Mike Pelfrey, or “the Big Pelf’ as he is called, towers at six feet, seven inches tall.
Because of his substantial stature, it is likely that when Pelfrey starts saying that he will be ready to pitch by April this year, there is nary a person around to tell him otherwise. Even the Minnesota Twins figure that Pelfrey, who had Tommy John surgery in May 2012, will be ready by the opener, less than a year after the procedure.
“If the season started tomorrow, I would have worked up to be ready at this point,” Pelfrey told MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger. “Realistically, after 7 ½ months, I threw 90 pitches to hitters, so I could pitch [now]. They told me the other day, ‘No restrictions. You’re on the schedule with everybody else.’ That’s what I wanted.”
He has reportedly thrown 40 mound sessions since the surgery and has zero setbacks thus far. There is no question that he is doing everything possible to be ready by April 1. An interesting comparison to Pelfrey’s development will be to monitor how the Chicago Cubs prepare for former Twin Scott Baker’s return from the same injury.
When Baker was signed the past November, the Cubs raved about his progress. They were teeming with optimism that Baker would be a key component of the team’s success right away, mostly based on his rehabilitation.
“There are no certainties with rehabs, but we spent quite a lot of time on the medical (evaluation) and (looking into) his rehab,” said Chicago team president Theo Epstein. “It was described by our medical staff as an ideal Tommy John’s rehab, so far. Knock on wood. Everything has gone perfectly so far. He’s really attacked it in an ideal manner.”
Fast forward to yesterday and Chicago’s field staff communicated a different message. Manager Dale Sveum said that the team was planning on “babying” him through spring training and that Baker had an “above-average” chance of missing the start of the regular season.
What does Scott Baker’s timeline have to do with Mike Pelfrey?
Baker had his Tommy John surgery almost two week prior to Pelfrey. Like Pelfrey, Baker’s rehab was thought to be going exceptionally well. He was throwing off of flat ground by August 8 and was throwing from more than 120 feet in September. In November, following his signing, the Cubs officials expressed adulation of his progress.
During the time Baker began throwing again last August, Pelfrey was in Wichita where he played college ball. There, he helped coach an 18-year-old local team who was heading to a national tournament. Pelfrey took the opportunity to tell reporters that the medical staff and Mets’ organization had advised him to shoot for a May 2012 return based on the 12-month timeline post-surgery, but his own personal goal would be to be ready by opening day.
By the middle of August last year, reports emerged that Pelfrey would be throwing on flat ground “soon.” Already he was few weeks behind Baker’s timeline but it appeared to be slipping further off target. When the Twins signed him in December, Pelfrey told reporters that he was confident that he would be 100% by opening day.
"I'm on track for Jan. 15. So everything is going well," Pelfrey told ESPN.com’s Adam Rubin. " came back in seven months (from Tommy John surgery)…I'll definitely be ready when spring training rolls around."
True, Hudson came back quickly, but his actual recovery time was a bit longer than what Pelfrey relayed to the press. While he did return to pitch in the minors for a brief spell 10 months after his 2008 Tommy John surgery day, it wasn’t until 12 months after his surgery date that Hudson was throwing in the majors again – and even that was September work with the off-season ahead of him to rest. Essentially, Hudson jumped into the marathon near the end of the finish line whereas Pelfrey is expecting to run up to the starting line of the race and toss 180-plus innings.
Locally, fans will remember Joe Nathan’s slow return to form in 2011. Nathan received the gift of a new UCL in March 2010 and busted his butt to get back on the hill by the start of the 2011 season. Nathan said all the right things, just like Pelfrey: I don’t want to be babied, I feel great, etc. After a clean spring training, Nathan was brought to Minnesota in what turned out to be a premature decision. It took the Twins nearly two months of the season, three home runs, two blown saves and a 7.63 ERA, to realize that Nathan was not ready. He was sent to Rochester to break up some scar tissue and came back effective for the second-half of the season.
This week, Baker reportedly threw 40 pitches at 70 percent effort in response to the Cubs’ babying program. Meanwhile, early dispatches from Fort Myers suggest the new Twin one-upped the former Twin and has overtaken him in the race for the return. In his first bullpen session of the year, Pelfrey threw 50 pitches.
There are plenty of reasons why Pelfrey may actually come back quicker than expected. His size suggests that he can take pressure off his arm. His relatively low injury history may mean he is less injury prone in general. He may have X-Men DNA and heal freakishly fast like Adrian Peterson. This is to say, every individual repairs themselves differently and at different intervals. Still, research tells us that the time to return to form from Tommy John surgery is 12-to-18 months. Hard work and great genes may help Pelfrey target May – closer to the one-year anniversary of his new elbow – but anything earlier than that could be risking a setback (like Joe Nathan).
The Twins may be supportive to the public of Pelfrey’s return but, at the same time, gathering insurance quietly such as signing left-hander Rafael Perez, someone assistant GM Rob Antony believes can be stretched out into a starter, to a minor league contract. Perez -- along with Rich Harden and in-house candidates like Liam Hendriks, Cole DeVries and Sam Deduno -- may be the safety net the front office is preparing in the event Pelfrey is not ready by April.
At his age and his relatively low injury-risk in general, Mike Pelfrey is almost certain to rebound. Never say never but, if history has any indication, the likelihood of him pitching effectively in April appears low.
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