SURPRISE — Last season, Joe Palumbo, Baseball America’s ninth-ranked prospect in the Texas Rangers organization, was pitching for the Carolina League affiliate Down East Wood Ducks.
Palumbo threw a curveball to strike out a hitter, a pitch he has thrown numerous times that probably felt second nature to him.
But the feeling after this pitch was something new.
“I kind of felt something weird. I’ve never felt it before in my life but it didn’t hurt at the time,” Palumbo said.
He felt what he describes as a pull in his elbow yet continued to pitch.
“I got back on the mound and I’m still thinking about what I felt because I didn’t know what to think, and the next batter came up and I threw a fastball and it just killed,” Palumbo said.
When Palumbo says, “it killed,” he means it was a type of pain he has never felt before. He was shocked by it but still tried to throw one more pitch.
That fateful day in April was the last pitch Palumbo threw for the season, because days later he was told he needed Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL.
According to Jon Roegele, a writer and analyst for The Hardball Times, Palumbo is one of 1,484 players at any level to have received the surgery dating back to 1974, when Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John was the first to undergo the surgery.
The close attention to rehab has helped players recover from the surgery and revive their careers.
“When I played there was no rehab. If you got hurt you got released,” said Keith Comstock, the Texas Rangers’ major/minor league rehab pitching coordinator who played professional baseball for 17 years.
In 2007, Comstock and former Rangers pitching coordinator Rick Adair thought of the idea to have a coach dedicated just to pitchers who are rehabbing from injuries.
Comstock at the time was with the Los Angeles Angels. He then asked for his release from the team to start his new gig with the Rangers.
Comstock has held the same position for the Rangers for 10 years.
His position is one of many examples of the way rehab from the surgery has changed along with the information that is accessible now.
“Now the rehab is so defined, the trainers are so knowledgeable on the human body, it has come light years,” Comstock said.
One thing that has changed in rehab is weightlifting.
“They are light years from what they are doing now than what they were doing before to get people back pitching,” Comstock said. “Not just back pitching but actually pitching stronger than they had before.”
Nearly 11 months after his injury, Palumbo went through six weeks of sitting in a brace doing nothing but watching the organization’s rookie team and playing video games, and learning the importance of conditioning and lifting weights, Palumbo says this is the best his arm has felt.
Learning the importance of lifting and taking care of his body is one of the many things Palumbo has learned in his time rehabbing.
“It definitely opens your eyes being injured, because you don’t want it to happen again,” Palumbo said. “So you do everything that you can to make your body as strong as possible coming from the arm care, into the weight room.”
Palumbo’s dedication to the weight room hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rehab coordinator, but to Comstock it is nothing he hasn’t seen before.
“All these guys don’t understand the importance of things until they get hurt,” Comstock said. They have more respect for their bodies, they have more respect for taking care of their arms afterwards than they did before.”
No player likes being injured. Players all want to be on the field competing with their teammates but there are some bright spots of going through the program.
“I got this nice mixture of people with these older guys having been very complimentary with the younger guys helping them become professional, helping them become more game aware,” Comstock said.
Palumbo was drafted out of St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, New York., where he described himself as a “punk kid who thought he knew everything.” The time in rehab has helped him grow as a professional.
“I’ve matured a lot, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve learned a ton being in professional baseball as long as I’ve been here,” Palumbo said.
Comstock has always been in Palumbo’s ear reminding him, with the right attitude, rehab will benefit him in the long run.
“I tell Joe all the time, rehab will get you mentally tough because you have to go through mental tough times to become mentally tough.”
From 2007 to 2011, athletes age 15 to 19 accounted for 57 percent of Tommy John surgery, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
With so many players coming back stronger and throwing harder than they were before the surgery, parents are creating a myth that the surgery can help their kids throw harder.
“There is nothing that tells me that an operation throws harder,” Comstock said emphatically.
“It’s the work that gets done and when you put in a year’s worth of work in, you are going to come out throwing harder. I don’t care what it is but if you don’t put that work in, you don’t throw harder,” Comstock said.