Bonderman is a different pitcher
Right-hander forced to utilize changeup after surgery
TOLEDO -- The words from retired left-hander Kenny Rogers to Tigers right-hander Jeremy Bonderman were said with a laugh.
"He told me to learn how to pitch," Bonderman said. "That's what he told me."
It was in jest, but it's something Bonderman is doing. More to the point, he's learning how to pitch a little differently. And as he works his way back from surgery, it might end up being the bright side to this ordeal that has put his Major League career on hold and has him still working to get back.
Bonderman and Rogers chat on the phone frequently since Rogers retired. They're good friends, but they also share the same unusual procedure to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that restricts blood flow to the shoulder.
Rogers had plenty of injuries that forced him to transition from a power arm to a finesse pitcher and rejuvenated his career. Bonderman is dealing with one surgery and a long, slow path to regain his velocity, which might not come back completely. But he has a changeup.
Bonderman was a pitcher Sunday, maybe more in the finesse sense than he has been in his career. And he did it pretty well.
His third rehab appearance for Triple-A Toledo featured eight scoreless innings against Charlotte. He needed just 98 pitches -- 66 of them strikes -- for his six-hitter with five strikeouts. Not only did he not walk a batter, he reached just two three-ball counts.
Bonderman's fastball averaged 88 mph, topping out at 90. That's a tick better than his previous outing, but still less than his pre-injury form. His slider was back with bite. His offspeed pitches, impressively, were quality ones, and he threw more than a few.
Former Major Leaguer Michael Restovich swung and missed at one to end the first inning with a runner stranded on third. Back-to-back breaking balls led to another strikeout in the second. Keith Ginter whiffed on a changeup to end the fifth.
It wasn't the result of any heart-to-heart talk, or extra work on the side.
"I knew what I had," Bonderman said afterward. "I just moved the ball around, up and down, fastballs up and down, breaking balls. I threw a lot of changeups, good changeups today. That's probably one thing that I've been getting out of this, is my changeup's actually getting a lot better."
Bonderman and a changeup have been a topic together seemingly every Spring Training. The work always suggested he was working it into his game, but never with success. Once he got on the mound and competed, it seemingly became a throwaway pitch.
On Sunday, the change of speeds that Bonderman has struggled to work into his game came alive.
"It's a viable pitch for him," Mud Hens pitching coach A.J. Sager said. "It wasn't like just a pitch he was throwing to show them. He was getting outs with it. He threw strikes with it. He set up his fastball with it."
Even Bonderman had to smile about it.
"You know what? I've got it, so I might as well use it," he said Sunday. "And it worked."
If Bonderman's going to succeed while working to get his velocity back, he's going to need it. If and when that power fastball returns, changing speeds is still a must for him.
Bonderman says he has "no idea" when or whether his fastball will add those final few ticks. He said doctors have told him it might not happen until next year. Considering how Bonderman's rehab has gone, he has had to learn some patience. What was once his hope to be ready for Opening Day passed with lingering shoulder stiffness. Monday marked the one-year anniversary of his last big league appearance.
Aside from pitching and doing his strengthening work, he can't control when his velocity returns. His look Sunday suggested he's making the best of it.
"It's kind of fun," Bonderman said. "I don't have what I used to have, so I'm going about finding different ways to win."
Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski doesn't look at it as a product of injury so much as age. Bonderman worked on changing speeds in Spring Training, so it wasn't a sudden adjustment.
"As pitchers get older and mature, they learn things about pitching more all the time," Dombrowski said. "And I think [Bonderman] falls into that category."
Sustaining that mix is the next step. Whether it's Bonderman's last outing in the Minor Leagues is just as intriguing of a question.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland last week defined the time frame on Bonderman's return as when he can be counted on to get big league hitters out.
"If we get Bonderman, that's good," Leyland said. "If we get somebody that's supposed to be Bonderman, that's not good."
But what if it's a little different Bonderman? That's something Tigers officials will have to discuss.
"He's healthy," Dombrowski said. "That's not a question."
The Tigers must project whether the 26-year-old is throwing hard enough to get outs with his change of speeds, and whether throwing harder is simply a matter of more work.
If they want to see more, they can keep him in Toledo and run his rehab assignment the maximum 30 days, which would give him two more starts before June 14.
Then there's the complication of adding him to a pitching staff that owns the lowest ERA in the American League.
"I don't know who it's going to be or what's going to happen," Bonderman said. "They're throwing the ball really well, everybody up there. It's not like anybody deserves to be moved. Whatever [the Tigers] decide to do, it's up to them. I'm not going to jump up and down and try to disturb a good thing they have going up there."
"Maybe I won't be going back in the rotation. You never know. I don't know what's going to happen. That's the thing. The way it's going, heck, I wouldn't blame them for not putting me back in the rotation. I'm willing to do whatever to help the team. Wherever they put me, I'll pitch, and I'll go about my business and worry about it one day at a time."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.