Yocum and the impact of Tommy John surgery
MAY 31, 2013 10:07a ET
“At the time I had already committed to UCLA so I was kind of freaking out a little bit,” Vander Tuig said. “And because I was so young and I didn’t hear a lot of stories of people my age having it done.”
The surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament is equal parts revolutionary and controversial. Once a surgery that was primarily used to save the career of an aging pitcher, it’s now commonplace in several levels of baseball.
It sounds drastic – holes are drilled in the elbow and a tendon is taken from somewhere else in the body and woven through – and to the then 17-year-old like Vander Tuig, he thought it was.
“I knew that some big leaguers that had the surgery, some of them come back throwing harder and some come back just as good,” Vander Tuig said. “And some don’t come back at all.”
The surgery was first performed in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe. Jobe, now a special assistant to the Dodgers, became one of the foremost minds in sports medicine. Jobe, along with his protégé Yocum, the late Angels' team doctor, and Dr. James Andrews have performed and refined the surgery over the years, extending the careers of countless pitchers.
But recently, it’s been less about extending the careers and more about giving a career a chance to come to fruition. Although statistics on the surgery are not kept nationally, high school and college pitchers are more frequently having the surgery than ever before.
“It’s from overuse,” said UCLA athletic trainer Carl Stocklin. “When athletes finish their high school season, they do showcases. And in college, they have a full season and then they go right to summer ball so they’re not getting the appropriate time to recover. And when that’s happening, the injury is from overuse and not following the pitch count recommendations.”
It’s a slow and tedious rehab, about a year and possibly more, but if rehabilitated correctly, the athlete can come back better than before. Vander Tuig has seen a gradual increase in his velocity since having the procedure and he’s not alone.
But for some players, it can harm them in the eyes of scouts and college recruiters. Vander Tuig was lucky in that UCLA and head coach John Savage honored the scholarship.
Mike Hacker, a former Astros and Red Sox farmhand, was one of the many that saw his luck turn after the diagnosis. Then a sophomore at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, the lefty suddenly realized he would have to change his path after tearing his UCL in the middle of a game.
“I was kind of bummed because I know I wans’t going to be to get drafted as planned and I had a full ride to Cal State Fullerton. I knew that both of those were going to go out the door,” Hacker said. “But it could have been worse, it could have been a shoulder. It could have been something that I couldn’t have come back from.”
Both Vander Tuig and Hacker had their surgeries done by Yocum citing the need to have it performed by "the best." Both still have five-inch scars on the inside of their respective pitching elbows that serve as constant reminders to take care of their arms physically and keep their heads right mentally.
“It’s a fine line between being patient and not pushing yourself too hard, but still doing everything and doing it right,” Hacker said. “I had to stop worrying about a lot of the negative stuff with my arm.”
“I full think that as a player coming back from it, it’s all mental,” Vander Tuig said. “I remember my first throwing session coming back from it. I think I was throwing like 50 feet and I remember the first time I threw the ball it felt so foreign to me.”
There is good news, however, and that is the increase in education at the youth and high school levels.
“It’s trending now that high school athletes will not participate as much as they are asked to,” Stocklin said. “It’s more trending now to appreciate recovery and have the appropriate exposure.”