 12-month timetable that was once considered somewhat standard for those bearing fresh Tommy John surgical scars, then Yu Darvish would have been in their Opening Day plans, sure. But he probably wouldn't have looked like this.
Darvish will make his second start of 2016 for the Rangers on Friday night at Globe Life Park. And if it's a natural extension of his first, the division-rival Mariners will have their work cut out for them.
In his return to a Major League mound on Saturday, Darvish worked five strong innings against the Pirates, allowing a run on three hits and a walk. What really stood out, though, was the sizzle of his stuff. According to Statcast™, the 29-year-old Darvish threw three pitches at more than 98 mph, exceeding his maximum velocity from any point in his 2014 season.
Texas showed an abundance of patience in getting its co-ace back up to operational speed. In doing so, the Rangers might have been rewarded with a more powerful Darvish.
"To be honest," Darvish said through an interpreter, "thinking about when I was at 12 months, if I had to pitch in that situation or at that time, I probably would have had to push it. So I'm really glad I had 14 months."
There is no one way to come back from transplanting a tendon to repair a pitcher's elbow, but there was a time when the conventional wisdom was that a pitcher who has an elbow reconstruction misses a calendar year, often as a somewhat diminished version of his previous self.
More and more, though, the industry standard is to prolong that absentee period in the hope of not only a stronger return but a more stable one.
Remember in Spring Training 2014, when Matt Harvey, mere months after his procedure, went on Twitter to tout that "2014 Harvey Day will happen"? Didn't happen. The Mets shut him down at season's end before he faced a single batter. And maybe that helps explain how Harvey was able to deliver a 2015 season in which his adjusted ERA+ was 37 percent better than league average. The Marlins went the 14-month route with Jose Fernandez, and his adjusted ERA in 11 starts last season was 33 percent better than the league norm.
"I don't think there's any one, cookie-cutter way of treating it," Rangers manager Jeff Banister said. "I think we all watch and share the information that's out there. You can get lost in the studies."
Right now, the Rangers would rather get lost in Darvish's results.
On his rehab assignment, Darvish mowed his way through the Minors, allowing just two earned runs on nine hits with 21 strikeouts and six walks in 20 innings across five outings.
The start against the Pirates confirmed that was no Minor League mirage.
"I expected that if anybody had an opportunity to be sharp, to be on the outside of the bell curve, it would be Darvish," Banister said. "Just given the fact that, as much as he studies or how he works, he's somewhat of a -- I hate to call him a perfectionist, but he loves to be on top of his craft. So it's only one game, but to have the velo and the command of the fastball and the secondary stuff that he did, I don't think you see that from most Tommy John guys right out of the gate."
Per Brooks Baseball, Darvish averaged 96.8 mph with his four-seam fastball in that first start, a full three ticks higher than his average when we last saw him in August 2014. He also averaged 94.6 mph with his sinker, with a 38.3 percent usage pattern that far exceeded the 13 percent average of 2014.
A fastball-centric pattern can be expected from Darvish for the time being. The Rangers, understandably, are closely monitoring his workload, so he is frequenting the fastball in order to pitch to contact and get efficiency in his outings. Banister said he wants to keep Darvish in the 85-95-pitch range for his first month back.
"A lot of that is dependent on how he gets to that," Banister said.
Darvish said he's cool with such a count and confident in the condition of his stuff and his elbow.
Before Darvish arrived, the Rangers were a pretty good ballclub with a fairly effective rotation fronted by Cole Hamels, despite some shaky peripherals. If Darvish can continue to throw as well as he did against Pittsburgh, it's impossible to consider Texas anything other than the favorite to win the American League West.
This is what the Rangers envisioned when they mapped out Darvish's return timetable, which included a lengthy offseason shutdown to rest his arm and body. Nice as it would have been to have him back for Opening Day, Texas waited for a better, stronger Darvish, one who should come with no innings limitations in the home stretch.
"I want him to be special for our team," Banister said. "And I think baseball fans want this guy to be special for longer than just a couple starts."