DUNEDIN, Fla. – There’s no throttle for David Phelps on the mound and a 2-2 count with two out in the ninth inning is precisely the type of moment that pushes the veteran reliever to get after it, even in a one-sided spring training game. So, looking to finish off Chris Carter and the Los Angeles Angels with his Seattle Mariners up 7-0 on March 17, 2018, he decided enough was enough, that it was time to really stand on a fastball and put an end to things.
As Phelps released the pitch, there was a crack in his right elbow, the ball missing down and away as pain shot through his arm. He recoiled, causing an awkward dip of his shoulder toward the ground on the follow through, somehow remaining stone-faced while his mind raced. The previous September, he had surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, and the spring was a grind as he broke through scar tissue in the area. The pain was probably that, he concluded, although the only way to be certain was to throw another pitch and see what happens. This time, he geared up for a cutter, Carter rolled over it for a groundout that ended the game, and moments later the Mariners were gathered in the infield, exchanging handshakes.
Phelps, meanwhile, headed straight for the dugout after feeling that same crack again, found the training staff, and told them, “Yeah, I think I just blew up my elbow.”
A year later, the 32-year-old from St. Louis is nearing a return to the mound, although he won’t be ready in time to start the regular season with the Toronto Blue Jays. Surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament that was 80 per cent torn on that pitch took place last March 26, and since then it’s been nearly a year of uncomfortable healing, tedious rehabilitation and deliberate rebuilding of his pitching arm.
Typically, a full recovery from the procedure known as Tommy John surgery takes 12-18 months, a goal fellow Blue Jays pitching prospect Julian Merryweather – the return from Cleveland for Josh Donaldson – is also chasing.
They’re among the 101 professional and college players known to have had the operation in 2018 as tracked by Jon Roegele’s invaluable online database. Last week, Mark Leiter Jr., became the seventh player to join the club this year, and though the procedure is prevalent, a full return shouldn’t be taken for granted.
At the MIT Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference in Boston earlier this month, Dr. Eric Makhni, an orthopaedic surgeon for the NFL’s Detroit Lions who also specializes in baseball injuries, said his review of 138 established big-league pitchers (with at least 10 games in a season under their belt) showed 20 per cent of them never made it back to the majors, while one in three didn’t reach their previous level of durability. Further, when measured in WAR, it wasn’t until their third season back that pitchers were able to deliver value similar to their pre-surgery levels.
All of which reinforces the importance of that slow, meticulous rehabilitation before jumping back in, a point of discussion for Phelps and the Blue Jays training staff when he first checked into spring camp.
“When I’m on the mound, I’m going to go as hard as I can for as long as I can,” says Phelps. “We talked about how we can self-regulate that, because as we’re increasing volume, we want to try keep that intensity at the same level so that we’re not introducing two different variables at the same time. That’s something I’ve had to be mindful of as I’m going through this progression, so we can get that volume while still keeping the arm healthy.”
Merryweather was throwing a routine side session between starts last spring when a curveball “just lit up my elbow.” Like Phelps, at first he didn’t know what to make of the stinging sensation in his arm, so he tried to throw a few more fastballs to get himself straightened out. “My arm wasn’t too happy about it,” he says sheepishly, “so I shut it down.”
Before long, he was getting assessed by the training staff, undergoing an MRI and making the decision to have Tommy John, a whirlwind all the more disorienting because there were no leading indicators of potential trouble. “It must have been hanging on,” he says of the ligament. The surgery took place March 9, 2018.
“There’s definitely a couple ways to look at it,” says Merryweather. “You can look at it as a prison sentence, where you’re shut down for a year and you’ve got to do all this stuff you don’t really like to do. But at the end of the day, you have to learn how to fall in love with it, just like you fall in love with the game of baseball, because it’s helping you to get back. That was probably the biggest adjustment I had to make, the mentality of it. Not to think of rehab as a monotonous act and actually think, wow, this is getting me back quicker and better.”
Maintaining optimism is especially challenging in the beginning, when the arm has to be immobilized for two to three weeks after surgery. The next step is a brace that’s worn for eight to 10 weeks, making everything from showering to sleeping a major challenge.
At least that’s where the exercise begins, with instructions to move the arm about 30 degrees in each direction. From there, Merryweather went to exercises touching fingers, like thumb to pinky, thumb to index finger, to reignite all the small muscles in the forearm. “It sounds like nothing,” he says, “but after getting your elbow sliced open it, it’s a little challenging.”
Grip exercises to rebuild strength followed, and five months post-op, Merryweather threw a baseball again. “That was a huge, huge first step, just mentally more than anything,” he says. “You’re off five months, the last time you threw a baseball it wasn’t a good experience. Getting back and feeling the game of baseball again was a big thing.”
Staying disciplined in the rehab and making sure to not push too much, too fast is one of the major challenges for competitive athletes. Rick Langford, the Blue Jays’ senior pitching advisor, recognized that was an issue when he was the club’s rehabilitation co-ordinator a few years ago, overseeing the return from Tommy John of young pitchers like Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek. The best way to occupy his players was to give their work more purpose, he figured.
“To have some sort of thing you can compete against is good,” he says. “We would have fun with the [pitcher’s fielder practice] sessions: How many consecutive balls can you catch? Can we as a group collectively, three, four, five of us, use one baseball for 20 minutes and do all this work without throwing it away? Things like that – just to simulate competition.”
The downtime offers an opportunity to study mechanics and identify areas in need of refinement or change. With Drabek, they worked on his lines to home plate, trying to keep his body in more of a straight line during delivery. With Hutchison, he asked “is there anything you want to work while you’re down here to clean up some other part of your game?”
“Drew really crossed fired a lot in his delivery and we talked a lot about that,” says Langford. “We both decided that if he maybe opened up a little bit better and didn’t block himself off as much, it might help. We designed a section of the throwing field that was on the corner where he had lines and so he competed with himself that way, to try to clean up his delivery, feel freer, be on time with his arm. So he was rehabbing the arm, but also working on his on his game a little bit.”
Phelps countered the tedium by remaining with the Mariners after his surgery rather than rehabbing at their spring facility in Arizona or simply going home, an atypical decision made all the more unusual given that he was a pending free agent. Wanting to find a way to contribute regardless of circumstance, he approached GM Jerry Dipoto and asked if he could stay with the team.
“He said, ‘We would love to have you still be present in the clubhouse,’ and that’s what I wanted more than anything,’” says Phelps. “Just be, I don’t want to say a leader because it’s hard when you’re not on the field, but at the same time, if young guys had questions, just help guys out as much as I could when I couldn’t do it on the field.”
In that way, Phelps used his downtime to be good teammate, helping teammates in any way he could while rehabbing with the Mariners’ training staff, addressing deficiencies in his arm that had built up over six big-league seasons with the Yankees, Marlins and Mariners.
“You do find some, I don’t want to say beauty in the monotony because it is a grind, but at the same time, you learn a lot about your elbow, about your arm, about your body in the process,” he says. “Guys typically come back, not necessarily stronger, but the work that you do on your shoulder and your elbow, your arm is in a better place than it was. I’d had little things the last five years and finally, I’ve got a reconstructed elbow that can hopefully last however many years of my career. It’s all healthy.”