Tommy John celebrated his 75th birthday last Tuesday, 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 – Twins advance video scout Jeremy Hefner
The surgery — when/where/who performed it?
The first one was Aug. 28, 2013 by Dr. David Altchek, the Mets’ team doctor in New York City. He does Tommy Johns for a lot of guys. Dr. James Andrews did my second one on Oct. 9, 2014 — 13 months later.
The injury — when/where did it happen?
I think I actually tore mine maybe in Spring Training or April in 2013. So I pitched most of the year like…not in pain necessarily, but in discomfort. It didn’t really affect my velocity or movement until like late July or August.
After the All-Star break, I was really starting to hurt and it was starting to affect my performance. So that’s when we decided to go ahead and pull the plug, get the MRI and try to see what was in there. We kind of had the idea that it was torn, but we didn’t have images of it torn until August. Then I ended up having the Tommy John surgery after that.
I had two of them. (Rays reliever) Jonny Venters has had three. I don’t think anyone’s ever had three in pro ball, but I’m not sure about that. I think he had one before pro ball.
Was the pain instantaneous, or over time?
Mine was a chronic deal. I was having discomfort, but it was manageable to where it wasn’t affecting my performance. That’s why we decided to just continue on. It eventually got to the point where it wasn’t manageable anymore.
I basically handled it like Matt Magill — (writer’s note: the next Tommy John File) — with anti-inflammatories between starts. It just got progressively better as I got closer to my next start date. So like the day after (a start), I couldn’t even wash my hair. It was so painful. But then once I eventually recovered and ready for my next start, I was relatively normal.
The second time around, I was rehabbing and was full go. I was in Florida State games in late July. I was throwing 90-94 mph — back to where I normally was. I had a long game against Daytona — a long first couple innings — and after that, I kind of wasn’t the same.
I struggled getting through my between-start bullpen. I made another start in St. Lucie, and I was throwing like 82-83 mph on the scoreboard. I was like “OK, that was a misfire.” I was throwing against (Twins High-A affiliate) Fort Myers, actually.
So I threw another fastball as hard as I could, and it was like 81 mph. So I was like “Uhhh, OK.” There was no pain — well, not much pain — like I could feel some discomfort but I thought it was normal working back and getting used to throwing again. I pulled myself out of the game. They did the tests and I was in NYC the next day for an MRI. I went and got a second opinion from Dr. Andrews.
At that point, I thought I was going to retire. Like I was done. I didn’t want to do any more surgeries. I had put a full year worth of work into rehabbing and all that kind of stuff. So I took three months off, went home and talked to my wife and my family. Eventually, I got to the point where I felt like I had something to give to the game, so we had our third child and two weeks later we flew to Pensacola for the second surgery.
What were you feeling after that second tear?
I was crushed. I was in the big leagues when it happened the first time. I was pitching against the Diamondbacks when I really felt like I had lost it. Then to go from hurt and stopped to the second time, and I couldn’t get back to the big leagues (before re-injuring it).
Were there peaks and valleys? What were they like?
Well, the first time I rehabbed with the Mets in St. Lucie. So there were like nine other guys there I could share the experience with. So it was easier to go through the peaks and valleys. The second time I was actually out of the game. I went back to school, and rehabbed at a physical therapy place in Oklahoma and did all my throwing at Oral Roberts University. All that kind of stuff. So I didn’t have someone necessarily that was going through all the same things I was.
What was the pain like during rehab?
No, no super intense pain. Just like if I reached for something or if I got my hand in a particular position, it would kind of light up on me. But just everyday activities like picking up my kids? That was fine.
So what was rehab like?
It’s just strenuous. It’s repetitive. It’s the same things over and over again. It’s so much more shoulder things than the elbow. You’re doing so many external and internal rotations, working on your hips. Stuff I wish I’d known when I was growing up. Like that your hips are just as important as your shoulder. Being able to have your body fully connected and loose will promote arm health.
How soon did you start throwing again?
I resumed throwing after about four months the first time. I knew I had a little time on the back end the second time, so I think I waited five-and-a-half months.
How soon did you throw off a mound?
I was back on the mound really quick the first time. It would have been like 8-9 months. Probably 9-10 months the second time.
How soon did you throw in a game?
I got into game action the first time the next July, so 11 months the first time. Then actually pro competition? I went to winter ball, which was 13 months after surgery the second time.
I know Zach Duke did it faster, but he’s a reliever. *laughs*
Did you feel tentative at all?
I wasn’t tentative at all. I trusted the doctors, and the rehab protocol and that I put the work in. I had done all I could possibly do to prevent it from happening again. If it does, it’s just a freak thing. We’re human beings. We’re going to break down by nature. The second time was the same deal.
When did you feel your stuff came back/started to come back? Was it different for each pitch?
The first time I had my velocity, breaking balls and everything. But I only had that window for about three weeks before I got hurt again. So the second time, I didn’t have the velocity or the sharpness on my breaking ball.
So I had to reinvent myself a little bit, throw a few more breaking balls and cutters. I had to use a sinker and move it around a bit more. I was never like an uber-prospect, so I never had the plus velocity, so throughout my whole career, I had to be able to pitch. So that served me well whenever my velocity dropped.
When did you feel 100% again?
I felt 100 percent in rehab games the first time. The command and velocity were there. Everything was really good. The curveball, a little cutter, sinker and changeup. It came back really quick. That was all the more frustrating.
The second time I went to winter ball for two months. Once I got to spring training with the Cardinals, I felt like I was locked in.