Tommy John surgery. Doctors removing a ligament from somewhere on your body to replace a torn elbow tendon is so common, pitchers such as Brett Anderson sometimes return as strong, if not stronger.
The Oklahoman's 2006 Player of the Year out of Stillwater, Anderson is ahead of schedule. The son of Oklahoma State baseball coach Frank Anderson, Brett Anderson hopes to make a long-awaited rehab start next week in an extended spring training game in Arizona.
The left-hander in the Oakland A's system pitched well before chronic pain required surgery last July. Anderson hopes to begin alternating rehab starts late this month at Class A Stockton and Class AAA Sacramento, two A's minor league clubs near Oakland.
If things go according to plan, Anderson could be back in the Majors by the end of June or early July.
“You don't want to look too far ahead,” Brett Anderson said. “You have to build your arm strength up, go one or two innings early and stretch it out. Eventually you need to be up to 100 pitches (a game). I'm taking it one day at a time. But I feel good.”
Anderson, 24, was one of the American League's top young left-handers before the injury. He had four plus pitches — a 95 mph fastball, effective curve and change-up and wicked slider, his out pitch.
He posted one of the AL's top ERAs (2.80) the year after a successful rookie season but made only 19 starts when pain first occurred. He took several weeks off to allow the elbow to heal without surgery.
The pain returned last season. Radar guns were revealing. During the 2009 season and early 2010, Anderson's fastball routinely clocked between 92 and 96 mph.
“It got to a point (last year) it took all of the 6-4, 240 pounds of myself just to get to 90 (mph),” Anderson said. “My breaking ball wasn't nearly as sharp. It was just rolling in.”
Now he feels like he did his rookie season.
Tommy John surgery replaces the elbow ligament with a tendon from the forearm, hamstring, hip or knee. Famed elbow and shoulder specialist Dr. James Andrews replaced Anderson's ulnar collateral ligament on July 14.
The long road back started with two months of range-of-motion treatments last summer. Anderson called it trainers “cranking” on his elbow, twisting it back and forth up to two hours per session.
Around Halloween, he began strengthening his shoulder and elbow. By Thanksgiving, he was doing light throwing. He arrived at spring training earlier than his teammates in mid-February, throwing from 58 feet in front of the mound on flat ground. It progressed to live batting practice.
Ten months after undergoing surgery, Anderson, a svelte 220 pounds, is close to pitching in a game.
“I'm sure there will be a lot of adrenaline for that first rehab start,” Anderson said. “Once I get through that I can dial it down and get used to pitching again, get in your routine, eventually get back to the big leagues again. It's going to be fun to pitch again.”
Elbow ligament reconstruction surgery sounds ominous, but there have been a ton of success stories. Nine of the 22 pitchers in last year's World Series underwent Tommy John surgery.
His father, Frank Anderson, is optimistic but warns it's still relatively a new procedure.
“Everybody wants to speed up the process and make it happen quicker,” Frank Anderson said. “Even though the surgery has a great success rate, it hasn't been that long since they've started doing that surgery. It's not even that long since Tommy John was pitching in the big leagues.”
With modern day medical advancements, is there a chance the elbow will be as strong, possibly stronger? Frank Anderson has a theory on “the stronger” proclamation.
“I talked to Dr. Andrews about this,” Frank Anderson said. “I don't think they really come back throwing harder; they just get in better shape. They work at their rehab and they work on (diet and conditioning) more than when they were healthy.”
One theory why Brett Anderson required Tommy John surgery was he threw his slider 33.8 percent of the time, the fifth-highest slider percentage in the Majors. Will he throw fewer sliders this time around?
“It's a fine line,” Brett Anderson said. “You're competitive. You want to get people out. You don't want to give up hits and runs. I might have thrown too many. You never know if that was a direct correlation. Some pitchers just break down.
“You make adjustments. Maybe I won't throw quite as many (sliders) early on. But once the competitive juices start flowing, your job is to get people out.”
A couple of weeks before elbow pain first surfaced, in April 2010, Anderson signed a four-year $12.5 million deal. The contract runs through next season with club options in 2014 ($8 million) and 2015 ($12 million).
A member of the U.S. Olympic team that won a bronze medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing, Anderson was encouraged Team USA teammate Stephen Strasburg made a triumphant return for the Washington Nationals a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
“It's been a tedious process,” Brett Anderson said. “I'm excited. It starts with some rehab starts, hopefully be back in the big leagues a few weeks before the All-Star break. I'm living the dream, pitching in the big leagues. It's going to be fun to pitch again like I know how.”