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The Tommy John Surgery Experience Pt. 2

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For Today’s installment I want to discuss some of the non-protocol things I did to help my physical recovery.  But before I do, I have some words about MRIs….

…Standard MRIs are garbage.  When I felt my elbow go in the game, I was fairly sure that I was going to need surgery.  When I got my MRI a week later, however, my doctor could get a very accurate picture of my ligament on the films.  The regular MRI was just not clear enough in showing my ligament, and as such he recommended rehab and flexibility work, which had worked for me in the past.   Teammates of mine had had MRIs with a dye injection, which makes diagnoses much easier.  After 8 weeks of rest and rehab, I tried to pitch but couldn’t do it without pain.  My elbow felt loose when releasing the pitch, as if my ulna really wasn’t attached to my humerus.

So I went back and got an MRI with a dye injection, and it was clear as day that my ligament was torn.  My recommendation for others is to get a dye-injected MRI the FIRST time.  Ask for it and see if the doctor will prescribe it.

Relax and throw that Gas

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Ever heard someone say, “I just tensed up.”?  Chances are you have, within the context of that person explaining why he choked under pressure.  Tensing up is somewhat a figure of speech, but also a real occurrence.  Muscles contract in uncontrolled ways in response to fear, excitement, anger, etc.  Uncontrolled muscles are a bad thing for pitchers.

Tense muscles don’t function as they are supposed to.  They don’t stretch, rebound and contract as they are supposed to.  Sit down in a chair and flex all of your muscles at once.  You won’t be able to get up.  Why? Because all the muscle fibers are doing the same thing, all at once.  Because of this all-over tension, no work can be performed, and motion becomes impossible.  You’ve rendered your muscles useless.

You’ve also heard of pitchers “rearing back” and throwing the ball as hard as they can right by a batter.  Problem is, this act of rearing back, of giving it all you got, of putting every fiber into the pitch, is often counterproductive.

As my good friend Zach Clark was explaining to me, your body knows how to throw a baseball as efficiently as it can.  It knows which and how many muscle fibers to recruit.  Thing is, you have to let it do its work, and that requires relaxation.

Relaxing as best you can when throwing allows your body to choose, and it knows better than you do, which muscle fibers to recruit in throwing the ball.  Some fibers relax, and some contract in accordance with the most efficient ratio to throw as hard as possible.  Tensing up causes muscle fibers that are supposed to be relaxed to contract, thus hindering the natural way in which your body wants to throw.  

In theory, this makes sense and I believe in it.  However, in practice it is much more difficult.  When one wants to run faster he simply tries to run faster by using more intensity.  This usually works until top running speed is achieved.  However, as we have discussed, throwing harder is not this way.  It requires the delicate balance of effort and efficiency.  You have to try to throw hard, but you can’t try too hard.  Pitchers have to constantly fight this urge to overthrow, and if they are successful, then they will achieve their best velocity and best control.

My best velocity is always achieved in situations when I perceive that I need it the least.  This is my personal affirmation of this theory.  I have two standout examples of this.  I was facing one of my teammates in an intrasquad game a few years ago, and I got to 3-0 on him.  The first three pitches were all 87 mph.  The 3-0 pitch was 89.  How could this be?  Well, I thought nothing of throwing hard, but only of throwing a fat strike because I knew he wouldn’t be swinging.  I relaxed.

My most recent example was last week in my first outing throwing to batters since my surgery.  I was scheduled to throw 45 pitches, but threw 46 because no.45 was high and outside.  I wanted to end on a strike.  Keep in mind, this was the highest workload I had had since surgery, and by all rights my velocity should have peaked in the middle and tapered off at the end as I tired.  This was generally true, as I was 82-83 the whole time.  But my hardest pitch was no.46.  I hit (a whopping) 84 on pitch 46.  Why?  Because I didn’t care how hard it was – I just wanted to end on a strike.

There are other negatives associated with overthrowing.  The most obvious is a loss of control.  That phenomenon needs little explanation.  Another is loss of movement.  Sinkerballers must especially keep themselves in check, because they make their money on their fastball movement.  Overthrowing will usually cause a lively fastball to flatten out, rendering it much easier to hit.  

And after all, the point of having good velocity and movement is to make one’s pitches more difficult to hit.  Muscle tension caused by overthrowing is the enemy of a quality pitch, so If one can master his mindset to allow relaxation on the mound, then he will be maximizing his chances for success.

The Tommy John Surgery Experience Pt.1

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So I tore my UCL in the conference tournament last May.  I did not see it coming on that particular pitch, but I realized it probably was in my future.  My head athletic trainer had told me that it could go at any moment, seeing how I had partially torn it in both high school and the previous season in college.

