Pitchers Learn Lessons From Extended Spring

PHOENIX—Extended spring training is sometimes viewed by players as early-season purgatory. The nine-week period from early April through the first week of June is marked by a schedule of informal games played at each major league organization's training complex by a combination of younger players not yet ready for full-season ball and more advanced minor league farmhands just waiting for an opening at a full-season affiliate.

And then there are the rehabbers—those players recovering from injury and working to get healthy enough to play.

The extended spring training rosters of the 15 organizations based in Arizona this year contain an unprecedented number of high-profile pitchers from the 2015 draft recovering from Tommy John surgery, including (with draft round in parentheses):

Brady Aiken, lhp, Indians (first)
Walker Buehler, rhp, Dodgers (first)
Nathan Kirby, lhp, Brewers (sandwich)
Michael Matuella, rhp, Rangers (third)
Justin Garza, rhp, Indians (eighth)

The epidemic of Tommy John surgeries at both the professional and amateur levels continues, with an ongoing dialogue in the industry about the causes and possible preventative measures. The recently-published book “The Arm," written by Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, has brought even more attention to the now-common procedure, also known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction.

While the occurrence of the surgery continues to rise, the success rate and chances for a successful post-procedure career are better than ever. Major league organizations generally no longer hesitate to draft pitchers still in the early stages of recovery from Tommy John.

The Blue Jays selected East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman with the ninth overall pick in 2014 despite the fact that he went under the knife one month before the draft. Since being traded to the Rockies, Hoffman has reached Triple-A Albuquerque less than two years after the surgery.

That same 2014 draft also yielded Nevada-Las Vegas righthander Erick Fedde, who after having Tommy John surgery was selected by the Nationals with the 18th pick and now pitches for high Class A Potomac.

Aiken, Garza and Matuella are following this trend in that each player was drafted within months of having Tommy John.

Down But Not Out

Aiken's is familiar to even the most casual draft followers. The Astros made the San Diego high school southpaw the first overall pick in 2014, agreeing to a $6.5 million bonus that was ultimately withdrawn after a post-draft MRI showed what the organization considered to be significant health concerns regarding Aiken's left elbow. A last minute offer of $5 million was refused by Aiken and his advisers, making the Astros the first team in 31 years to not sign the No. 1 overall pick.

After sitting out the rest of the 2014 season, Aiken enrolled in the post-graduate baseball program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., but threw just 13 pitches in a March 2015 outing before leaving the game.

Aiken had UCL surgery six days later. He took a unique approach by announcing the procedure in The Players' Tribune, a site founded by Derek Jeter to provide athletes with a forum for first-person stories.

Aiken went back into the 2015 draft just three months after his surgery and again was selected in the first round, this time 17th overall to the Indians. Cleveland signed him in late June for just north of $2.5 million.

Garza also was once considered a possible first-round talent prior to his injury, especially after going 12-0 as a Cal State Fullerton freshman in 2013.

Garza pitched through elbow issues in 2015, his junior year, before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in late May. The Indians signed him for $169,900 in the eighth round.

"It's kind of a fraternity," Michael Matuella said of pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Matuella rose to prominence during a sophomore year at Duke in which he was mentioned as a possible No. 1 overall pick candidate for the 2015 draft. The 6-foot-7 righty sat out the summer and fall seasons prior to his junior year to rest a chronic back condition known as spondylosis. His final college season was marred by injury when he began experiencing forearm tightness, and he had UCL surgery in April.

Matuella fell further in the draft than expected because of the combination of elbow surgery and the previous back issue. The Rangers selected him in the third round and signed him for an over-slot $2 million. He insists his back condition is no longer an issue.

“My back feels great," Matuella said. “It's something that I'll always have to maintain with the core strength . . . I do a number of different core exercises. I just keep varying it from day to day just to mix it up and make sure the back issue never comes up again."

All three pitchers are progressing in their rehab programs, with Aiken being the farthest along because he had his surgery one month before Matuella and two months before Garza. Aiken has been throwing bullpen sessions since March, while Garza and Matuella began pitching off the mound within days of each other in April.

A Blessing In Disguise?

For world class athletes used to the thrill of competition, the day-to-day routine required during the rehab process at extended spring can become boring. The players are essentially held captive at a training facility while their healthy organization-mates head off to play in games that count. The only break players receive from the day-to-day work in Arizona is when they go home during holidays, but even then they're expected to work on conditioning while away from the complex.

“They're here five to six days out of the week," said Indians rehab pitching coordinator Ken Knutson, a former head coach at the University of Washington and later pitching coach at Arizona State. “I guess they're not prisoners here, but it's pretty close."

Rehab work starts early for pitchers. They usually arrive by 7:00 a.m. and often work well into the afternoon. The days are filled with stretching, exercising, throwing, running, lifting weights, arm and shoulder work, and then finally watching the extended-spring games, followed by more rehab work. Then they're back the next day for more of the same.

Still, Aiken sees value in the routine.

“(It's) not really learning anything new," he said, “but picking up stuff you wouldn't pick up when you're playing the game."

