Kris Medlen was just two days away from what should have been his first ever opening day start. Brandon Beachy was less than a week away from what would have been his chance to pitch the first game of the season series against the Nationals.
Both Medlen and Beachy had their surgically-repaired elbows in arm braces, when they rejoined their Braves teammates briefly Saturday in Rome - the kind of apparel which left their uniforms looking more like the accessory.
But that doesn’t mean either one was walking around in pity mode. When Medlen and Beachy met assembled media for their first round of post-op media interviews – Medlen had surgery March 18 and Beachy on March 21 - they sounded proactive.
“Here we go again,” said Beachy, arm still in a cast and sling, when asked about his mindset. “Got to get it right this time.”
The 2014 season hadn’t even started yet and both Medlen and Beachy were already formulating plans for their comebacks. They had strong ideas about what they had done and were going to do differently this time.
For Medlen, those efforts center on his pitching mechanics.
“Obviously there are theories, but for me the fact that I was able to come back and pitch for two years after surgery means that the first surgery worked,” Medlen said. “But I didn’t change anything mechanically from what I was doing before.”
Medlen was already studying his mechanics on the computer before he’d had a chance to meet with the Braves video coordinator.
“Once I blew out the second time, I wasn’t googling surgeons or like anything like that,” said Medlen, who went to Dr. James Andrews for both operations. “I was googling myself, looking at pictures and coming in and looking at film of what I was doing mechanically, which I probably should have done the first time around. But I’ve got to push that the second time around, make some adjustments.”
Medlen was 10 days out from surgery on Saturday, when he was sitting on a picnic table in the Rome clubhouse, where the Braves were preparing for an exhibition game before heading to Milwaukee for the opener. He’d just gotten out of his cast two days earlier, and had on a more forgiving, flexible metal brace.
Already Medlen had ideas about changes he wanted to make in his delivery, “being a former infielder, my mechanics used to be a lot shorter, a lot tighter and over time I’ve gotten kind of long,” said Medlen, who played shortstop in high school and junior college.
“It’s all timing and what muscles you’re engaging and what muscles you’re not engaging,” said Medlen, who had already spoken on the phone to pitching coach Roger McDowell about some changes he wanted to make.
Medlen is also thinking about going back to pitching from the right side of the rubber, which he did coming up.
“I’ve made adjustments up here to get outs because that’s what you need to do to succeed, but I’ve kind of left myself hanging with the whole injury thing,” Medlen said. “There’s no point in getting outs for a short amount of time when you need to try to do that for a longer period of time….”
“(Studying mechanics) probably seems really boring, but that’s just something I need to approach this second time around to make sure this doesn’t happen again, because if it does, I’m going to be done and that’s no fun.”
Beachy returned from his first Tommy John only long enough to make four major league starts last summer before feeling the elbow discomfort again in his fifth. So when it became clear this spring he would need a second Tommy John surgery in a span of 21 months, Beachy sought opinions from both Andrews, who performed his first Tommy John, and Dodgers physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache.
Beachy decided to go with Dr. ElAttrache, a protégé of Frank Jobe, the pioneer of Tommy John surgery.
“I didn’t have my mind made up one way or another where to have the surgery done,” said Beachy of his first visit to Andrews in Pensacola, Fla. before flying out to see ElAttrache in L.A. “Just when I got out there it just felt right.”
Beachy had a tendon transplanted from his wrist during the procedure Andrews did. This time ElAttrache used a graft from a cadaver.
Like Medlen, Beachy is also planning to make some mechanical adjustments. This time around he wants to focus more on his arm path, in addition to his lower body.
“There are some little things in there that hopefully can alleviate a little of the stress off the elbow and not completely change my mechanics,” Beachy said.
Beachy will keep a close eye on Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Daniel Hudson, who is attempting a comeback this year from his second Tommy John surgery. Hudson’s operations were only 11 months apart.
Pitchers like Hudson, Medlen, Beachy and Braves left-hander Jonny Venters, who’s making his own comeback from a second Tommy John, serve as research for each other.
As common as Tommy John surgery is - a procedure that’s been in practice since 1974 - Medlen and Beachy are only the 25th and 26th pitchers to undergo a “revision” surgery, or a second Tommy John operation, since 1999.
Some project only 20 to 30 percent of pitchers who undergo a second surgery to make it back to pitch at their pre-Tommy John form. Those odds are long, and it’s why Medlen and Beachy are so determined to figure a way to beat them.
“It’s been exhausting mentally,” Beachy said of his second ulnar collateral ligament tear. “Way more so than physically. But it’s not going to stop me. It’s not going to slow me down. I’m going to do what I have to do, and I’m going to get back out there.”