On Monday, the Baltimore Orioles announced that starting catcher Matt Wieters is scheduled to undergo ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction on his right elbow Tuesday afternoon. The team projects Wieters’ recovery timetable from Tommy John surgery at nine months, suggesting he should be ready to participate in spring training.
The announcement was fairly anticlimactic. Many in the Orioles organization seemed to be bracing for this news in recent days, as Wieters had experienced persistent discomfort despite spending time on the disabled list. When Wieters initially complained of elbow pain, he was sent for a consultation with Dr. James Andrews. An injection followed by rest and rehabilitation was Andrews' plan for Wieters, with a gradual resumption of light throwing. The problem was that the pain was not disappearing despite Wieters’ ability to throw somewhat effectively.
With an eye on the calendar, Wieters returned to Dr. Andrews for a follow-up consultation, anticipating the possibility of surgery. Now that the decision to operate has been made, Wieters can put all the external questions to rest and can focus on his recovery for next season.
Only 17 percent of current major league players who have undergone UCL reconstruction are not pitchers, although the Tommy John procedures performed thus far in 2014 have largely been done on pitchers. The Twins saw their star prospect, infielder Miguel Sano, opt to undergo surgery in March after conservative treatment failed. Wieters is the most prominent non-pitcher in the major leagues to elect to have the procedure so far this year.
The recovery time for non-pitchers (eight to 12 months) averages about four months less than for pitchers (12 to 16 months). As a catcher, Wieters has unique demands on his throwing arm in terms of frequency (after virtually every pitch in a game) and mechanics (throwing hard when out of position or off-balance to make a defensive play). Unleashing on defensive throws is typically the most challenging aspect of rehab of this type for a position player.
On a positive note, hitting can begin around 16 weeks if all progresses well. With that timetable in mind, Wieters should get plenty of at-bats in during the spring to build confidence for the 2015 season. Hopefully his throwing will follow suit.