Tommy John celebrated his 75th birthday recently, but the surgery that bears his name is well over 40 years old. In fact, enter a room of pitchers and you’ll find that the sampling of those who’ve had Tommy John surgery is akin to going to a fraternity and trying to find a dude who has ever had a hangover.
Orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe performed the first procedure — also known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction — on the Los Angeles Dodgers lefty back in 1974. Ever since, it has not only become more ubiquitous, but also more proven in terms of players returning their previous form after extensive rehab.
With a room full of pitchers who’ve had the procedure and a seemingly different story of recovery from each one, I thought why not give each pitcher a chance to explain what their triumphs and tribulations were like as they battled to come back from the surgery.
Every pitcher is asked the same questions; every pitcher will almost certainly give different answers.
These are the Tommy John Files:
Player – Right-handed starter Kyle Gibson
The surgery — when/where/who performed it?
“Dr. David Altchek — the team doctor for the Mets — in New York. It was on Sept. 2, 2011, I think. Just before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, because I got to walk around the new memorial.”
The injury — when/where did it happen?
“Mine was more over time. I felt it one time in a bullpen at Triple-A, and it kind of got progressively worse in June and July of 2011. Thankfully I didn’t really have that one moment; it was more just after a start — once I got to the fourth or fifth inning — and then the day after the start, it ached pretty bad.”
Between the diagnosis and the surgery, what was the pain like?
“Not really (too intense). Certain movements (caused pain), mostly. Actually, when we were talking with the Twins’ doctors and Dr. Altchek, we were trying to decide if rehab would be the best plan or surgery. What Dr. Altchek suggested was if the scapula and shoulder were good, I should go back to Fort Myers and try to play catch back to 90 feet, let it rip and see how it feels.
“That’s going to be the best judgment. If your shoulder is strong, then there’s not really a whole lot you can do other than strengthen your forearm. If your forearm is strong as well, and it still hurts, you most likely need surgery. So we settled on that with the Twins, and I went down to play catch for a couple weeks. It never really felt better, so we went for the surgery.”
Were there peaks and valleys? What were they like?
“Yeah, thankfully I didn’t have much of a setback. I was mostly getting better about all the time. I’m sure there were definitely times where I plateaued. I mean I got to spring training and I was only playing catch. I was hoping to go to Triple-A that year or maybe break into the big leagues. So I was fighting that mental block of being left behind as everyone is heading into their season.
“That was probably the hardest part, staying present in my rehab and with those GCL and extended guys, and just trying to somewhat be a leader to guys who were just getting into pro ball at that time.”
“So the first four months, my wife and I had just bought a house in Fort Myers in June of that year. So we got to live in our house there for the first year of really owning it. Since we were living there, I got to live in my own house and sleep in my own bed every day. I got to see my family every day. That was something that kind of got me away from the field.
“I think that can really get to guys if they’re staying at the academy or at the spring training facility, that they’re just going in. Then they don’t have anything to do away from the field. You can kind of drive yourself crazy. They almost do extra rehab, or try to do more to get back faster. Sometimes that’s just not better. Lanning Tucker, who was our minor-league coordinator at the time, said ‘Listen, I’m going to say 20 reps of three sets because that’s what I need you to do. That’s going to be the best program.’ So trying to stay on that was important.”
Who were some of those guys you tried to be a leader for?
“That was Tyler Duffey’s first year in 2012. He was one of them. Also J.T. Chargois. That draft class was really the first one I got to meet. That might have been it. Those were the two guys. I think Shaggy had some arm trouble that first year, so I got to know him a little bit. Brad Thompson, who was a six-year free agent who had just won a World Series with the Cardinals, was there.”
What was the pain like during rehab?
“It’s more aching during the rehab. I was really thankful that I didn’t have any real setbacks, and the pain was rather low most of the time. Getting the range of motion back is really the worst part. Getting the extension, and trying to get your hand to touch your shoulder. That really adds a lot of tension on the elbow area. You’re breaking up the scar tissue.
“I had a past surgery when I was a freshman in high school — a fractured growth plate in my elbow — so I was breaking up that scar tissue too. It’s just different trying to get that range of motion after being in that cast for 3-4 weeks, maybe more. After that, thankfully it went really smooth. Some of it is just trying to be smart and tentative, but not too conservative. You’re fighting through the daily mental thought of ‘Hey, am I going to re-hurt this?’ or fighting through ‘Is this just an ache?” You really have to find the difference pain and being hurt, and just an ache.”
How soon did you start throwing again?
“I think it was like four-and-a-half, five months.”
How soon did you throw off a mound?
“I think the nine-month mark was bullpens. Nine-and-a-half maybe.”
How soon did you throw in a game?
“The first rehab game was in the GCL, maybe the beginning of July? Like 11 months? (Writer’s note: July 10, 2012 — so good recall on Gibson’s part) Something like that. It was just one inning. I made a couple starts with Fort Myers, and then a couple with Rochester at the end of the year.”
Did you feel tentative at all?
“No. In my first GCL start, first pitch I just gripped a fastball and said I was going to throw it as hard as I can. I had that (other) surgery when I was a freshman. I’m a pretty big believer of ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and I think that surgery really helped prepare me for Tommy John.
“There was really no tentativeness. I was like ‘We’re going to find out if this thing is ready to go, and we’re going to do it right now.’ So you can kind of get through that mental barrier. Because that’s going to be important as you get going. At that stage, you have to be able to trust the fact that you’re healthy and ready to go.”
When did you feel your stuff came back/started to come back? Was it different for each pitch?
“I think they all came back at about the same time. But I don’t know that I really got ‘back’ back until 2013. The rehab starts and Arizona Fall League, right around that time, I was a year-and-a-half into rehab and that whole season playing catch, so I was getting pretty tired at that point. Getting that break for part of November, December and January was big going into 2013.”
Gibson added that he agreed with the notion that command was the last thing to come back. This seems to be fairly universal among Tommy John recipients.
When did you feel 100% again?
“I would probably say spring training 2013. A year-and-a-half after surgery.”