From March on I was having forearm and elbow problems, and could barely recover between starts. But I got through it and didn’t miss time, and made it through 5 2/3 innings of my last start of the year.   I was actually starting to feel better by time it finally went.

So anyway, I figured I would put together some of the findings of this journey, of which I am almost through (8 months post-op and at 90% of previous velocity)

Today’s Topic: Doctor Discrepancies

Now, I got surgery from Dr. Craig Morgan in Wilmington Delaware.  I had heard good things about him, seeing as how is world-renowned, and I trusted him above all others with my pitching future.

Five teammates of mine had this same surgery during my career, and there were differences in all five rehab protocols.  And this is interesting, because everyone seems to make it to the finish line just the same.  Thus, the question arises- which protocol is the best? If you’re not familiar with the tommy john procedure, check out the link in my About Me page.

That question is hard to answer but from my own experiences, I do have an opinion. I base this opinion on what I went through, what others went through, and what seems to intuitively make sense about the human body and its ability to heal.

Sunday Funday

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On the weekends, college teams play conference games that count toward their shot at making the NCAA tournament.  The games played against conference foes are the most important of the year, and as such call on coaches to put forth their premium lineups.

Typically, a team throws their best starters in order from friday to sunday, and the best relievers get used up in the same fashion.  In a three, and especially a four game series, the Sunday games get awfully interesting due to pitching depth.  

In Major League games the difference between top relievers and lower relievers is not nearly as great as it is in college.  Major leaguers are the top in the world, and every single one can hold his own, or they would not be there.  

In college baseball, the effectiveness of pitchers varies much more as one progresses down the depth chart.  When the top and the middle-tier arms are used up on Friday and Saturday, Sunday often becomes a slugfest, coming down to the talent left in the bullpen.  Teams that are deep in their pitching staffs have the ability to sweep a series, but those who run thin have a tough time finishing with their brooms.

TV Simplifies Hitting

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Everyone watches baseball on TV, and it looks much too easy to be as difficult as it apparently is.  Some things are better in real life, and pitches are one of them.

The standard over-the-right-shoulder camera view on the pitcher tracks the ball brilliantly as soon as it leaves the hand.  Seemingly, we would pick up everything thats going on, but this is far from the truth.

Countless times have I heard, “how did he miss that pitch? It was right there.  Maybe it was, or maybe it wasnt.  Thing is, what the baseball does when being thrown 85+ mph is crazy, especially by the Major League pitch-smiths.  Ever watched Greg Maddux pitch?  If you have, you have probably watched his fastball start at a lefty’s hip and mozy on back over the inside corner of the plate.  That is how it is shown on television.

Reality?  Maddux’s fastball darts, sharply and lately.  Imagine a bird flying directly at you and then suddenly changing direction right before slamming into you. Thats the kind of movement he has on his fastball.

Fastballs from most pitchers look pretty much straight, or have a nice gently tail to the arm side, but this is, again, a deception by the camera.  Very few major league pitchers throw straight, and the ones who do (and are successful) throw in the upper 90s.  

Sharp movement on the fastball is crucial to success, and it makes sense when you consider that the difference between a long fly ball and a homerun is maybe an inch on or off the barrel.  The batter barely misses that pitch that moves off his barrel at the last moment.  This is how Mariano Rivera has made living throwing nothing but cut fastballs, ones that the TV camera really doesnt even display.  Think about how late breaking and sharp his cutter must be if he can throw it every single pitch over 15 years, and every hitter knows it.  

Human eye reaction time is such that a hitter cannot watch the ball travel the last 6 feet or so to the bat, and so his swing is really just a well-vectored guess.  So, if a pitcher can make his pitch move in that last 10% of its travels, then the batter’s barrel won’t contact the ball where he intends.  Thats why Mariano Rivera gets everyone out, even when they know what pitch is coming.  It’s beyond their perceptual abilities to square it up.

And its not just the fastball.  Changeups look straight, curveballs look loopy and round.  Good curveballs even in college baseball literally spike themselves into the ground when viewed from the plate.  The round, looping curves that the camera shows us are really some of the most diabolically sharp-breaking, physics-defying pitches you will never get the (dis)pleasure of facing.

This is all stuff that fans who have unfortunately never played at a high level may not understand about the game.  The pop of the mitt and the blur of the ball at the ballpark gives fans part of the picture, but they still only watch as if through a keyhole, never truly seeing the game as it actually is.   When you are privileged enough to play against players with that kind of talent and potential you realize how frighteningly difficult it is to have success hitting in the Major Leagues.