Said Garza: “It's kind of like we're on the outside looking at everyone else . . . That's a major plus, and obviously your mental aspect of the game grows because you have a lot of free time."

Knutson views the Tommy John rehab process as a setback, not a career-ender.

“It's sort of a blessing," he said. “. . . You can get a lot of things done. You can develop routines that will last you through the rest of your professional career. Mentally, you can rehearse games and things you're going to do and the mechanics to do those things."

Despite the sameness of the daily routine, the rehabbers find ways to get through it, knowing that the ultimate goal is to get back on the mound in a real game.

“One thing that makes it a little easier is that we are with other guys. We're not alone," Garza said. “There are three other guys (lefty Kenny Mathews and righties Dylan Baker and Grant Hockin) who all had the same surgery around the same time of the year. It's easy to communicate with each other—how we're feeling and how the other guys are feeling. "

Matuella takes a measured approach to his rehab process, saying, “I've been very patient. I'm just really controlling what I can control and not really trying to worry about pushing too fast because I know the Rangers have a good plan for me."

But the perpetually upbeat Matuella looks for ways to vary the routine enough to help him get through each day.

“Each week brings a new challenge," he said, “whether it's another set of throws or more throws, whether it's getting off a flat mound . . . each week it's a new test."

Matuella has bonded with his fellow Rangers rehabbers, notably righties Ricardo Rodriguez and Dario Beltre.

“We've definitely become a friendly group," Matuella said. “We're a close group. It's kind of a fraternity . . . Anyone who's gone through Tommy John knows how tough it is and the work that goes into coming back."

Winning The Mental Game

The rehabilitation process isn't all physical. The Indians and Rangers dedicate time and resources to working with their players on mental skills to help them get through rehab.

“We've had a bunch of exercises," Aiken said. “We've sat down and talked with (mental skills coaches) a couple of times—kind of just making sure you're not going crazy out here

“They make sure you're staying on top of the game even when you're not playing it, so that when you do come back, you're on top of it mentally."

The mental-skills process is actually just an extension of what Garza had available to him at Cal State Fullerton. Ken Ravizza, one of his strength coaches there, co-wrote a book entitled “Heads Up Baseball."

“I was kind of forced to implement that into my game," Garza said, “and obviously the best time to use it is during this whole process . . . It's kind of hard to not go crazy (in extended spring), so you feel you need to stay on top of your stuff, especially with this process where some days are better than the others and you've got to try to not let yourself get too down if you arm's sore that day or something like that.."

The possibility of re-injuring one's arm is always going to be in the back of the mind for any pitcher who starts throwing from the mound again. It's another area where mental skills and physical rehab intersect.

“We knew in advance that we were going to be throwing a bullpen in a month," Aiken said. “So you prepare yourself mentally and physically. The first pitch, you feel of a little skeptical, but then after that . . . it's smooth sailing, (with) no issues, no difficulties."

Being the farthest along in his rehab, Aiken has mixed a changeup and curveball with his fastball, focusing on three pitches rather than the four he threw as an amateur. That's consistent with the Indians' approach to developing young pitchers.

“Our philosophy is, as rookies, they're going to develop a four-seam fastball, a changeup and one breaking ball," Knutson said. “As they progress, they're going to add more."

Organizations generally don't make drastic changes to a pitcher's delivery or repertoire during the rehab process, instead focusing more on getting the pitcher healthy. Aiken, Garza and Matuella, however, were not a part of the organization when their injuries occurred, putting the coaching staffs at a small disadvantage.

“Most importantly, they want you to get back healthy," Aiken said. “We've been working on some minor (mechanical) things, but nothing too drastic."

Knutson agrees that physical health is most important.

“We make sure they're using their bodies correctly," he said, “and they're getting the proper work when they're out there throwing
. . . If there was something alarming about how they threw or in their deliveries that you think was the cause of the issue, we might examine that. But really, in both the cases (Aiken and Garza), I don't think that applied."

Matuella said that the Rangers have watched video of him pitching in college but are primarily making sure his arm is healthy before making any adjustments. He's just focused on regaining his health but has a few tweaks in mind that he will implement at the right time.

“I've talked to (Rangers staff) about adjusting based on what I've noticed about my motion and something that might have caused the injury," Matuella said. “So I feel like they've done a really good job helping me adjust those things. That's only going to keep me healthy, keep me on the right track and keep me better than before surgery. There's a reason I got hurt."

Aiken, Garza and Matuella each look forward to making their pro debuts this summer, most likely in the Rookie-level Arizona League. The pitchers have learned many lessons that they hope will ultimately help bring success, each noting that he has gained a new appreciation for the game and the acceptance that there are no guarantees in life.

“I wish that I never had Tommy John surgery, but I do believe it happened for a reason," Matuella said. “Looking back at some of the things I used to do, motion-wise, I think it was bound to happen.

“It's unfortunate, the timing of it, but it definitely teaches patience and, really, just keeping a consistent attitude, because you're going to have your ups and downs—in life and in baseball. Tommy John surgery and the recovery is just a microcosm of that."