Matt Gelb here. Just 16 days until pitchers and catchers...
In today's Inquirer, we chronicled what could be one of the potential heartwarming stories for the spring -- Scott Mathieson's comeback bid from three elbow surgeries.
Mathieson told me he just began throwing off a mound for the first time this off-season last week and all is well so far. One reason why he is especially optimistic this time is that his right arm feels nothing like it did after the other surgeries. After his first two surgeries, it just never felt right. This time, it does.
In the story, we mention how rare of a comeback this is for a pitcher. So how rare is it? After some extensive and thorough research, it appears 13 pitchers have played in the majors after two Tommy John surgeries. Those pitchers are (in somewhat chronological order, most recent first):
Now that list isn't the definitive, but it cannot be far off. Consider this passage from a 2007 USA Today story:
According to statistics maintained by his office, [James] Andrews performed 1,169 Tommy John surgeries over the 12-year span from 1994 until 2005. Of those, only 12 players were going for their second elbow reconstruction.
For those 12, the success rate -- a pitcher making it to his presurgery level of baseball -- is about 20%, Andrews estimates.
Before performing his second Tommy John surgery on pitcher Doug Brocail, Thomas Mehlhoff, a physician with the Houston Astros, gave even more staggering odds.
"Dr. Mehlhoff gave me a 5% chance of a comeback, and I said, 'With your 5% and my 95%, I'll pitch again,'" said Brocail, 40, a reliever for the San Diego Padres.
Brocail has appeared in 161 major league games since the September 2002 operation.
But for every Reyes or Brocail who has some success after returning, there are many more who do not.
Obviously, those numbers have changed significantly in the last five years with more players going for their second Tommy John. A request for more recent statistics from Andrews' office wasn't returned. Mathieson had his procedures done by Andrews. Three other pitchers are attempting to make a comeback similar to Mathieson this spring: Shawn Hill (Toronto), Tyler Yates (Pittsburgh) and Chris Capuano (Milwaukee).
Interestingly enough, of the 13 pitchers who made it back on our list, nine of them are relievers. Mathieson, of course, came up as a starter when he was a top prospect. The Phillies brought him back from these surgeries as a reliever hoping that shorter bursts and strain on his arm would benefit.
His numbers in 2009 were very impressive. If you combine his regular-season statistics in the minors with his numbers from the Arizona Fall League, Mathieson allowed a total of 7 runs in 45 innings for a 1.40 ERA. His velocity is nearly at where it was pre-surgery and he has greater confidence in his changeup. Being able to effectively throw his slider as an out pitch will be the key this spring.
Granted, the Phillies would probably prefer it if Mathieson began the season in the minors. After all, he only threw 45 innings last year coming off of three major surgeries. But if Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero are not ready to start the season and Mathieson has an impressive spring, he could very well make the team out of camp.
Mathieson has become good friends with fellow reliever Mike Zagurski, who is also making a comeback from surgery. They both live near Clearwater, Fla., and have been rehab partners.
"Zagurski and I are working together and push each other a little bit," Mathieson said. "He’s a little ahead of me last year when he came back. We’re both going to spring training with hopes of impressing people. We’re both trying to be more than ready."