For advice and support, right-hander Michael Kopech has good company to lean on in the White Sox’ clubhouse the next 18 months.
Kopech, 22, the No. 2 prospect in the organization, has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow that will require Tommy John surgery. Barring a different second opinion, the surgery will sideline him until 2020.
Sox pitchers Lucas Giolito and Jace Fry have three Tommy John surgeries between them. Their advice for Kopech: Be positive, put in the work and trust the process.
“I’m not worried at all about his recovery process,” Giolito said. “He’s going to get the surgery, recover from it well, get through the [physical-therapy] rehab, and he’ll be just as good as he was, if not better.”
Kopech’s absence will be a blow to the Sox’ aspirations in 2019, but Giolito and Fry said he can come back from the surgery mentally and physically stronger.
Giolito, a 2012 first-round pick, had Tommy John surgery in ’12 less than two months after signing with the Nationals. He said the recovery process helped him develop a “certain mental toughness” that he has maintained.
Fry had Tommy John surgery in college in 2012, then again as a Sox prospect in 2015. He said his recovery helped him learn his body and develop a routine to stay healthy.
“It’s taken five or six years to build [my routine],” Fry said. “And now I feel great in September. Tommy John gives you 10 to 14 months to figure out your own body and figure out what works for you.”
Both pitchers said there were unintended physical benefits, too. For Fry, it was increased velocity on his slider.
Giolito actually discovered a new pitch.
“This is something I don’t talk about very often, but Tommy John actually gave me my changeup,” he said. “I didn’t have a change at all as an amateur player in high school.
“[After the surgery], I threw a changeup grip on, and it pretty much developed the changeup I have right now. Before the surgery, I had no feel for a changeup. Those weird things can happen. In that case, it helped me become a better, more complete pitcher. Obviously, a lot of work still has to be done, but that’s just kind of one little thing that I got out of it.”
Of course, there will be challenges for Kopech. And while Giolito and Fry have inspiring stories of their recoveries, it’s not typical for pitchers to perform better after the surgery.
The American Sports Medicine Institute released a position paper in 2014 that disputed the idea that Tommy John surgery makes pitchers stronger. The paper said the combination of fixing the tear and the work players put in after the surgery is what makes them perform better. It went on to say that performance actually decreases over time for MLB pitchers after Tommy John surgery.
Giolito said there are two parts to the recovery process. First, the physical side of getting the surgery, recovering, going to physical therapy and slowly getting your range of motion back and exercising the arm every day.
He described the mental side of the recovery as a grind, constantly dealing with the ups and downs of your progress.
Sox manager Rick Renteria said Kopech’s attitude and work ethic are going to be assets as he goes through that process.
“He’s worried about the downtime of the surgery, not the returning from it,” Renteria said. “His work ethic, his heart and mind, how strong he is, I’m sure he’s going to be back and doing well.”