Thursday, March 01, 2007

Year of the Bondo

At the risk of jumping the gun, I think this could be the year Jeremy Bonderman breaks through as a league-wide force in MLB. Bonderman has been lauded in recent years for his “talent”. Most notably, Curt Schilling said that if he were to start a team from scratch, Bonderman would be one of his five starters. That is high praise coming from a pitcher that is what many people feel Bonderman could become if everything works out perfectly. Bonderman’s slider is already considered one of the best in the game. Even still, his shortcomings are well noted—probably even more noted than his strengths. He doesn’t (or hadn’t by the end of ’06) have an effective third pitch. He is susceptible to giving up big innings. He often leaves his fastball over the heart of the plate. He only pitches as well as his last pitch. As soon as things start to unravel, things only seem to get worse. Fortunately for Bonderman, all of those things are fixable. It is possible—not likely but possible nonetheless—that those things were worked out over this past winter. It is more likely that it will take a few years to iron out those glitches.

I don’t have any sound data to back this up but I am pretty sure that Bonderman is the most popular answer to the recent marketing-inspired question/phenomenon, “Who’s your Tiger?” That’s my answer and I know a lot of people that echo the same response. Bonderman is one of those rare athletes that develops a huge following before reaching their potential. “Bondermania” started picking up steam two years ago when “Bondo” won 11 games before the All-Star break in ‘05. His All-Star game snub did not go over well in Detroit. But, a weak second half and an up and down 2006 have left Tigers fans begging for consistency. Personally, following Bondo’s starts has me on an emotional rollercoaster. Every “up” is followed by a “down.” In fact, there are some nights when I know I’m not in the mood to handle a Bondo meltdown so I don’t even watch. As unpredictable as Bondo has been, he can be equally as brilliant. His series-clinching performance against the Yankees was so mesmerizing that it captivated two stadiums filled to capacity. I didn’t even get a chance to watch it. I relied solely on the couple in front of me at the UM/MSU game who were listening to the game via radio. That was as euphoric a scene as this sports fan has ever seen (other than the mayhem that was Charles Woodson's punt return against OSU in '97). The only thing that could compete with being at Comerica Park for the event might be sitting with 111,000 people in disbelief. Bondo had a perfect game through five (only one other player has done that in the post-season over the last 20 years) against one of the best lineups ever assembled. If that doesn’t thrust Bondo into the big-time, then I don’t know what will.

A lot of Tigers fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when Dave Dombrowski managed to reach an agreement on an extension with Bonderman. That assures Bonderman will be with the franchise for the foreseeable future—and if his standing among other greats at the age of 24 is any indication, that could be a very successful foreseeable future. Here is how he stands among the great pitchers of the last 20 years in terms of wins by the age of 25:

Jeremy Bonderman 45 + ’07 Total
Greg Maddux 61
Roger Clemens 52
Pedro Martinez 48
Tom Glavine 33
Curt Schilling 4
Randy Johnson 0

If Bonderman can win 17 games in 2007, he’ll be ahead of every pitcher on the list—a list that is made entirely of future Hall of Famers. The encouraging thing is that, like the above pitchers at the age of 25, Bonderman hasn’t reached his prime yet. I’m inclined to believe that Bondo’s first four seasons have set the stage for his coming out party in season five. He has improved every season of his four-year career. His 2006 numbers featured career bests in Wins, Innings, ERA, HR’s allowed, K’s, Games Started, and Losses. For a 23-year old, Bonderman’s 2006 season has to go down as very good. As long as Bonderman continues the trend of constant improvement, his 2007 season should be stellar.

There has been a lot made of the need for Bondo to develop an effective third pitch. Bonderman himself admits that he’ll never reach “ace” status without it. Google “Bonderman needs an effective third pitch” for a slew of confirmations. Unfortunately, the notion that Bondo needs another pitch is true. I would bet that the vast majority of Bonderman’s struggles have come as a result of the batter being able to narrow his next pitch down to two choices. Span those two choices over seven innings and you have the makings for a lot of bad things. To Bondo’s credit, he has had to pitch brilliantly just to stay afloat with those two pitches. A third pitch would just make him nasty in the Johan Santana mold.

It is very easy to like Bonderman. I think that’s why he—and not any other Tiger—has been chosen as the people’s Tiger. He started off his career under the worst possible circumstances. He became the first US born player to be drafted as a junior in High School only to be publicly ridiculed in Moneyball for being a monumental mistake made by Oakland GM Billy Beane. He was traded to the worst franchise in MLB at the age of 19. He lost 19 games in his rookie year (could have been 20 if he wasn’t benched the last week of the season) with one of the worst teams ever assembled. What makes him so likeable is how he responded to those things. In 2005, he became the youngest opening day starter (22) in MLB since 1986. He has improved in each of his four seasons without as much as a single gripe. He has openly professed his desire to play in Detroit. Nothing has come easy for Bondo which makes his success that much more gratifying for Tigers fans.


Anonymous said...

Good read. I think Bonderman is probably mature beyond his years and it seems to me that after last season and the new contract, he might have his head straight which goes a long way to him being one of the best pitchers in the game. Adding a change-up certainly is key for him to become an elite pitcher but he still will be above average to damn good without one.

I think this is an important year for him and I think with the rise of Verlander and the spotlight more on Justin, the competitive nature of Bondo will shine through. He's my favorite tiger and has been so for three years now so I certainly root for him just a little bit more than I root for anyone else. I'm hoping he can turn the corner and show everyone what I've seen from the start. I think the Tigers easily return to the playoffs if Bonderman becomes an elite hurler in 2007.

Jake said...

One thing you can count on is that I will not, under any circumstances, revisit the "Countdown to 20 wins" feature that I used to kill Bonderman's second half in 2005. I think that was the key to his success last year and I think that might be the key to an even better '07.


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