Although Tommy John surgery has become almost a routine medical procedure for pitchers in high-level baseball, to have three cases affect a team in the same season is less common. That is what the Long Beach State Dirtbags have had to endure this year after a trio of arms were forced to sit out while recovering from the major impediment to their careers.
“Losing three quality pitchers is most definitely a setback,” head coach Troy Buckley said. “We lost a total of 170 innings from last year, and that is difficult to replace.”
Sophomores Connor Riley and Matt Fields and senior John Sheaks had their right arms cut into to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow within four months of each other. The procedure involves removing a similar ligament from another part of the body, sometimes the left wrist or even the hamstring, and using it to reattach the UCL together. The recovery time varies from 12 to 16 months.
Surgery date: Oct. 18, 2017
In 2017, Riley made 25 appearances and was the Dirtbags’ hardest thrower with a fastball in the low 90 mph range. Following Long Beach’s playoff run, Riley found out the news that he had significant damage to his UCL and would need to have surgery.
“When the team loses your spot and what you do, it sucks knowing that they are trying to replace that,” Riley said.
It has been six months since his procedure and he is now just a few weeks away from beginning preliminary throwing. Primed to come back to the Dirtbags’ bullpen in 2019, Riley will be a welcomed returner to a very thin arsenal of relievers.
“I’m getting stronger,” he said. “It’s a long road and it’s tedious but I am starting to see some big strides now.”
Surgery date: Oct. 25, 2017
Fields began last season as one of the three starting pitchers featured in the Dirtbags rotation. Over five games and 16 ⅓ innings, he posted a record of 2-0 with a 3.31 ERA. His season was cut short due to a lingering shoulder injury that made him unavailable for a major portion of the year.
When Fields found out he also had an injury to his elbow requiring Tommy John, Long Beach aligned the surgery dates so that he and Riley would be on similar rehab schedules. Fields will also begin throwing in just a few weeks.
“It’s a hectic process so we’ve built a pretty good relationship having to go through it together,” Fields said.
The right-hander from nearby Lakewood High School will be a front runner for a rotation spot should he stay on schedule with his return date.
Surgery date: Feb. 21, 2018
Sheaks was perhaps the biggest loss to the Dirtbags’ roster, going down with injury just one week before the season was scheduled to start. He was set up to be the staff’s ace pitcher after returning from a 2017 season, when he went 8-4 with a 4.09 ERA over 14 starts.
“It was rough because my arm felt fine after the injury,” Sheaks said. “Then to find out that I had fully torn it and to hear the doctor use the word ‘shredded’ wasn’t easy for me.”
Seeing his senior season end before it began, he is in a much different situation than the younger pitchers affected by the injury. He will plead his case with the NCAA to be eligible to return for a sixth year. Because of the timing of the injury, Sheaks will not be ready to pitch competitively until 2020.
“I’ll be 23,” Sheaks said. “I think that’s kind of funny because when I think about it, I’ll be the team grandpa. I get along great with the younger guys and they’ll still be my teammates.”
Buckley is confident that the issue does not reside in the throwing program that Long Beach implores. The Dirtbags’ coaching staff has taken the proper precautions to avoid overuse including limiting the workload on 2017 staff ace Darren McCaughan after he surpassed the 100 inning mark last year.
“The thing about injuries and Tommy John specifically is that it’s a cumulative effect of things that have happened,” Buckley said. “The throwing program itself is not what hurts players. We feel really good about the job we do with [the pitchers].”
As detrimental as an injury to the UCL is for a pitcher, Tommy John surgery typically yields positive results and impact on a players career. Barring any major setbacks, all three injured Dirtbags could potentially toe the slab for Long Beach again in the future.