Tommy John surgery has a double connotation. On the one hand, the procedure and its rehab instantly knocks out almost a year off a pitcher's career. On the other, the process affords the chance for a light at the end of the tunnel. (A stark contrast from the days of yore when an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament likely meant a pitcher's days were numbered.)
An injured hurler can be upset or eased by the news. Back in September 2011, Twins' No. 4 prospect Kyle Gibson chose the latter.
"You know what, I was actually pretty relieved about the whole thing," Gibson said. "My arm started hurting me in June and for weeks, I didn't know why. The training staff and front office finally said, 'Let's get it looked at.' When I found it was a tear, it relieved me. I knew things were hurting, but I didn't know something was structurally wrong. Once we knew that, I knew what we had to do to get me back as fast as possible."
Nineteen months after going under the knife, Gibson isn't just returning to the game he loves. He might be better at it than ever before.
Not to give the wrong impression, the 6-foot-6 right-hander was always considered a top prospect. Selected 22nd overall in the 2009 Draft out of the University of Missouri, he justified the pick a year later, putting together an 11-6 record with a 2.96 ERA while jumping through the top three levels of the Twins system.
Gibson returned to Triple-A Rochester to start 2011 and pitched well at the outset, going 3-3 with a 3.60 ERA and 59 strikeouts over 55 innings during the first two months of the season. Then the aforementioned pain began in his right elbow. Although he continued to pitch, his performance began to slag. After giving up four or more runs for the third time in a row July 22, the Twins shut down the best arm in their farm system, hoping a little R&R would do the trick. It didn't. In September, Gibson finally underwent Tommy John surgery.
Despite the severity of the injury, the Indiana native, who underwent previous surgery on his elbow when he was a freshman in high school, knew he'd have a fighting chance to return to his old form.
"With surgery, nothing's ever a guarantee," said MLB.com's No. 49 prospect. "You have to have discipline and work as hard as you can. Sure, there were days I slacked off a bit, but you do your best to keep those to a minimum and hope one day it pays off. The key part was being healthy and getting back to pitching. Shoot, it was hard work mentally and physically. Any time you can't do what you love, it's really tough."
What followed were 10 months of rehab that kept Gibson off a mound until July 2012, when he began rehabbing in the Gulf Coast League. He also received starts in Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Rochester before the Twins allowed him to make up for lost time at the finishing school that is the Arizona Fall League. (Although his numbers were touch-and-go -- 5.40 ERA, .326 batting average against, 28-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 28 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings -- he was named a starter in the Fall League's Rising Stars Game.)
Now back in Rochester for what will be the fourth year in a row, Gibson believes he has an improved arsenal, thanks to the surgery that was only meant to prolong his career not necessarily give it a boost.
His fastball that once sat in the high-80s is now touching the low-90s with much more regularity. His sinker and slider both have harder action than before. Even the changeup has jumped so much in velocity, he admits he needs to find a way to slow it down again.
In a way, Tommy John surgery has been a blessing in more ways than one.
"You know, I think my stuff is better, yes," Gibson said. "Because of the velocity on my slider, it looks more like a fastball. When I locate it properly, it can really be a great pitch for me. And any time you add velocity to your fastball, it opens up more possibilities. I don't think I'm throwing better yet, though. I'm still getting used to it. … Becoming more efficient and consistent and having that focus on every pitch, that's what I'm working on right now."
And so armed with an improved arsenal of pitches at his disposal -- as well as an improved shoulder regiment aimed to keep elbow injuries a thing of the past -- Gibson enters the 2013 season no longer on the comeback trail. Instead, he's just back on the same trail toward the Major Leagues he took two summers ago.
Still, he can't help it if the many months between journeys pop into his head just before that first 92-mph fastball.
"Realizing how hard I worked to get back to this point, you can never take it for granted," Gibson said. "You can always be back there in a split second, so I have to do the best I can with what I've got."