Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The mental and physical barriers after Tommy John surgery

The bullpen is one of the biggest question marks for the Twins this offseason.  There are many questions left to be answered:
Who is going to fill the holes left by the departure of Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and others?
What unproven players can step-up to fill those late inning roles?
Are the Twins going to add another veteran arm to solidify the bullpen?

One of the biggest question marks surrounding the bullpen this offseason is the return of closer Joe Nathan.  Following his injury in last year's Spring Training the team spent a lot of time trying to fill the hole that he left at the back end of the bullpen.

Nathan is recovering from Tommy John surgery (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery).  The Twins have seen a handful of pitchers in their organization take at least a season to recovery fully.  Fransisco Liriano returned to form in 2010 after having the surgery in the second half of the 2006 season.  Pat Neshek is another well know member of the Twins that has gone through this reconstructive operation.  Neshek pitched last season but not at the level he had been prior to the surgery.  Parker Hageman of Over the Baggy does a good job in this post of breaking down some of the players that have had Tommy John surgery and what their velocities were like when they returned.

There are two major barriers that a player must overcome when it comes to recovering fully from the Tommy John operation.

Physical Barrier
There are many physical challenges that face a pitcher when he is in recovery mode.  Some pitchers have to adjust their throwing motion in order to be comfortable on the mound following the procedure.  This can mean a loss of velocity on the array of pitches that a pitcher has in their repertoire.  Aaron Gleeman spent time looking at Liriano's recovery during the middle of this past season.  This picture from Gleeman's post show how close Liriano's throwing motion was back to form by comparing him before Tommy John surgery and after the surgery.  You can see a slight change in the height of his arm at the release point.
For right now there is only the before surgery version of Joe Nathan.  Nathan stand taller than Liriano and has a higher release point.  It will be interesting to see if Nathan's physical stance on the mound has to change because of the surgery.
As a fan I found great comfort in seeing Nathan on the field training with the Twins at the end of the 2010 season.  It was a boost of confidence to see that he was healthy and still a part of the team even if he wasn't able to contribute directly on the field.  He was getting his body physically ready for what ever challenges will face him in the 2011 season.
Mental Barrier
Athletes are going to remember their last time on a mound and for a pitcher like Nathan that was a painful experience.  There is a mental barrier to cross before thoughts of re-injuring that elbow are going to leave a players mind.  Thoughts like:
Is it okay to throw my fastball that hard again?
Is throwing a breaking pitch going to snap that ligament?
Is that newly constructed ligament  going to be able to withstand the riggers of a major league season.

It is going to take time for a pitcher to be able to trust his arm again.  It is a very mental process that a player has to spend some time on to recover from.  Nathan is going to spend Spring Training trying to regain his form.  That form might not be reached next season and there are good odds that Matt Capps will start the season as the closer of the Twins.  That is also another mental issue that Nathan will have to deal with next season.  He won't be pitching in the bottom of the 9th with the pressure on him.  A lot of closers have a tough time getting in the right mental state when they come into a game in a non-save situation.

During the entire recovery process he has being saying all of the right things to get himself in the right state of mind.  In a recent interview he said that at the beginning of Spring Training he wants to prove that he is "fully capable of going 100 percent right out of the chute."

He is starting to make his way over the mental barriers which is an important step in the right direction.

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