His recovery is complete in many respects, but as he awaits a return to the mound and his MLB debut, Jose Mujica packs up his life and heads west. He adds miles and mystique to the journey of Tommy John surgery.
Mujica underwent the all-too-common ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction in September 2018. The recovery from Tommy John surgery takes about 12 months for a full blood network to ‘take’ to a replacement ligament; Mujica’s elbow celebrated its’ first birthday 19 days ago, so he’s good there. It can take another six months on top of that to gain proprioception, or ‘feel’, comparable to before the surgery; his elbow’s half birthday is in March, so there seems to be minimal concerns by spring training by means of anatomy. While there is never a good time to undergo Tommy John, his timing was quite desirable.
The psychological side of such a lengthy recovery remains an interesting detail, since it can be far too easy to put the emphasis on recovery instead of competition. What was once a mid-90’s fastball becomes a lob throw at 30 feet as part of recovery protocol.
He does have the comforts of knowing he’s already been placed on the Rockies 40-man roster, however.
The psychological toll is far more difficult in months one and two, lifting dumbbells that weigh like soup cans. Being over a year since the surgery, it’s likely Mujica could pop a 90 on a radar gun right now (at least if his offseason training prescribed it, anyways).
Over 25 percent of MLB pitchers have the scar, showing how the work and willingness of Dr. Frank Jobe and Tommy John saved the careers of many. It still remains interesting for a player to be switching teams in the middle of the process, but it makes things sweeter for Colorado fans when his return can be celebrated within the Rockies organization.
Jeff Passan published The Arm in 2016, documenting Tommy John surgery better than anyone before. Several sections in this book are dedicated to the recoveries of pitchers Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson as they recovered from the procedure a second time. The book shows a personal account for how tough the rehab can be, and is worthy of a read for anyone curious about the recovery beyond the physical rehabilitation. Coffey was unable to return to MLB competition; Hudson threw the final pitch of the World Series this year.
Our basic ideas of economics may have failed us: a lower supply of minor league teams may not raise the demand of the others.
Maury Brown of Forbes reasons that, should Major League Baseball go through with proposals to cut 42 minor league affiliations, it would proclaim that a coveted piece of minor league team superiority can be revoked, without notice, at any given time. Each MiLB team has a Player Development Contract (a PDC), the “key link between the Major and the Minors,” that allows minor league teams to develop major league talent under an MLB affiliation. Owners paid the price to get these contracts, and assuming 42 of them are taken away in the latest proposals, that contract value could instantly be ruled obsolete.
J.J. Cooper of Baseball America writes on the matter—in his words, the value of teams that could keep their PDC would plummet, because “what has been seen as a permanent right will become a temporary one.” A lower supply generally reflects a higher demand, yes—but when the supply can hit zero without any notice (in MiLB’s case, a revoked PDC), a higher supply of non-affiliated teams would reason against a higher financial valuation of remaining affiliates. This accreditation fragility can most definitely deter a potential buyer, thus spawning a downward spiral of minor league team worth.
While these PDC’s mean the absolute world to the MiLB ownership groups, the typical fan may go unaffected on their desired experience: Cooper goes on to describe how fan surveys, distributed by MLB personnel, have shown minor league fans “really don’t have that much affinity or even knowledge of which MLB team is affiliated with their minor league club.”
In this sense, do the fans really come to watch the quality of baseball, or do they simply want to soak in the experience? The former would frame a PDC as invaluable; the latter would rule the contracts to mean nothing to the typical fan.
The Northwoods League is a collegiate summer league spanning from North Dakota to Michigan, matching up premier collegiate players in areas where MiLB affiliates are infrequent. There are five Northwoods teams in Minnesota and nine in Wisconsin; there are a combined two MiLB affiliates, the Beloit Snappers and Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, in those two states. Their average single-game attendance in 2019 was 1,181 and 3,354, respectively.
The average game in the Northwoods League saw 1,642 in 2019. 13 of their 22 franchises averaged higher single-game attendance than Beloit. The average attendance for the independent St. Paul Saints was much higher than both MiLB teams. These figures can be slightly misleading, given the MiLB slate begins in a cold and snowy April and the Northwoods League only plays between May and August. It still stands to reason that, with or without MLB ties, fans still find a way to pack ballparks.
It may mean bad news for MiLB ownership groups, as the entertainment value reigns supreme over the on-field product in many respects. This isn’t to say competition in a league like the Northwoods is inferior—in fact, some of the best college players in the country play there in the summertime (as did the collegiate Chris Sale and Max Scherzer). It simply denounces the need for a PDC to pack a ballpark deemed ‘minor league’ and what the organizational fates for teams may be without an affiliate accreditation. Their stock may plummet, but their opportunities to sell tickets in a ‘dream league’ or similar endeavor could remain.
It still remains short-sighted for a team to have their PDC’s revoked for plenty of reasons, and we can hope short-term incentives aren’t what fuel a short-sighted decision. Regardless of the reasoning or the inevitable solution, baseball growth is on the line, and prime opportunity exists in the minor leagues. It would be beyond unfortunate if these 42 teams ceased to exist at the extent they do now.
If you need a further fix on the ‘Vote Walker’ and ‘Vote Helton’ train and you’re a big stat person, look no further. This article has more numbers than a calculus test.
Old friend Tom Helmer from the FSN Rocky Mountain days is now doing play-by-play work for Eastern Michigan football. Despite his EMU Eagles closing out the regular season with a loss, we can hope Helmer will jump on top of a desk at a bowl game like he used to at Coors Field on postgame shows.