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Pirates’ Minor League pitcher Nathan Webb discusses Tommy John surgery, rehab

Inside the rehab process with Pirates’ Triple-A pitcher Nathan Webb.

Surprise Saguaros v. Scottsdale Scorpions Photo by Jerry Kime/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When right-handed reliever Nathan Webb was 16 he got his first job. It was a summer gig, but, like few others, it got him a World Series ring.

Webb and his three high school travel ball teammates were coached by the head groundskeeper of the Kansas City Royals in 2014 and 2015, which paved a way for all four to get jobs with the team’s grounds crew.

As all were considered “part of the team,” they all were given ALCS and World Series rings.

Then, as fate would have it, he was drafted by the Royals the following year in the 34th round and spent the next 6 years in the organization, before being DFA’d and released this past offseason.

He signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in February with an invitation to major league camp. Once there, he worked with pitching coach Oscar Marin and it revealed his pitches shared traits with All-Star closer David Bednar.

But later into camp there was a problem.

“I actually felt really good my first couple outings in the spring. I got into the last outing that I threw, got kinda halfway through and it [elbow] started bothering me. I got through my inning but the next couple of days it wasn’t really recovering that well. I got my name called to warm up for another game and I just couldn’t go. I threw a few pitches, and I realized there was a bigger issue.”

After getting evaluated, Webb found out he tore his UCL and was faced with two options: it wasn’t a complete tear so he could wait to see if it healed, or he could have Tommy John surgery.

A procedure where a tendon from elsewhere on the body, is extracted and inserted into the injured elbow and grafted to replace or repair the injured UCL. Recovery time for pitchers is typically 12-to-18 months depending on the individual and the specifics of the procedure.

He chose to have the surgery and had the operation done just as everyone else was breaking camp at the end of March.

“There was a chance if I had waited and tried again, I would have been able to pitch. But if it didn’t work and I couldn’t go and had to have surgery anyways, I would have been out for a lot longer. It was a mutual decision to go ahead and get it done and get to the rehab process.”

In 2018, a survey showed that 26 percent of MLB pitchers have had the procedure, 19 percent for minor league pitchers. With improvements to the procedure and rehab process, that number has only gone up.

“Obviously, it’s [pitching] not very good for your arm. Pitching isn’t a very natural motion... It’s got a lot to do with the pronation of your forearm after you throw. But really, it’s about having maximum stress every game you pitch in. Every pitch you’re putting as much stress as possible on the elbow, that builds up... Plus the threshold is getting smaller for people to go ahead and decide to get the surgery. The percentage of people that come back to what they were before [the injury and surgery] is so high now that why would you risk it? For me the decision came down to this, Tommy John was going to take away a lot of playing time, the sooner I get it done the sooner I get back.”

Flash forward to late August and Nathan Webb is about two weeks away from beginning a throwing program, which will mark week 24 in the recovery process. They start with weighted rubber balls and then progress to real baseballs an additional two weeks later.

They’re [the weighted balls] used for a lot of post-arm injury stuff. It kind of helps force you to be on time with your mechanics... I use them to warm up, just to get the arm going.

Later when it gets more serious, he’ll start off throwing only fastballs just to get a feel for throwing again, next comes changeups followed shortly by sliders. Doing long tosses of incrementally longer distances with each of his pitches.

Then when the recovery moves to throwing bullpen sessions, and the increased effort level he’ll again start off only throwing fastballs. With three or four bullpen sessions being fastball only before moving on to all pitches. That same process repeats when he will begin facing his first hitters.

Webb has been doing his rehab in Florida in the complex league. He is currently home and will head to Texas this upcoming Monday to start the next phase of his rehab with the surgeon who performed the operation.

The hardest part of getting used to rehab for Webb has been that he hasn’t had any time to get used to it.

“As soon as you get used to a certain part of your rehab it switches up on you. For the first six weeks I was in a brace. The routine there is nothing weight bearing, mostly stretching. Then your program completely changes, you start to add weight bearing activities. You do that for a certain period then you move on to lifting, after that you might move on to lower body just to get back into that... It does change quite often.”

That competitive drive is still there but the lack of a competitive environment, traded for a more relaxed rehab environment has also been a challenge.

“It just gets boring man! It got boring very quickly... you’re around all these people competing in games, facing hitters and it all just happens in a day ya know? You go from competing for a roster spot to now you can’t do anything for two months. You just kind of sit around. I think it will get less boring when I start with actual baseball activities here soon. It was difficult mentally to do that so fast.”

Everything has been going according to plan for Webb so far. The timeline for facing hitters is around 12 months. He hopes to be completely done with the rehab process by next May.

“Since I’m a reliever I don’t have to worry about building up to five innings, once I start facing hitters that part of the rehab process can be shorter than if I were a starter... Just control everything that I can control and keep my doing my work that I need to do to feel good and hopefully making the majors is just around the corner.”

*Editor’s note: Thanks to Matt at Gaeta Sports Management for arranging this interview between Nathan and Connor.