Take a minute to think about the most intriguing young pitchers in baseball that you’re excited to watch this season and in the years to come. Noah Syndergaard of the Mets is a great choice. Carlos Martinez of the Cardinals is another budding, young ace in the making. Aaron Sanchez of the Blue Jays is also a young pitcher worth watching closely. But here’s one young pitcher who probably didn’t spring to mind right away: Garrett Richards of the Angels.
Richards is easy to overlook. He plays for a West Coast team, he’s never pitched in a postseason game, and he made just six starts in 2016, so don’t beat yourself up if he didn’t come to mind right away. However, he’s not all that different from the other young pitching stars in the game. He was a high draft pick who has shown glimpses of being a true ace, posting a 2.61 ERA in 26 starts in 2014 and a 3.65 ERA in 32 starts in 2015.
But there’s one thing that separates Richards from the other young, talented arms in the game and makes him the most interesting pitcher in baseball. His right elbow is in the midst of a medical experiment that could revolutionize pitching, more specifically the health of pitchers.
Six starts into what appeared to be a promising 2016 campaign, Richards was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, a diagnosis so many pitchers have received before and a diagnosis that almost always results in Tommy John surgery and a rehab of 18 months or longer.
However, faced with the prospect of missing the rest of the 2016 season and possibly the entire 2017 season as well, Richards explored his options and chose an alternative treatment to Tommy John surgery. Instead of going under the knife, Richards received a biometrics procedure that consisted of platelet-rich plasma injections in his elbow and stem cell therapy.
If you can prevent being cut on and having surgery, that’s the No. 1 priority. I hope guys don’t just jump right into Tommy John. I hope they at least explore this option. Figure out what you’ve got. Get a second opinion.
Less than two weeks after the procedure, Richards said his elbow felt normal, allowing him to partake in a normal workout routine. He ended up missing the rest of the 2016 season, although if not for the Angels going through one of their worst seasons in recent memory, it’s possible Richards would have attempted a comeback before the end of the season.
Even though he missed most of the season, Richards was able to pitch in instruction league last fall, roughly a year before he would have been able to pitch had he undergone Tommy John surgery. More importantly, Richards arrived at spring training this season like it was any other year.
As a result, Richards will be the most important and most intriguing pitcher in baseball to take the mound this season. If his elbow can hold up over the course of a full season following a biometrics procedure in lieu of Tommy John, it’s a potential game-changer for pitchers everywhere. The chance to avoid Tommy John and cut recovery time in half for a torn UCL is something all pitchers would love to have as an option.
If Richards is able to avoid any elbow-related DL stints and pitch effectively in 2017, he will become a poster boy for pitchers who wish to avoid Tommy John and not put their careers at risk by going under the knife. Richards has a chance to give biometrics instant credibility, encouraging pitchers in a similar situation to explore alternatives to surgery.
The confidence level is very high that he is going to move forward from the injury and be fine.
Mike Scioscia, Angels manager
It’s important to note that the biometrics procedure is not guaranteed to work for every pitcher. In fact, Richards took a risk because if the treatment hadn’t worked, he still would have needed the surgery, keeping him on the shelf even longer. However, it’s so far so good for Richards and the alternative treatment.
Imagine the baseball world without Tommy John surgery. It seems impossible, as the surgery has become a fact of life. However, if the biometrics treatment pans out for Richards, a world without Tommy John surgery may not be so far-fetched a few years down the line.