The Tampa Bay Rays have received a lot of attention lately for their bullpen usage—specifically, their use of one-inning “openers” to start games. In keeping with the strategy, their late-inning lefty reliever Jonny Venters took the mound for the first inning of their game against the Washington Nationals on June 6. This particular instance of using an opener didn’t exactly acquit itself well for the Rays, or seem like a harbinger of a historic bullpenning tide change to come: Venters recorded only one out before being knocked out of the game, having allowed five runs on three hits and two walks.
But Venters’s appearance in that game, disastrous though it may have been, was no less historic for its poor quality. During this 2018 season, every appearance Venters makes on the field, whether good or bad, will be part of an unprecedented campaign of recovery. Venters is the second player ever to pitch in the major leagues after having Tommy John surgery three times. The last time he appeared in a major-league game before his return this season was in 2012. And even taking into account his disastrous first inning against the Nationals, his near-miraculous return has, so far, been an even more miraculous success.
Ever since the procedure was first performed on its namesake in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe, the number of players who undergo Tommy John surgery each year has been steadily increasing, and the average age of the players upon whom the surgery is performed steadily growing younger. According to Jon Roegele’s Tommy John surgery database, at least 43 players have had Tommy John so far this year at various levels of baseball; in a piece from 2016, his research indicated that a whopping 86.4 percent of all games played in the major leagues that season featured a player who had undergone Tommy John surgery.
The ubiquity of Tommy John surgery in baseball’s current era has perhaps dulled the general sense of how big a deal it is. For those unfamiliar or unrefreshed, Tommy John surgery aims to repair damage to the ulnar collateral ligament, a band of tissue that connects the humerus to the ulna. Holes are drilled into the two bones, and a piece of tendon most often taken from the wrist is grafted through the holes in a figure-eight. It’s an invasive procedure with a lengthy recovery.
Coming back from Tommy John surgery to pitch in the major leagues, then, is a difficult journey in and of itself—Tommy John himself, though he went on to have a very successful and long-lived career post-op, was given a one in a hundred chance to pitch again in the major leagues before the surgery. The rehabilitation process is an even steeper order for players who need the ligament reconstructed a second time. And three times? It’s hard enough to pitch well enough to stick in the major leagues with an intact arm. The stress that three surgeries on the same joint that forms a pressure point when pitching would, one might think, make it pretty much impossible to achieve the arm action necessary for a major-league pitch.
A return to the major leagues after having a third Tommy John surgery has been done once before, in the not-so-distant past. All-Star reliever Jason Isringhausen had his second and third Tommy John surgeries in 2008 and 2009 before returning to appear in 103 more games with the Mets in 2011 and 2012. Isringhausen’s two-year gap between major-league appearances, though, was not nearly as long as the time Venters was away from the game before making his comeback this year.
A better comparison in that respect would be Jose Rijo, who also underwent three surgeries on his throwing arm (though not all were on the elbow). Rijo, an All-Star and 1990 World Series MVP, was a starting pitcher prior to his period of injuries and surgeries. Like Venters, Rijo was absent from the major leagues for five seasons before making his return as a reliever. He pitched for two more seasons, appearing in 44 games, before another injury compelled him to retire.
There is a key difference between Venters and these other pitchers who returned from three arm surgeries, though: his age. Isringhausen returned to the major leagues in his age-38 season, already a 16-year major-league veteran; Rijo was 36 when he returned after his long absence, with 12 seasons in the big leagues under his belt. Venters, though he is 33, took longer to get to the major leagues and find his success. He was a 30th-round pick as a high-schooler in 2003, and his progress through the minor leagues was slow, held up by the first of his three Tommy John surgeries.
Venters’s numbers in the minor leagues were pedestrian — even in 2009, the year before he made his major-league debut, he posted a combined 4.42 ERA in 156 ⅔ innings at Double A and Triple A. He made an impression, though, as soon as he appeared in the big leagues, becoming one of baseball’s best relievers, and forming part of the O’Flaherty-Venters-Kimbrel three-headed monster at the back of the Braves bullpen. His sinker and slider were among the most unhittable pitches in baseball—when batters could make contact, they almost always hit the ball on the ground.
Pitching now in 2018, Venters has the opportunity to do something that has never been done before: to not only return from three Tommy John surgeries, another surgery on his pitching elbow on top of those, and a lengthy absence from the major leagues, but to stay there. He is still only 33, after all. And in 17 appearances for the Rays so far this season, amounting to 12 innings pitched, there are hints that the staying power might be there. His pedestrian 4.50 ERA is almost entirely the result of the first-inning Nationals disaster; outside of that appearance, he has allowed only one run this season. His strikeout rate is well below that of his previous seasons in the major leagues at just 16.7 percent, and batters are making more hard contact against him than ever before—both likely related to his decreased velocity. But his groundball rate remains superb at 70.6 percent, an encouraging sign for a pitcher whose game, at his peak, relied heavily on soft contact.
We are still very early in the Jonny Venters comeback experience. Pitcher injuries are one of baseball’s most frustrating problems, and one of its most cruel. As we have seen recently with Shohei Ohtani, they happen with no regard for how superlative a talent the player is. Venters may, like Isringhausen and Rijo before him, last only a short time before deciding that his time as a baseball-thrower has run its course.
But there was a time when Venters was one of the most thrilling pitchers in baseball to watch. That talent appeared to be gone forever, and it wasn’t. He may not be quite the same pitcher he was six years ago, but he is back. He is throwing well, despite the wringer that injury has put his throwing arm through. And while pitcher injuries can seem world-ending when they happen, Venters’s return, however long it lasts, is an encouraging reminder of the resilience of the human body—the extraordinary persistence of skill and hard work, in spite of everything.