Gage Hutchinson didn’t see it coming.
Chase Haney felt as good as he had all season.
Clayton Kwiatkowski remarked that there was no warning sign, no “ooh, I need to get out of this game pitch.”
Their baseball seasons were over. One of the smallest ligaments in the human body had snapped and would require ulnar collateral ligament surgery (known best as Tommy John surgery) as well as a regimented year-long rehabilitation program.
The pitchers were at different stages of their careers: Kwiatkowski in high school, Hutchinson at junior college and Haney at Florida State. But they are connected by a surgery first done more than 40 years ago that has now been refined and is commonplace.
Hutchinson didn’t know anyone who had to have the UCL repaired in his right elbow. So he did what many of us do when they have a question and turned to Google.
“I found everything from 12-year-old kids to 35-year-old men playing in the pros,” Hutchinson said. “You realize that it’s a very, very common surgery and the success rate is pretty high as well. Anybody that has had Tommy John surgery is more than willing to help you out and try to give you some advice and tell you what’s coming, what to expect.”
What to expect? A long year ahead of follow-the-doctor’s-orders rehab. All three cautioned that there is the temptation to rush ahead and that it’s difficult to ignore the voice in the back of a pitcher’s head that encourages running while still crawling.
The long road back
The three Florida State relievers have a common bond: they have found a way back, slowly, from the lowest point that a pitcher can have in his young career.
Tommy John surgery is prevalent at all levels of the game. Pitchers who have the surgery are often shelved in the short-term memory of fans because an entire season or more is lost. But behind the day-to-day grind of practices and games, pitchers who have had the surgery arrive early at ballparks to get work in with strength and conditioning staffs.
Along with the prescribed rehab of the doctors, strength and conditioning coaches are critical in the road back.
Haney said he pitched 2017 with “a little discomfort in my elbow.” But he then remarked that it felt “really, really good” when FSU was at the College World Series. So after the season, Haney went to the Cape Cod League.
“And then all of a sudden it popped on me,” Haney said. “I think a lot of it came from because I was a matchup guy (at FSU) towards the end of the year. And I got up to the Cape I threw two innings the first day, and took a day off, and threw two more innings. And then I woke up the next day with elbow discomfort. It was pain I had not felt in a while. Just because it was more pitches than I had thrown in a while. Took a couple days off, and then the next time I went out there it popped on me. I think it was the different role I played.”
For Haney, the journey began with surgery on July 20, 2017. After 10 days with his arm in a splint, he began range-of-motion testing with FSU trainers Brandon Stone and Seth Diters.
“Wrist mobility, elbow mobility, shoulder mobility,” Haney said. “All of that stuff they test before you start the rehab just so they know what areas you have to strengthen. I did a lot of strength training with Seth Diters, who is at Mississippi State (now), but he was our strength trainer. They just kind of pushed me every down. I honestly credit everything that I feel to them.”
Stone had a plan for Haney, who would have one-on-one time with Stone or Diters in the mornings – well ahead of when the active players were arriving. Haney’s timeline was stretched out – throwing first at 45 feet, then long toss at 6-8 months after surgery before he threw live in a bullpen about 12 months after surgery.
Haney said he also felt it was important to improve his diet before his surgery. No preservatives, no fast foods. Natural foods.
“Changing my diet and my routine, the way I would eat, I think that was really important in my healing process as well those first three months,” Haney said. “When you get a major surgery you don’t want to put a bunch of bad stuff in your body.”
There are good days in the rehab and then there are the ones where a pitcher battles soreness or pain. And the days when a pitcher sees his teammates play a game, knowing that he can cheer from the dugout but won’t play. That’s something that hit Haney hard in February 2018.
“I was like, ‘Dang, this sucks. I’m really going to be in the training room when they’re out there playing games. I’m not going to be able to travel with them,’ ” Haney said. “The next year I’m sitting at home, watching the games on TV. That was the hardest part for me, when the season actually started.”
Haney said his rehab was smooth and that he “came back better than before.” He feels he gained some velocity although part of that could be attributed to strength training.
Hutchinson’s comeback was 18 months. He recalls minor issues but some pain. Frequent MRIs revealed no re-injury and he remembers that doctors said “it’s just irritated.”
“If you try to rush it like I did, I think that’s one of the reasons it took me a full 18 months,” Hutchinson said. “I thought, ‘I’m an outlier. I’m different. I can do more than what this throwing program has me doing. And it just caused me a couple setbacks. Take it slow. Keep your head down. Grind through rehab. And give it some patience. Eventually it’s going to get where you need to be.”
The plan for Hutchinson at Daytona State College was that he would be part of the team. He practiced with them and even traveled to road games.
“I would field a ground ball but I wouldn’t throw it,” Hutchinson said. “They were really good amount knowing my limitations and what they could do and what they couldn’t do.”
Physically, he was stronger and had more confidence after 18 months away from pitching in a game. He also learned to battle the doubts.
