On September 30, 2014, Danny Hultzen pitched his third and final outing of the year in front of select members of the Mariners' staff. It was the culmination of 12 months of recovery following surgery for a torn labrum, rotator cuff, and anterior capsule -- all injuries that pose significant setbacks to those who require them.
Both Jack Zduriencik and Lloyd McClendon were pleased by reports of the southpaw's progress and, in equal measure, both were a little hesitant about the timetable for his return.
"He showed an average fastball, really good curve and changeup," Zduriencik was quoted in Greg Johns' report. "He was confident and his delivery is sound."
It's difficult to base any substantial analysis on three outings' worth of work, especially in an instructional league, but management wasn't willing to risk further injury by allowing Hultzen to pitch in the Arizona Fall League this month, either. Instead, he was shut down until 2015, when the Mariners will welcome him back to Peoria for spring training camp.
Zduriencik commented that the 24-year-old will face inevitable setbacks at the beginning of 2015, no matter how far he appears to have come over the last year. It would be unusual for any pitcher to arrive to camp in peak condition after a year off the mound, let alone one with Hultzen's extensive injuries. Like Jack Z., Lloyd McClendon doesn't believe that Hultzen will be able to qualify for the 25-man roster out of spring training and tiptoed around any bold prognoses for the pitcher's future.
"Is he on his way back? Yeah," McClendon admitted to the press. "And that's exciting because this young man is as good as any of them when he's healthy. We just have to get him back to that point where he can go out and compete every five days."
Hultzen isn't the only pro ball pitcher taking the long road back to the majors after a labrum surgery. The Yankees' Andrew Bailey and Phillies' Jonathan Pettibone both suffered labrum tears in 2013 and have yet to see their next MLB start. Bailey wasn't positive he wanted surgery at first, but went under the knife when the damage to his labrum and capsule proved to be more extensive than he initially expected. Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell predicted the starter would be out until mid-2014, but after Bailey signed a contract with the Yankees, he was shut down for the entirety of the year.
Pettibone, on the other hand, barely had a chance to jump-start his major league career before he was sidelined with a torn labrum. He had experienced shoulder problems since 2013, but, like Bailey, attempted to pitch cautiously and get extra rest in the hope that his arm would recover without season-ending surgery. After Pettibone made two starts in Philadelphia, Phillies' manager Ruben Amaro Jr. announced the right-hander would be taking the rest of the year off to undergo surgery, with a tentative return date of mid-2015.
Of course, it's not entirely fair to compare these three. The recovery process varies from pitcher to pitcher -- and from injury to injury. While Bailey and Pettibone faced labrum and capsule tears, Hultzen also tore his rotator cuff, which further hampers his flexibility and velocity.
"With a complete tear of a rotator cuff, the odds are 50-50, I would say, of getting them back on the mound," Dr. David Lintner told MLB.com's Jim Molony back in 2007. Lintner, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist, reported signs of progress in the methods used to repair rotator cuffs, though the threat of stiffness and limited range still posed significant concerns.
Last year, sports physical therapist Brian Schiff wrote about a labrum tear research study conducted by Sports Health in 2013. A pool of 287 college and pro ball pitchers who had undergone surgeries for torn labrums, rotator cuffs, thermal capsulorrhaphies, and subacromial decompressions were examined. Among the 287, 68% of all pitchers returned to the mound post-surgery, while 22% of MLB pitchers never made it back to the Show. On average, they found that the return rate settled around 12 months, with the quickest return set at nine months and the longest at 17 months. The majority of pitchers were not able to recover the skill set they possessed before their injuries, despite being able to compete at a high level.
Perhaps the most encouraging story in recent news is that of Michael Pineda, who underwent surgery in May 2012 for an anterior labral tear. He returned to full strength in 2014, opening the season with the Yankees and pitching through August and September after a back strain forced him off the mound in late April. His is a best case scenario -- or, at least, not a worst-case one -- since he not only recovered from his injury, but was able to improve both his mechanics and effectiveness upon his return.
Not all pitchers are this fortunate. Hultzen's chances of debuting next season look promising after his rehabilitation, but three outings is no guarantee of a spot on a major-league roster. Although he will likely make a full recovery in the near future, any expectations the Mariners have for him in 2015 should be set very low.