It has been 11 months since a young college pitcher's Tommy John surgery. Every other day, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he grabs a ball and his glove. The player interviewed will be referred to as Ace throughout this story.
Ace starts off by warming up his lower body by stretching his quads, hamstrings, groins, and hips by during various stretches for twenty yards. After working up a sweat from warming up his lower body, Ace will begin to stretch his arm with tubed bands. These help warm up the arm and strengthen it as well with various pounds of resistance.
He slowly begins to toss the ball to his partner, who is no more than six feet away. Ace takes a few steps back and with a smooth and easy motion releases the ball to his partner. Ace throws the ball right to his partner’s glove, most of the time. Once Ace makes it out to 90 feet, he counts his throws. He takes a quick three to five-minute break and then goes back out to increase his throwing length even more.
This is a part of his rehab. He needs to get used to throwing, and throwing a lot with periods of rest, “The throwing program is very detailed. Every day of the program states exactly how many throws to throw at a given distance and time of rest in between,” Ace added. After he rests, he goes out to 120 feet and counts his throws once more. After he has done that he takes another break.
I asked Ace how his elbow felt, “Feels good, I try to never think about it when I am doing my throwing or rehab workouts, but honestly there is no way I can't”, he said.
After his second break he gets back out to 100 feet and with a few quick arm stretches he is throwing at 100 feet again with some force. He quickly steps back to 180 feet. I am next to Ace, who is 180 feet from his catch partner, we talk about professional pitchers and their mechanics and how some have perfect mechanics. Ace’s mechanics are close to perfect as well. Even after a big surgery.
Once Ace completes his throws from 180 feet he slowly decreases the length from his partner. Once he gets to 50 feet a catcher with his gear on steps in. The catcher squats down and catches a flat ground for Ace. He is slinging the ball into the catcher as if he never had the surgery to begin with.
A flat ground is different from throwing off the mound because it is less stress on the pitcher’s arm.
It is a long process to make sure the Ulnar collateral ligament is strong and healthy enough to endure the rigorous throwing motion of a college pitcher. It is a long process after the surgery and you can see the excitement in Ace’s face to be painless and be able to throw the ball with force.
According to Pitch Smart onMLB.com, Tommy John surgery is a reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) of the elbow. A tendon from elsewhere in the body is used to repair a torn or ruptured UCL. It was first performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 on Tommy John, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ace was in his third year of pitching in college and in his first at the Division 1 level. It was cut short due to Tommy John surgery. There are multiple causes to Tommy John surgery, the single most important factor is daily, weekly and annual overuse. There are also specific actions which may increase your probability of an arm injury, including throwing curveballs and sliders, pitching multiple days in a row and throwing at maximum effort.
Interviewed below was an unnamed Division One Pitcher who had surgery in 2016. He will be referred to as Ace. After throwing his signature curveball in an appearance while at Mississippi, Ace couldn’t continue his inning, “I felt a lot of discomfort in my elbow after throwing the ball. It wasn't all that much pain just a very weird feeling. I knew something wasn't right. I felt tingling down my forearm and in to my fingers, similar feeling to hitting your funny bone,” Ace added.
The process to getting back onto the pitching mound after surgery is not a smooth ride and is a lengthy process. Once the surgery is completed the patient is in a splint to prevent movement after all the swelling in the elbow for one week. “After surgery and to this day I can't feel the new ligament. It is under tissue and muscle in my elbow so it is pretty deep. It is nothing that I can feel right under the skin. They took the tendon graft from my left wrist/forearm,” Ace said.
There have been 1,661 professional players who have had Tommy John surgery since it was first performed in 1974 according to John Roegele’s database from Hardball Times. There have already been 97 professional players in 2018 alone who have had the surgery performed and are rehabbing at this moment. These include Shohei Ohtani, Michael Kopech, and Didi Gregorius.
Ace added that after surgery he was constantly thinking about his arm, “When I got out of my cast and brace I was very cautious about using my right arm. Once I got all of my range of motion back I felt much more comfortable using my right arm for daily activities.”
Ace’s rehab continued with lower body exercises and slow strengthening exercises for his arm and to help it gain it full range of motion back. Ace waited nearly five months before he could even pick up a ball.
Tommy John surgeries have been on the rise and the increase in velocity is not helping. We are seeing players use weighted ball programs, which do not benefit EVERY player. Inexperienced training programs and uneducated coaches and parents. Baseball is a game of fun and was never intended to be dangerous.