The College of Charleston baseball team received some discouraging news this week when it learned that starting pitcher Bailey Ober will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the 2015 season.
Ober entered the season as arguably the best pitcher on an excellent pitching staff. According to The Post and Courier’s Andrew Miller, the Cougars’ pitchers ranked in the top 10 in the nation for fewest walks, fewest hits per inning pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last season’s team ERA of 2.73 was the best in the history of the program.
The 6-foot, 8-inch Ober led the way. The sophomore from Huntersville, N.C., finished with a record of 10-3 and an ERA of 1.52 last season. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ Association named Ober the national freshman pitcher of the year.
During Ober’s stellar freshman season, College of Charleston coach Monte Lee predicted that the young star would face adversity during his career, but noted that Ober knows how to handle it and would be successful.
Only weeks into the 2015 campaign, Ober now faces that adversity. Prior to the season-opening series against South Carolina, Lee announced that Ober would not start that weekend after he suffered an injury in January.
“He had a setback and we’re going to take it slowly,” Lee told Miller. “Bailey has been throwing some out of the bullpen and potentially that’s where we’ll use him this weekend. We don’t want to rush him back before he’s ready.”
Now College of Charleston fans realize the extent of Ober’s injury. The Cougars’ ace tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow.
The UCL is a ligament located on the medial side of the elbow. Imagine the location in your arm when you hit your “funny bone.” That ligament stabilizes the elbow against tension forces from the throwing motion. The ligament can gradually fray over months or years and ultimately fail.
Tommy John surgery is a procedure named after the legendary Dodgers’ pitcher who underwent the novel surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974. The surgeon uses a tendon in the wrist to essentially create a new elbow ligament. Recovery and return to pitching usually takes about 12 months. The pitcher works to regain elbow motion and strength before progressing through a long-toss program and finally throwing from the mound.
Fortunately for Ober and College of Charleston fans, Tommy John surgery has fairly predictable results. Most studies looking at success from this operation have shown good results. Orthopaedic surgeons define success with this operation as a pitcher returning to the same level of ability and competition as before the injury. Most studies looking at the results of Tommy John surgery in professional pitchers show return to pitching rates around 83 percent, with some studies showing rates close to 90 percent.
One misconception about the surgery, though, is that the procedure makes the pitcher stronger than before. That is largely a myth promoted by parents of young throwers who actually want their sons to have surgery even without the injury in order to build up their sons’ arms. There is no evidence to support this notion.
Two reasons often contribute to a rehabbed pitcher feeling stronger after surgery. First, he has been working in physical therapy to build strength in the muscles of the arm, shoulder, upper back and core. Plus, he has had a year to rest his arm from the demands of pitching. High school pitchers who are still growing do become stronger, but it has nothing to do with the surgery.
Second, an injured pitcher often compares his surgically repaired elbow to the way it felt right before the ligament finally gave out. Think of the way a rope breaks. It gradually frays until one final pitch completes the tear. As the UCL frays, the pitcher can start to lose velocity and command of his pitches while developing more elbow discomfort. That feeling and performance drop are largely what pitchers use as a basis for comparison, not the elbow when it was healthy.
Regardless, it is an obvious setback for the Cougars and their star pitcher, but it is one he can likely overcome. “We hate to lose one of the nation’s best pitchers and a huge part of our program in Bailey Ober,” Lee said Monday. “We hope that by having the surgery now, he will be able to make a full recovery by the beginning of next season.”
With a year of hard work ahead, College of Charleston baseball fans can hope to see Bailey Ober excel next season.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information about baseball injuries and other topics, go to his blog at drdavidgeier.com.