Hunter Strickland feels great. That should make Giants fans feel great. Because considering he had ligaments surgically removed from his throwing wrist and reinserted into his throwing elbow last May, the fact that he's on the verge of returning is spectacular news.
Claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh on April 2, 2013, Strickland instantly became one the best bullpen arms in San Jose's "Dog Pound," pitching a hitless inning just three days after being claimed. Over the next 19 contests before hitting the disabled list, Strickland saved nine games, compiled a 0.86 ERA, and allowed just 10 hits and five walks in 21 innings.
"I feel great," Strickland said. "Obviously I'm not in games yet, but my progression has been good. I haven't had any setbacks."
Strickland was in the clubhouse wearing cowboy boots and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache over the weekend, but he's since parted ways with the facial hair and laced up some baseball cleats.
"Right now I'm just throwing bullpens every couple of days," he said. "The way things are going, I think I'm ahead of schedule but it's better safe than sorry."
As for when he'll be activated? Hard to say. But considering he thinks he's making legitimate progress, it helps to know that his major league skipper agrees.
"He's coming along real nice," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "When you watch him throw it's hard to believe he had Tommy John surgery. That's how far along he's come."
Realistically, Strickland should be penciled into the Fresno Grizzlies roster sometime in late May or early June, after appropriate rehab stints, of course. But Strickland knows it's up to management to assess his situation.
"Right now, I'm technically supposed to be at 75 percent off a mound, and that's what they want me to follow," Strickland said. "I would realistically say I'm getting into live [batting practice] in the beginning of April. And then just however many innings they need me to get before I can report somewhere. It's kind of on them."
Tommy John surgery is never easy for any player. Some endure two, even three. Strickland is looking optimistically at his current situation.
"It sounds kind of crazy, but I'm actually glad it happened," he said. "I've learned a lot about myself and a lot more about the game.
"You have two ways to look at it. You can sit there and dwell about it and be upset all the time, or you can make the best of it and come back better."
Strickland, 25, was a 18th-round, high-school draft pick from Pike County High School in Georgia by the Boston Red Sox in 2007. He was sent to Pittsburgh in 2009 in the Adam Laroche deal, and up until signing with San Francisco was used mostly in a starting pitcher/long reliever role in the minor leagues.
(Here's Strickland looking absolutely dirt nasty in three perfect innings with Pittsburgh's Double-A affiliate Altoona Curve in July of 2012, courtesy of Bullpen Banter)
When you look at his stats as a professional, you might wonder why the Giants wanted him bad enough to put him on the 40-man roster in November in the middle of his rehabilitation. Some organizational minds even considered him a candidate to make the major league club towards the end of 2013 had he remained healthy.
Strickland made 55 starts in five seasons, logging a 3.97 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 367 career innings. He allowed more hits than innings pitched four out of those five years. San Francisco has used him strictly as a reliever, something neither Boston nor Pittsburgh did. Could that be what pushed the six-foot, four-inch right-hander into being a likely Triple-A closer by mid-summer?
If so, Strickland will be featuring a new pitch when he faces live hitters again, in place of an old offering he's chosen to let go due to the current circumstances.
"The splitter tends to put a lot more stress on your elbow and that's just not something that's worth the risk right now," Strickland said.
A three-finger changeup will replace the split, which Strickland said he didn't throw very often, anyway. The rest of his arsenal includes a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball and a slider, with the two-seamer being a go-to pitch for ground balls with its downward, sinker-like movement.
"We're very pleased with where he's at right now," Bochy said. "He'll be [100 percent] off the mound here before long."