“Once you have that surgery, it just doesn’t feel the same,” Hutchinson said. “It just doesn’t feel like it used to. You’ve got something foreign in there that you’re not used to having inside there. It makes it a little more difficult. Having those extra months gave me the confidence to know, ‘Hey, it’s not going to burst. It’s not going to break when you get ready to throw it. Go out there and throw it like you used to.’ Those extra months of me throwing bullpens, throwing to live hitters, gave me that kind of confidence.”
Full of confidence, Hutchinson took the mound in the spring of 2016. But it wasn’t the performance he had dreamed about.
“I think I gave up eight runs in two innings,” Hutchinson said. “So I was like, ‘Well, that’s the end of my career.’ And I was so sore I couldn’t scratch my head the next day. But the more I started to pitch, the more I got the feel back and had an idea what pitches were doing what. As I started throwing more in games, the soreness got a little bit less.”
Why so many Tommy John injuries?
There’s no good method to track Tommy John injuries across all age groups. But FanGraphs analyst Jon Roegele has focused on surgeries for major league and minor league pitchers, recording 103 in 2018 and 100 in 2017 (although that’s down from 143 in 2015). Roegele admitted to fivethirdyeight.com that his data for minor-league pitchers could be off significantly as reporting of those injuries across hundreds of teams is a challenge.
Hutchinson has some theories, though, about the stress on young arms.
“I think it’s early specification in athletes,” Hutchinson said. “Because when guys were playing every sport, depending on the season, fall you’re playing football, winter you’re playing basketball, spring you’re playing baseball, that allows you to become a complete athlete and your body gets rest. Even though you’re still playing sports, different muscles get rest at different times.
“I think that is one of the biggest things, especially in the Southern states, because you can play baseball from January to December.”
Hutchinson has spoken to younger athletes about this very concern. His family moved from Kentucky to Florida when he was younger and the opportunity was there to play baseball all year. When his dad asked if that was what Gage wanted to do, Gage said yes. He recalls his dad was meticulous about his pitch count and made sure that Gage didn’t throw on back-to-back days. It was that way from age 10 through high school, Gage said. “Even then, I still got it,” Hutchinson said.
What’s an avenue that pitchers should consider? Hutchinson said it may be good to take a break from throwing year-round.
“Go enjoy playing sports,” Hutchinson said. “Go enjoy being a kid, go enjoy being an athlete. … I wish I would have played those sports, I wish I would have took more time off and enjoyed something else other than baseball and then come back to it.”
But even this may be tough for some boys to grasp. The desire to play baseball – in college, to earn a partial scholarship, or to be drafted – is strong. They may feel that if they put the baseball down they are missing out.
John Smoltz, who had Tommy John surgery, said during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015 that baseball players need to pursue other interests in their teenage years.
“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old,” Smoltz said. “That you have time, that baseball’s not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports. Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way.”
What they have learned
Cobi Johnson, who had Tommy John injury in April 2016, as well as Hutchinson were able to keep Haney relaxed during some of the low points.
“The two biggest guys for me were probably Cobi and Gage,” Haney said. “Any time I would have a little pain in my arm or I was feeling something weird, I would go to (Cobi). And he was like, ‘Yeah, dude. Just relax. You’re going to feel pain. You’re going to feel discomfort. You have a new elbow.’ I think it’s just little things like that, like mentally, that kept me going and not freaking out. Just having guys to talk to if something was feeling weird or if I didn’t feel right. I saw him (Cobi) work his butt off in the weight room and the training room, that kind of motivated me to do the same thing.”
The season began with something special, a no-hitter that was authored by Drew Parrish, Conor Grady and Haney. It was Haney’s first game back since his UCL injury in the Cape Cod League in 2017.
Haney tossed 23 pitches, issuing a walk but also recording a strikeout. He worked a hitless ninth in a pressure situation on Opening Day.
“I think because the no-hitter was in play that they wanted to throw an experienced guy out there,” Haney said. “It kind of felt like it was the first time I pitched at Florida State. I literally had the same feeling in my body. Kind of like that out of body experience where you don’t know what’s going on. It felt like it was a 1-0 ballgame and it was 11-0. It was pretty cool to come back. It was nice to pitch in front of the fans and just be back on the field with the guys.”
Haney is 2-2 with a 3.00 ERA and has had very good control (32 strikeouts and just nine walks in 30 innings) while allowing opposing batters to hit .198. His 26 appearances is the most out of the bullpen. Kwiatkowski is 0-0 with a 4.11 ERA in 22 appearances and has 37 strikeouts in 35 innings. Hutchinson hasn’t pitched as much, but has 10 strikeouts in 10.2 innings in 10 outings.
They are all critical pieces of the bullpen as FSU moves forward into the NCAA Regional. And more than perhaps many players, they have an appreciation for what each appearance on the mound means.
“Every time you go out you don’t know if it’s going to be your last time or not,” Kwiatkowski said. “That should help you play harder and not take any day for granted on the field.”