In the forth and final installment of the Tommy John articles, I was able to interview a former college ballplayer at Division II Erskine College. Ben Whitehead is also a writer for Red Sox Life.
Ben Whitehead Photo Credit: MiLB.com
The first question I asked Ben was about his baseball background and his experience with Tommy John. Ben was recruited by several schools in the Southeast out of high school. He is originally from South Carolina. “In high school, I had some elbow pains every now and then, but never severe enough to keep me out. While in college, I started on a throwing program, which really excited me. I felt my arm and my body were finally going to develop properly. With my 6’3”, 220 lb frame, I felt like my 84-86 mph would get to closer to 90. On the first or second day from winter break, I was scheduled to pitch in an intrasquad game. In the bullpen, everything was normal and then I threw a pitch. My catcher at the time said it was the hardest he had ever seen me throw. That pitch made me feel like my arm had fallen off from the elbow down.” Ben went in to the have the customary MRI for these types of injuries a few days later and that was when he discovered that he had a partially torn UCL.
With the partially torn UCL diagnosis, Ben was prescribed rest and rehab and no surgery. He was to take 2 months off from throwing all together. He was able to start throwing again in April on flat ground and then from a mound again in May. Ben said, “I wanted to throw 10 pitches off the mound in May, just to see how it felt, and where my velocity was. I threw 3 of 10 pitches at 86 MPH. My pitching coach was ecstatic and my arm felt great. I pitched in the summer league, came back in the fall, and that is when everything pretty much fell apart. My velocity dipped to 80-82 mph, my arm hurt nearly every time I threw a ball or the next day after. It caused me to lose confidence in my stuff.” Losing confidence in anything you do, is never good especially for a pitcher, who is tasked to throw each pitch with conviction and precision as to fool the hitters.
The next question I asked Ben was about his rehab and how he was mentally during the process. Ben said, “Rehab was fine, there were a lot of days sitting in the training room hooked up to machines. I was advised by trainers, based on my mechanics, to strengthen my shoulders and upper back. I did a lot of exercises geared towards that. Things like rows, pull downs, shoulder presses. It was very eye opening for me, as I was someone who worked out to gain muscle mass. I never thought about how strengthening those muscle groups would help me as a pitcher, not only would I feel less fatigue, it would also help my mechanics. My mechanics would be better because these muscles would help keep my arm slot higher and help me lead with my elbow.”
Dr. James Andrews Photo Cred: AP File
As previously mentioned, Ben did try to come back and pitch. He pitched in the summer after his injury. Even though his velocity was never recorded in the summer he told me, “ Several baseball coaches told me they would not be surprised if I was throwing in the upper 80s. There were a few games that summer when I felt really strong in the later innings. I attributed that to the rehab. When I got back to school in the fall and went back on the throwing program, I did less of what I learned in rehab and that led to me fatiguing more which led to a drop in my arm angle.”
The final question I asked Ben is the same final question I have asked all of my interviews, and that was whether he or not he thought all pitchers would eventually require this surgery? Ben offered this, “I certainly hope all pitchers don’t have this surgery. Remember this surgery is a restoration surgery. Something has been torn and needs repaired. If pitchers, especially young ones, take care of their arms and bodies with proper preparation, rest and devoted instruction, I think it can be avoided. A lot of that is put on the shoulders of the parents and little league coaches. They need to be educated and that is the best advice I can give. If you have a son who is wanting to become a pitcher, even at the age of 8 or 10, do your research. Follow the advice set forth by Dr. James Andrews. His medical expertise on this shouldn’t be questioned and should be at the forefront of every baseball players and parents mind. Once you understand the importance of the need for rest and playing other positions or sports. Make sure you are coachable, and follow your coach’s instructions. Find a pitching coach and take lessons. Work hard to do what they say, so your arm will be in correct position throughout your delivery. Wear and tear are sure to happen, so you are not guaranteed to not have the surgery just with proper mechanics. Everyone is built different and some pitcher’s arms, tendons, and ligaments will all wear differently than others. Taking care of your arm the experts advise should not be ignored.”
It was great to interview Ben and I thank him for his time. I hope you all enjoyed reading these articles as much as I enjoyed writing them.