When might May return?
It’s obviously difficult to know the answer to that question. One tremendous source for fans regarding Tommy John surgery is Jon Roegele’sexcellent Tommy John surgery list. It provides a lot of information on those who have had the surgery, which organization they were with, when the surgery was, when they returned, and which doctor performed the surgery. It's a very valuable tool for fans.
The generic timeline for recovery of pitchers is 12-14 months, but the range really is more like 11-24 months. And even that is very dependent upon when the surgery happens. I mean, if a guy has the surgery in August, they’re going to miss the entire next season, but because there are two offseasons involved, it’s likely he won’t pitch in a game for 20-22 months.
Lewis Thorpe and Fernando Romero both needed two years to return, but both of them had a setback in their recovery. Romero needed knee surgery. Thorpe lost time due to mono. Brusdar Graterol missed nearly two years as well, but he had surgery in August 2015, missed all of 2016, and didn’t return until the GCL season started in June of 2017.
On the other side of things, Kyle Gibson returned to the mound just under 12 months from his surgery date. Joe Nathan returned just over a year after his 2010 Tommy John surgery. Alex Wimmers returned in 11 months.
May’s most recent Twitter update on his arm came about three weeks ago. On November 13, he tweeted, “75 throws at 105 today. That’s a lot. And I’m fired up.”
That doesn’t tell us when he’ll be back and able to pitch, but it tells us that things are progressing very nicely for the right-hander.
It’s also possible, depending upon where May is in his rehab during spring training, that he could spend a month or two in the minor leagues building up arm strength in a controlled environment before bringing him back to the big leagues. That would not be a terrible idea, and depending on the role he’s brought back for, it might make the most sense.
What Is The Best Role for May?
Here is another question that we just don’t have any great answer for. There are so many variables that go into that, including things that are completely out of his control, like the Twins front office acquiring starters or relievers this offseason.
A quick look back in time tells us that there are three (sort of) possibilities for guys returning from Tommy John.
1 - Starters Come Back As Starters
2 - Relievers Come Back As Relievers
The first two sound really simple, right. I mean, if a guy was a starter before he had Tommy John surgery, he tends most often to come back as a starting pitcher. There are several examples of starters who came back as strong as they were before the surgery, sometimes even better. Maybe the best example of that is Tommy John himself. He notched 164 wins in the big leagues after having the surgery that is named after him. Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter, Jordan Zimmerman. The list goes on and on of starting pitchers who have come back to all-star caliber after surgery. Kerry Wood came back as a quality starter after his surgery following his Rookie of the Year season.
Likewise, relievers come back as relievers. Billy Wagner was back as the Astros closer in under a year and continued to dominate. Joe Nathan returned to dominance following his first Tommy John surgery. Pat Neshek took a little time to get back to his pre-surgery self, but he has come back to all-star levels and multi-year extensions.
3 - The John Smoltz Option (Starter Becomes Reliever)
The best example of a player shifting roles after Tommy John is Hall of Famer John Smoltz. He was a tremendous starting pitcher for many years before his surgery. When he came back from his surgery, he made a handful of starts before taking over the Atlanta closer role. He went on to save 154 games over the next three-plus seasons. He became the best closer in the game for a short period. But then he went back to starting, in his fifth season after surgery. He made 100 starts over the next three years and was twice an All-Star.
Kerry Wood had shoulder surgery later in his career, and at that point, he came back as a closer and was good for a couple of years.
Smoltz has talked in the past about the decision to move into that closer role. Essentially, he wasn’t able to eat as many inningsas before his return, and more important, the Braves were a contending team in need of a reliable closer. Smoltz was able to not only fill that role, but dominate in it.
But he did want to get back into a starting role. He talked about how he was able to develop a consistent routine, know his schedule for running, throwing, side sessions, etc. He didn’t have to worry about throwing every day. He was able to adequately rest.
What About May?
Which category does May fit into? That’s the tough part that we just don’t know. Starters come back as starters. Relievers come back as relievers. Well, is May a starter or a reliever? I mean, he came up as a starter, but he became a threat in the bullpen for a couple of years. He missed time in 2016 with a back injury that cost him a lot of time in the season's second half. There was thought that he could help mitigate that stress by starting. That’s the role he went into spring training 2017 fighting for. He was being given every opportunity to be a starter.
Until that fateful start against Team USA in a WBC exhibition game in Ft. Myers. That night, he felt discomfort in his elbow. A month later, he had the surgery.
For me, I would probably bring him back as a starter. At least that’s how I would handle his return. To me, that would be much easier on his arm and body, and it might be helpful mentally as he works through the ups and downs of a return. Then again, spring training itself is a very regimented program, especially for pitchers. They know when they’ll pitch (starters and relievers). They plan several days ahead for who will pitch and how many pitches.
In other words, like all injuries or player development or anything, it has to be individualized.
It’s likely that Trevor May, Paul Molitor, Thad Levine and Derek Falvey will have several conversations before spring training, and then throughout spring training.
So there are two questions for the Twins Daily readers to consider:
- What do you think the Twins and May should decide?
- What do you think that the Twins and May will decide?
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