Saturday, February 20, 2010

J. Zimmermann's long road back

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VIERA, Fla. -- When Nationals pitchers and catchers hold their first official workout of the season tomorrow morning, Jordan Zimmermann will stand alongside his teammates. He'll be wearing his No. 27 jersey and jump from field to field, each one featuring a different fundamentals station: fielding bunts, pickoff moves, covering first base.

But each time the young right-hander picks up the ball, he'll have to cut it short. Unlike everyone else, he won't be allowed to complete all his throws, certainly not with much force. Such is life for a guy rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He's part of Nats camp, and yet he's not really part of Nats camp.

Zimmermann, though, is trying to look at the bright side. He may not be able to fully participate in drills, but this sure beats sitting at home in frigid Wisconsin fishing and hunting with his old high school and college buddies.

"It wasn't fun in the first couple of months when I couldn't do anything," he said. "It's a lot easier now that I can go outside and actually toss a ball each day instead of just going to the training room."

A year ago, Zimmermann was gearing up for his first big-league camp, knowing he had a good chance to earn a spot in the Opening Day rotation. He didn't technically make it -- he opened the season at Class AAA Syracuse -- but he was designated the Nats' No. 5 starter and thus was in the big leagues by late April pitching against Chipper Jones and the Braves.

Over the next three months, Zimmermann made some significant strides. His final numbers (3-5, 4.63 ERA) didn't totally reflect it, but he dominated on more than one occasion, and his 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings rate was the highest among Washington's starting pitchers.

But then he started feeling twinges in his right elbow sometime in early summer, and by the time the All-Star break rolled around, an MRI revealed a torn ligament in the elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. Recovery time: 12-to-18 months.

Looking back, Zimmermann says he wouldn't have done anything different.

"I don't think so," the 23-year-old said. "It's just the way I've been pitching my whole life. I don't know if just over the years it gave up on me. My mechanics weren't that bad, I don't think. Everyone else said it was just a freak thing that happened."

Progress since the surgery has been slow but steady. He's now throwing from as much as 105 feet. Sometimes there's pain or weakness, but that's all part of the process. Matt Chico knows the feeling. The left-hander went through this same ordeal one year ago, and he's counseled Zimmermann along the way, telling his teammate what to expect.

"I remember the first time I tried to throw after the surgery, it was from 45 feet," Chico said. "My first one, I bounced it about 20 feet. My second, I launched it over his head."

Tough as it is, Zimmermann has to remind himself not to push things too hard. This will take time, and recovery doesn't happen overnight.

"All the guys I talk to say you're going to feel good one day and the next day you're going to feel like you can't even throw," he said. "But I've talked to Chico. He just went through it last year and he just said you've got to keep throwing, keep throwing, keep throwing and just keep building it up. Even on the days where it doesn't feel the greatest, you've got to keep throwing and keep it up."

If all goes well, Zimmermann hopes to be back pitching sometime in August, 12 months after the surgery. But he knows he can't just assume that will happen.

He's only reached the halfway point of a long journey back, and as most pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery will tell you, it still takes time to re-learn how to pitch once you're 100 percent healthy and back on the mound. For now, Zimmermann is just glad to be soaking up the sun, wearing a uniform and standing alongside his teammates. Even if he can't uncork a baseball like the rest of them.

"It's good to be down here and be with everyone else," he said. "I'm not going to sit down here and sulk over it because they can go out and throw and I can't. It's something that happens, and you have to deal with it."


natsfan1a said...

And this was different from Chico's regular season form how? Sorry, just couldn't resist the memory of that one WWWP in Miami. :-) Seriously, I wish Chico and Zimmermann well with their respective recoveries and look forward to seeing both of them healthy and back on the mound.


"I remember the first time I tried to throw after the surgery, it was from 45 feet," Chico said. "My first one, I bounced it about 20 feet. My second, I launched it over his head."

(j)on said...

I always wonder what pitchers mean when they say "relearn how to pitch". Is it arm slot? Is it release point? I guess I don't understand because I haven't had major ligament replacement surgery. I'd like to see real in depth info about Tommy John (not here, just in general) about physical difference before and after surgery.

Andrew said...

Such a great kid with so much athletic promise. When I saw him last Spring and then his first 2 starts against the Braves and Mets, I knew this young man was special.

Can't wait to see him back on the mound. He is the future of all things good to look forward to with the Washington Nationals!

JayB said...


Is Foli's role with the Nats this season unique in baseball? If not what other teams are using what sounds like a full time pre game drills coach? Is he going to institute a new routine for pre game this year and will that include take pre game infield/outfield and if not why not.....I watched Japan in the WBC a few years back every day before games and that team sure did NOT look like 143 errors to me.

JayB said...

Oh and Mark,

You can count that as my question if you want....just make sure you follow up if the answer is nothing new and no infield per game because at this level they do not need it...that is BS....If Japan still does it and MLB did it for 100 years....I want Foli to honestly address the issue....I doubt very much he believes this or any team would not benefit from working together on perfection for 20 mins before they start a game each day.

Farid in Idaho said...


Here's a question I've never heard asked:

What happened to pitchers in the world of pre-Tommy John Surgery?

Let's say Jordan Zimmermann pitched for the Senators in 1945 and had the same injury. What then?

Was his career over and was the owner of a useless elbow, or with rest would he be able to return to the major leagues as a somewhat servicable--but not star--pitcher?

Did this kind of injury have a different name back then? Was this known as a "dead arm?"

Put on your Secret Agent hat and Johnny Rivers specs and see what you can find out, okay?

Anonymous said...


These sort of injuries are rarely the result of a single, traumatic event but rather caused by long term wear and tear. As they continue to pitch as there injury developes, their biomechanics change to lessen the stresses placed on the injured part. By the time they finally break down, they are pitching much differently than when they were fully healthy. However, when they start throwing again after surgery, their muscle memory remembers how they were pitching most recently, rather than the weeks or months earlier when they were fully healthy. So it takes them awhile to get back to their best form.
Incidently, this change in biomechanics can cause a shoulder injury because of a previous elbow injury, (or vice-versa). Likewise, a hip injury can be due to a knee injury (to lessen pain on one side of knee, you rotate your leg in or out, which changes how the leg interacts with the hip).

Mark Zuckerman said...

To answer the question about what happened back in the old days, basically a guy's career was over. You'd hear about pitchers trying to throw with a sore elbow, and they'd go on as long as possible. But once something snapped or it became too painful to continue, there was no recourse. The procedure invented by Dr. Frank Jobe and performed on Tommy John really revolutionized sports. Perhaps the Hall of Fame should consider enshrining Jobe one of these days, because you could argue his contributions to the sport are just as significant (if not more) than plenty of guys who are already in Cooperstown.

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