I dare you to bet against Jarrod Parker coming back strong from his second Tommy John surgery. Rehabbing any significant injury is a substantial challenge independently; braving the process twice makes for even longer odds. Parker, however, is uniquely positioned based on his youth, talent and mental makeup to slay those odds and sit atop a championship-caliber rotation once again.
Parker began his professional career as the Diamondbacks’ first-round pick, ninth overall, in the 2007 draft. He was the first high school pitcher selected that June, ahead of the Giants’ current No. 1 starter, Madison Bumgarner. The ace pedigree is certainly intact.
As a top prospect while with Arizona, Parker sat in the 95- to 96-mph range with his fastball, flirting with the upper 90s. The heater, coupled with his since-developed plus changeup and the shared early-career UCL injuries, naturally conjures up images of Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey, even if the rookie-season metrics don’t entirely match up.
Parker faced his first test in 2009 when he tore his UCL. "Each and every day it’s a mental battle, and the process and rehab program can become a bit monotonous," he said.
Recalling the rehab process Parker alluded to is an excruciating exercise for me personally, as I remember well the time I was forced to face a similar challenge. In 2005, when I felt my Achilles snap, I knew instantly that it wasn’t just my anatomy that had changed, but my life as well. All I could think about in that Toronto clubhouse as I was examined by the Jays’ team doctor was how I would watch my teammates in the playoffs without me. When our Red Sox group poured champagne on one another a few weeks later back in Boston after clinching the postseason berth, I smiled sheepishly on crutches, half exuberant and half fighting back tears.
Post career-threatening injury, you must fight not only your body, but your mind as well.
"I think going through this rehab process, the biggest challenge is watching and wishing you were on the field with your teammates. It’s easy to let the feelings or thoughts of being ‘left out’ creep into your mind and will challenge your demeanor, work ethic and overall general mood," said Parker.
The isolation of my own rehab was intense. The outset of the day is not so bad. You enter the clubhouse with your teammates and clown a bit, as if you’re still a part of the pack. But then the clubhouse clears out as men go stretch and take batting practice together while you enter an eerily empty training room to begin an arduous process on a medical table that may include hot packs, ointments, painful exercises and very little immediate reward. Additionally, you’re unable to train the rest of your body in the manner that you’re accustomed to.
For a player like Parker, and for my younger self, the incentive to get back on the field may be inspired by a childlike envy and yearning to be competing alongside your peers. That desire to compete is almost a physical addiction. The release of adrenaline and the rush of the game becomes our drug. Take that away, and intense workouts may function as a bridge, like a nicotine patch for a smoker. Rip off the patch by sending us to rehab, and we go through withdrawals.
Parker fought and conquered all of these obstacles. After missing the entire 2010 season rehabbing from Tommy John, he came back to make his MLB debut in 2011. After being traded that offseason to the Oakland A’s, he compiled an impressive pitching resume. Parker was both productive and dependable in 2013. Counted on for 197 innings, he started 32 games for Oakland last season and was feeling ready to anchor the staff and step into a leadership position with the club at the outset of spring training. For a 25-year-old, serving as the ace of a high-quality MLB staff is not just an honor but a huge responsibility, one that Parker was well-equipped to handle. Headed into spring training, Parker was slated to serve as the ace of the 2014 A’s rotation sitting atop Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir.
Today he finds himself back in the unenviable position of grinding through the grueling, spirit-testing rehab after suffering a torn graft in his elbow that required a second Tommy John surgery to repair. He will miss the entire 2014 season with the recovery process potentially lingering into the wee hours of the 2015 campaign.
Parker’s return and its success will likely be judged on his ability to come back as a starter, and the history of starting pitchers returning from a second Tommy John surgery provides us with an exceptionally small sample.
The Red Sox’s Chris Capuano may serve as inspiration for Parker. From Sports Illustrated:
Since his second surgery, Capuano, now 35, has made 93 starts, 84 of them coming in the last three seasons, and though he has posted an adjusted ERA below league average over that span, his peripherals have actually improved slightly relative to his pre-surgery numbers.
For purposes of this discussion, more important than Capuano’s performance is his velocity. As of this writing, his average fastball velocity in May has been 91.83 mph, significantly speedier than his All-Star year of 2006 when he finished the season with an average velo of 88.58 mph.
Capuano is now pitching out of the pen for the Red Sox where he can let his fastball eat a bit more, but the data speaks for itself. It’s positively possible to increase velocity after a second TJ surgery.
Parker is perhaps in an even better position than Capuano. He is at an ideal age to recapture his strength and arm speed and retains impressive physical tools. His mental makeup has been sharpened by experience with adversity.
I reached out to Mike Reinold, my former trainer with the Red Sox. Mike has worked intensively with MLB pitchers through their first and second Tommy John surgeries. I asked about Parker’s challenge and guys going through this process for a second time. Are men generally doubly cynical and discouraged, thereby rendering the task of getting them back on the field even more difficult?
"In regard to Parker, I have seen it work more the other way; some guys are ultra-determined to get back and go through rehab easier because they know what to expect," Reinold told me.
"They know every day isn’t perfect and you often don’t feel your best, but that is normal and part of the process. They panic less and tend to have a nice gradual progression because of it. If you can prepare your mind to get through another year of rehab, you tend to be a very determined individual. Others may retire and not want to have to go through the process again."
Parker is no quitter and he’s not looking for shortcuts.
"With anything in life there is always an easy way out of things, and this is true with the rehab of a Tommy John surgery. There will always be a way to make an excuse or a reason to not do things the right way."
Parker is cut from a similar cloth as Capuano. The work ethic and the analytical approach to training and recovery are in the proper proportion.
"I’ve got plenty of time to get ready," Parker told me. "In my eyes and my mindset, I want to accomplish something each and every day. Whether it’s gaining a degree of flexion/extension, pushing yourself a minute more on a workout or even just soaking in the cold tubs to feel better the next day, there is always something you can do to be better."
His drive is understandable. In terms of his baseball career, the stakes on a full recovery couldn’t be higher. As a rookie, my agent used to tell me, "Kap, you want to have a home and a car paid off so that you can choose to work rather than be forced to work."
As players, we are at the mercy of our bodies and have a limited amount of time to earn in this game. Parker will make $500,000 while on the disabled list this year.
Nick Paparesta, the A’s head athletic trainer, knows what the stakes are. "He’s at a pretty critical stage of his career," he told me. "He’s coming up on those arbitration years. He’s going to need to prove himself over again."
Parker is lucky to be working with an exceptional training staff, the often overlooked but irreplaceable pieces of the recovery ecosystem.
Parker accomplished his first mission and became the leader of Oakland’s rotation once before. His grit and focus put him in the best possible position to do it a second time. He isn’t simply satisfied with that outcome. How many 26-year-old men have the wherewithal to think about improving independent of the physical elements?
"I think this time through it’s not much different," the pitcher said. "I want to apply as much useful information into my program, lifestyle and mental approach."
Since leaving the playing side of the game, I have had the privilege to work on the other side; evaluating the character and makeup of players. I can say without question that I am quite comfortable slapping a strong grade on Parker. Now that I’m in the business of making predictions, I’ll make this one: Jarrod Parker will not just make a full recovery. He’ll have several superior seasons to his 2013 offering. Book it.