"How reliable is he?" asked Fenchurch in a sinking voice.
"How reliable?" asked Arthur. He gave a hollow laugh. "How shallow is the ocean?" he asked. "How cold is the sun?"
-- Douglas Adams, "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish"
With that history, we can begin to understand what we're looking for. Early in spring training, Carpenter is looking good, but his command is lacking. That's a very typical situation, and in line with the few appearances he made last season in the minors. The general rule is that a pitcher with shoulder problems will exhibit a loss of velocity, while elbow problems are often first seen with a loss of control. It's thought that this is related to proprioception, the ability of the body to sense where it is in space. (Close your eyes and hold your hand out. Turn the palm up. Move it to the side. See, you can do that because you have normal proprioception.) With Tommy John survivors, a common complaint is "my hand doesn't feel connected to my arm." It's that way because it's now connected in a different way, and the proprioceptive connections have to be rebuilt.
-- Will Carroll on Chris Carpenter, March 11, 2009
So here's the thing: clearly Westbrook did not have his finest outing in the opener. Consider that Westbrook recorded 10 Witt Points (*) in just 4 innings of work with FOUR wild pitches, FOUR walks, and TWO plunkings of Carlos Quentin. Even though one wild pitch was bad enough to allow a run as Quentin raced home from third, none of the four wild pitches were as bad as the upper-thigh-high non-sinker out over the plate that Paul Konerko used to produce the first two runs.
(*) "Witt Points," named for noted blunderbuss Bobby Witt, are for feats of inaccuracy: WP, BB, and HBP
Look, this wasn't Dontrelle Willis coughing up Epic Fail last season. It wasn't really THAT bad a start. Sure, the overall numbers are bad: a WHIP over 2.0, an ERA over 11, 3 extra-base hits out of 5. Those are bad numbers. And 47 strikes in 92 pitches ... well, that's not good.
The question is, does Westbrook still have the tools necessary to be an effective starting pitcher? Well, he wasn't this inaccurate in Spring Training. And it's not like control has been a huge issue with Jake in the past: from 2004 to 2006, Westbrook had about the least-variable counting stats in the major leagues:
2004: 215 2/3 IP, 61 BB, 116 K
2005: 210 2/3 IP, 56 BB, 119 K
2006: 211 1/3 IP, 55 BB, 109 K
In 2007, his walk rate raised a little, possibly because he was in the process of turning his elbow into so much pate'. In 2008, the pate'-ification process was completed, and in 2009, Westbrook converted to radical Buddhism and spent the year violently forcing moderation on unsuspecting passersby. Okay, probably not. But he certainly didn't pitch.
And there's the thing: whereas it's been established that a reasonable BASELINE for recovering from UCL replacement ("Tommy John") has now been compressed to one year, this is only an aggregate figure, based on the average over lots of guys. In fact, Westbrook had a couple setbacks last year during rehab, so instead of thinking of this as being nearly two years removed from the surgery, it might be more like the flat minimum one.
Consider the timetable (quotes from Will Carroll "Under the Knife" at Baseball Prospectus):
April 1: "If you're in a really deep league and short of pitching, consider Jake Westbrook. He's ahead of pace for returning from Tommy John surgery, and he could be back by June."
June 22: "Jake Westbrook's setback in rehab is considered minor, but it's going to push back his return to the end of July."
August 12: "Jake Westbrook has had another setback in his TJ rehab and will likely not return to the Indians this season."
As we know, this is exactly what happened. So what is the proper date to consider the "one year mark?" How many months of rehab does a "setback" cost you? You probably don't go all the way back to the beginning ("Look, I lifted my toothbrush!"), but it's probably not a couple days, either. Maybe you reset the clock at 6 months? 9 months? It depends on the nature of the setback, I'm sure.
Francisco Liriano sure had enough problems coming back from UCL replacement, although his motion is a lot less repeatable than Westbrook's. But back to the original question: does Westbrook have what it takes to be effective in 2010?
It's worth noting that the wild pitches were not Ankiels over the backstop or anything. The were more sinkers that "oversunk." Frankly, I will accept this as the price of getting back on the mound. Without movement, Jake Westbrook is an extraordinarily hittable pitcher: with downward thrust, he can be above-average. So it's not a question of whether he can get movement on his pitches, but rather if he can get the right FEEL for his movement.
Sure, this was a bad start. But I don't see this as anything that precludes Jake from having a decent-enough season in 2010. He probably won't be a #1 Ace, but ... I mean, really now, who was realistically expecting that? He never was before, why start now? No, this isn't exactly something you can shrug off and say, "No worries, mate," but if Westbrook is going to have command issues, it looks like he's having the right KIND of command issues, if that makes any sense. In other words, he doesn't have to force things to get them to work: he simply has to settle in to his new arm and get them to work less.
(By the way, I'm not inferring that Westbrook is "unreliable" in the opening quote. It just came to mind when asking, "How accurate was Jake's command yesterday?")