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Two reasons Jeremy Bonderman’s return to the Detroit Tigers probably won’t end well

Jeremy Bonderman

If the Tigers had an true No. 1 pitcher during the early 2000s, Jeff Weaver was it. Debuting at age 22, he dropped his ERA every year he was with the club. In 2002, he had a 3.18 ERA when he was traded to the Yankees in a three-team deal that netted Carlos Pena, reliever Franklin German and a player to be named later.

That final player was Jeff Weaver’s replacement, a first-round pick just two years prior that the Tigers thought would be ready next year. His name was Jeremy Bonderman.

Some forget that he was made the team’s No. 2 starter before he could buy liquor, or that the team behind him that first year engaged on a year-long quest to the cliffs of baseball futility. Some forget how good he became, posting a 4.08 ERA in 2006 and starting a World Series game, or how shoulder injuries and Tommy John surgery derailed his career.

But after a while, the “how” doesn’t matter any more.

Jeremy Bonderman is guy that never lived up to expectations.

Now, Bonderman is back with the Tigers organization on a minor league contract and will fulfill one of those assumptions thrown on him 11 years ago: he’ll likely retire as a Tiger, although it will be under different circumstances than first imagined.

After two years away from baseball and a cup of Starbucks with Seattle this year, Bonderman’s final act starts in Toledo. He’ll either revitalize his career enough to have a final moment in front of the Detroit fans, or he’ll wash out like most of his brethren on that 2003 team. 

Judging by his performance with the Mariners, Bonderman is much more likely to join the ranks of the latter.

His had seven starts with the Mariners before they designated him for assignment, posting a 4.93 ERA. But his xFIP (Expected Fielder Independent Pitching, which basically determines what an ERA would be if the fielding performance was the same for every pitcher in the league), is at 5.50. Bonderman projects as an even worse pitcher than his ERA has shown.

The new wrinkle he’s supposedly added, a changeup, is barely one at all.

PitchF/X data from TexasLeaguers.com goes only goes back until 2007, so we can only evaluate the last four years of his Tigers career. It also misrepresent pitches sometimes, but it still provides useful data in pitch usage and selection.

Bonderman’s changeup this year averaged 82.7 mph, down from 84.2 mph in his last four years with the Tigers. But he’s used it less, throwing it just seven percent of the time as opposed to 13.3 percent with the Tigers.

That leads to him throwing, which is down one mph (80.6 from 81.6), about seven percent more and his two fastballs — a four seamer and a two seamer — about six percent more. Both fastball velocities have stayed consistent.

Why would you throw more of the same pitches that forced you into a two-year hiatus? Because you can get them over the plate.

Bonderman throws his changeup for a strike just 39.5 percent of the time, while his four-seam fastball and slider find the strike zone over 60 percent of the time. His two-seam fastball is thrown for a strike 49 percent of the time, down from 63.8 percent.

The lack of control on his changeup and two-seam fastball has caused less strikeouts, and more walks. In all eight of his seasons with the Tigers, Bonderman averaged 7.1 strikeouts to 3.1 walks per nine innings. With the Mariners he averaged 3.8 strikeouts to 4.0 walks per nine innings.

He’s not fooling hitters and can’t his spots. Unless that changes, we’re not going to get dusty watching Bonderman return to the Comerica Park mound like we want to. There is good news, though.

I hear Nate Cornejo is available. 

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