MINNEAPOLIS — Joel Zumaya has painfully realized the potential hazard of his natural gift.
Being able to throw the ball incredibly hard can come with a price.
So as the right-hander resumes his career with Minnesota, Zumaya will bring a different mentality to the mound. If he's healthy — he said Thursday he feels "great" — he'll still be relied on to strike opponents out in the late innings. But his breaking and off-speed pitches will be an important part of his repertoire. Not just the 100-mile-per-hour heat.
"I've grown up a little bit," said Zumaya, the former Detroit reliever who signed a one-year contract with the Twins this week for an $850,000 base salary plus as much as $900,000 in performance-based bonuses. "You can't just throw 100 by people right now. For me, 100 is overrated. There are quite a few athletes who throw 100, and hitters are timing it now."
Zumaya said he's worked extensively on his curveball and changeup this offseason, as part of his comeback from a broken elbow. That happened during a delivery to then-Twins outfielder Delmon Young, one of his close friends, from the mound at Target Field on June 28, 2010. That was the last day he pitched in a real game for the Tigers, and it felt like the joint "exploded," he said.
That was the latest significant injury to his right arm since an exceptional rookie year in 2006 that featured 97 strikeouts in 83 1-3 innings, a 1.94 ERA and an appearance in the World Series. He hasn't pitched more than 39 innings since then. He missed big chunks of the 2008 and 2009 seasons because of shoulder problems and was out of commission for much of the year before that with a middle finger strain.
Finally, in 2010, Zumaya was back in form, putting up eye-popping numbers on the in-stadium radar screens, posting a 2.58 ERA in 38 1-3 innings with 34 strikeouts and just 11 walks, the best ratio of his career. But then came that sickening sound from his elbow.
"It knocked me down to my knees. I haven't been knocked down to my knees since a high-school fight," Zumaya said on a conference call with reporters. "I had no idea if I was going to be able to pitch on the baseball field again."
He felt pain last spring and eventually needed a second surgery to reposition the screw that was placed in his arm and wasn't able to return in time to participate in 2011. Now, after extra time to heal, he said he's fully healthy. Zumaya passed his physical exam Wednesday.
"I just had an X-ray yesterday, and it looked remarkable," Zumaya said, adding: "Being out the whole year basically gave me the whole year I needed for this arm to get recuperated and healthy."
The Tigers offered him a minor league contract to make the team out of spring training, but he decided — "no hard feelings," he said — to take the best offer with the AL Central rival Twins. Zumaya threw 40 pitches for scouts from several teams last month in the Houston area at about 70 or 80 percent strength, he said.
"It's well-known that I can try to touch triple digits, but my thoughts were just going in there and displaying how my arm was, how I was feeling, how my body was doing and what I'm capable of doing," Zumaya said.
That capability includes, of course, reaching back and trying to blow one of those flaming fastballs by former teammate Miguel Cabrera or American League newbie Albert Pujols when he has to.
"I'm 27 years old. I still have a lot of gas in my tank," Zumaya said. "I'm going to turn it up a notch on those boys, but right now I think I can get away with 95 or 96, finding the strike zone, throwing a curveball and throwing a nice little changeup."
According to the advanced baseball research website fangraphs.com, Zumaya was averaging 99 mph with his fastball before his last injury. Roughly 80 percent of the pitches he's thrown in his career have been fastballs.
"There ain't no doubt in me that I'll touch triple digits again. Maybe in the summer when it's warm and I'm feeling good. Maybe against those Tigers," he said.
That would work for the Twins. They badly needed a power arm in the back of their bullpen after finishing last in the majors with a collective 4.51 relief ERA last year.
"Hopefully we can keep him on the mound," general manager Terry Ryan said. "Everybody knows he's had some problems injury-wise, but he is healthy now. ... He fits perfectly for us."
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