May challenge Bryce Harper’s quick recovery, return to Phillies precedent: early May is possible

Philadelphia – The whole thing is absurd, but this is Bryce Harper and everything about his career defies convention. There was no recovery from Tommy John surgery like this because instead of spending it in seclusion like most people, Harper stayed with the Phillies. The recovery process is public – not in the backyards of a remote training complex. His every move was filmed. He climbed through all the checkpoints faster than the club officials expected.

This is what is really happening. Harper jumps to one of the fastest returns from elbow reconstructive surgery ever. He has a doctor’s appointment at the beginning of May in Los Angeles when the Phillies are there at the back half of a six-game road trip.

“If we get clearance from the doctor, we’ll see when he can start DHing,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said Thursday. “But it shouldn’t be too far after that.”

Harper will likely be in the lineup by the end of the first week in May—or shortly thereafter—once the Phillies return home from California. As long as the doctor permits it. Team sources said the Phillies were operating as if that was a plausible scenario.

Loosen the details and it will be even more absurd. Harper underwent surgery on November 23. He can return less than six months after his right (throwing) elbow has been reconstructed. He would do so without ever playing in any minor league rehab games. He was beating out the ambiguous schedule—”sometime before the All-Star break,” set by the Phillies on the day he had surgery—by more than two months.

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But the Phillies have always said they’ll move at Harper’s pace—as long as the doctors, athletic trainers, and strength coaches approve of it. Team officials remained open about when Harper would return, but were surprised by the pace.

Harper took hitting practice in the field for the first time on April 5 at Yankee Stadium. In the 15 days since then, Harper has devoted chunks of time to learning first base. But his main focus has been on hitting him because, for the time being, he’s fully qualified to swing without strings attached.


Bryce Harper plays ground balls at first base last week before a game. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Harper caught the game from 60 feet on Thursday — the first time he’d done so since last year. That was a milestone. But that has nothing to do with his return schedule as a DH. There is no indication of when he can play on the field. The last restriction Harper has to clear for the DH: full-intensity slides, including diving back into first base on a shortstop. Even if he slides foot-first into second base, for example, his elbow can hit the ground. The reconstructed elbow is at risk of tearing for a certain period after surgery.

In Los Angeles, Harper will meet Dr. Neil Al-Atrash, an orthopedist who has become baseball’s most prominent physician. He performed the surgery on Harper and is the favorite doctor of Harper’s agent, Scott Boras. If the Phillies were pushing Harper to the point of danger, Boras would have stepped in.

Instead, the process moved to the next doctor’s appointment.

“I think the plan is really that we cover everything we need to cover before that,” Thompson said. “And then we talk to the doctor and find out when is the best time to start DHing.”

Harper chose to do his rehab with the Phillies because it was the most comfortable place for him. He spent hours with hitting coach Kevin Long getting his swing back. He’s faced rehab big league pitchers Ranger Suarez and Nick Nelson. He received immediate feedback from Paul Bouchet, the club’s chief athletic trainer, who oversees everything.

But there is no precedent for what Harper is trying to do.

A 2018 study of players who had Tommy John surgery published in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery found that the average time it took for a player to return to their previous professional level was 382 days, or 12 and a half months — more than double the time it took for a player to return to their previous career. previous professional level. As long as Harper’s expected return.

The study, written by a team of orthopedists and athletic trainers, reviewed 168 Tommy John surgeries on players from 1984 to 2015. The fastest return identified by the study was 154 days. This was accomplished by a player, and it’s unknown if he’s back in the majors or the minors. Second baseman Tony Womack made the fastest recorded return of a senior hitter. He never missed a game and needed just 182 days to get back on the court in 2004.

If Harper returns on May 5 against the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park, it will have been 163 days since he underwent Tommy John surgery.

The study divided the position players into three categories: the catcher, the outfielder, and the outfielder. There was no set designation of someone returning only as a hitter, which Harper does. The closest comparison is Shohei Ohtani, who returned to the Angels in 2019 after just 218 days from DH after Tommy John surgery.

said one of the study’s authors, Stan Conti the athlete The best-case scenario for a position player’s return to competitive play, strictly as a designated hitter after Tommy John surgery, is usually six months — and nine to 11 months to play the field the way he did before.

Conte, who worked baseball for decades for the Giants, Dodgers and Marlins and now runs Conte Injury Analytics, has led research efforts into the sport to better understand the causes of Tommy John surgeries and recovery. Harper was not treated. He expressed concerns about a player speeding up his return from reconstructive elbow surgery and skipping rehab games.

“You know, I’ve never met him,” Conte said. “But he’s a confident player. So believe me. They’ll talk about it (it doesn’t slide upside down). And at first, he may make a foot-to-toe pass several times. But then he relaxes and he’ll start his head off, if that’s what he used to do. But these are the risks that come with everything. I mean, you could wait 12 months, and he could still do something to blow a ligament. We’ve seen that.”

But, in Harper’s case, Conti indicated that a lefty hitter who had surgery on the right elbow is a favorable scenario because there is more stress on the left elbow when Harper hits.

Harper tested this theory by hitting a pitch. Looks like the trademark, fierce Harper swings. The Philez called up Victor Vargas, a 22-year-old right fielder who played in A-ball last year, to play Thursday afternoon against Harper. They ran a ballpark clock to simulate a real hit at Citizens Bank Park. There were no cages or screens—just one behind Harper serving as a kickstand and protection for the Trackman and a Phillies employee watching the swings from an iPad. At one point, Harper took a step and turned around to ask if the bot thought he was in the strike zone.

Harper hit a few Vargas pitches away. The unknown in all of this is what Harper can do against a big-league pitcher upon his return, but the Phillies are convinced that underage hits won’t do much for him.

“It doesn’t look like he’s going to do the job of rehab,” Thompson said. “We have all the things we do here — we get pitchers to simulate bats, we have this new projection machine in the basement so you can put any pitcher on the planet on video and repeat things — so he can hit bats in there. So we think, in terms of DHing, We cover all bases.”

The Phillies had prepared for the realities of this operation. There are often setbacks. Harper felt the pain as his activity increased. But it wasn’t enough to pause his progress. His body has responded better than anyone could have expected.

The Bum-O offense of the Phillies who were suspended Thursday for the third time in six games will look very different with Harper in the middle of the batting order. The Phillies have insisted they will not rush their star back based on how the team played in April. There are bigger priorities.

But they won’t stand in their way if the doctor says it’s okay.

“We were encouraged by his progress,” Thompson said. “he is coming.”

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the athleteJason Stark contributed to this report.

(Top photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

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