More than 85 percent of pitchers who undergo Tommy John Surgery make a complete recovery. The same cannot be said for those who undergo torn labrum surgery.
Recovering from a torn labrum may be the hardest battle a pitcher can face. At just 25 years old, Texarkana native John Stilson has already met that challenge – twice.
Back in May of 2011, when he was a junior at Texas A&M, he tore his labrum for the first time. He missed out on the NCAA Regional Tournament and his draft stock plummeted. The projected first rounder fell to the Toronto Blue Jays in the third round.
Stilson faced a tough decision: undergo surgery or rest up and try to pitch in 2012. He chose to forgo it as the Blue Jays did not advise him either way.
“They just told me: rehab,” he explained. “There was really no talk about surgery or anything because the doctor who took a look at me and he think I needed surgery either when I came down. I just had to deal with what was going on. They were happy. If I could go out there and perform, there was nothing to it. There was no need to having the surgery. I was doing well and it wasn’t bothering me.”
Originally, it appeared as though Stilson may make his MLB debut in 2013 after making his pro debut in 2012. After all, as he posted a 2.09 ERA in 33 games for the Buffalo Bisons (Blue Jays Triple-A affiliate). Not a member of the 40-man roster, his name was omitted from their September call-ups. But he was not upset about it.
“That’s not my decision to be made,” he explained. “I was just going out there, pitching and having a good time. If I would have got called up, great. If not, I was happy with my season and I was set to have a good year the next year too. That really wasn’t a concern to me. I was happy I was healthy at the end of a season.”
And in 2014, it looked as though he would definitely make his big league debut as he posted a 1.36 ERA in 17 outings from May 1 onward. He felt great and his numbers indicated that he could have been an asset to the Blue Jays bullpen. But he tore his labrum for the second time of his career in June of 2014, putting an end to his season.
Last year, he was limited to just one outing before the pain set in and he was shut down so headed into this season, he essentially had not pitched nearly two years.
“I was down in Florida, rehabbing the whole time,” he explained. “Did a lot of praying and everything like that. But I had some good buddies down there. We were rehab warriors down there trying to get back right with everything.
“I did a lot of fishing while I was down there to try to kill some time. I mean, just keeping myself sane down there. Not being able to pitch – not on a team either. It’s been a grind. I can say I’m a lot stronger now than when all of this was happening, when I hurt my shoulders and everything. I’m happy I’m playing baseball again.”
The Blue Jays are not rushing Stilson’s recovery as he opened up this season with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Blue Jays Double-A affiliate). So far, his results have been encouraging. He is 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA in 10 outings.
It is also worth noting his velocity is back up. His fastball is sitting in the 92-95 MPH range and he is topping out at 96 MPH — nearly what he was throwing before surgery.
“The arm feels really good,” he said. “I’m bouncing back after I throw. That’s exciting. That’s been my problem the last year or so. I’d go pitch. But then I couldn’t really recover and go pitch again. Everything’s going real well. I feel real good. Each time out, it feels a little bit better. I’m really excited about it.”
Stilson said he seems to feel better each time he goes out. Right now, he and his coaches are working to calm his violent delivery, a delivery that could have been a contributing factor to his injuries.
“I’m still a little wild out there on the mound, a little high energy,” he explained. “I’m a high energy guy. But I just tone it down a bit. We want it to be smoother on my arm and for me to use my legs a little bit more.”
If he pitches like he did in 2013-2014, Stilson could finally be in line for a big league call-up this season.
“It would be very rewarding if I could make it to where I think I could be had I not gotten hurt,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, I’m not going to be upset because I know I’ve overcome a lot, a lot more than some guys can say they’ve done with shoulder surgery.
“I’m just happy to be able to go out and play baseball for a living every day. Wherever I’m pitching at, I’m happy and I’m glad I’m not hurt.”