For fans looking for something positive on the first day the Rockies pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on Thursday, it wasn’t hard to find: Scott Oberg is at Talking Stick and he’s healthy.
“I am feeling good. I haven’t had any hiccups. The recovery, the wintertime went well for me; so, I am excited to be where I’m at at this current moment,” Oberg said on Thursday. “The thought process is just continue to progress, continue to up the intensity, work my way into games, and then be ready for the season. This is the time of year when we get to start back up again, start our jobs again, play baseball again; there is a lot of excitement in the air.”
After missing the entire 2020 season because of a lower back injury and the return of blood clots that had ended his seasons in 2019 and 2016, Oberg had thoracic outlet surgery (TOS) on Sept. 23. The surgery went well, despite requiring the removal of his top right-side rib, and Oberg has been slowly working his way back to form.
The surgery isn’t uncommon for baseball pitchers, even in the Rockies bullpen. Daniel Bard had the surgery in 2014 and he was the best thing about a dismal 2020 Colorado bullpen. On Thursday, Oberg and Bard got to work.
The new journey has begun. Let's get to work! ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/TyH45CK4XJ— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) February 18, 2021
One year ago, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, it was a completely different world. The COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t fully hit and its toll couldn’t yet be imagined. The bullpen appeared stable with Wade Davis was set to be the closer (maybe that’s too generous, but that’s how Bud Black saw it even if fans didn’t) and Oberg was slated as the set-up man. Both made impressive spring training debuts, each pitching a scoreless inning against the Angels on March 1.
Then COVID hit, spring training was put on hold, and the 8-9-inning plan of Oberg to Davis never happened. By the time the season started back in late July, Oberg was on the IL with a lower back strain. Davis pitched a bit, blew a save on Aug. 1, and by Aug. 2 was out with a shoulder injury. He returned briefly in September before giving up five runs in two appearances before being released by the Rockies on Sept. 19.
While the 2021 season could be a tough one for the Rockies, who, just for perspective have to play the Padres and Dodgers a total of 35 times (making up almost 22 percent of their schedule), the bullpen looks a bit better with Obie back and Bard replacing Davis.
In 2019, Oberg was outstanding. He went 6-1 with a 2.25 ERA in 56 innings over 49 games, including five saves, while also holding opponents to a .196 batting average. He also totaled 58 strikeouts with a 1.107 WHIP. In 2020, Bard set the standard, going 4-2 with six saves in 24 2⁄3 innings over 23 appearances with a 3.65 ERA and earned the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award.
According to the Rocky Mountain Brain and Spine Institute, “A study in 2017 assessed 14 MLB pitchers undergoing TOS surgery. 77% returned to MLB after an average ~ 11 months following surgery. Pre and postoperative career data showed no significant differences in traditional pitching metrics, including ERA, WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk ratios.”
If Oberg can return to 2019 form, the Rockies bullpen could be significantly improved from the one that posted a 6.77 ERA in 2020, the second worst in the league.
Interestingly enough, the Rocky Mountain Brain and Spine Institute also notes that some pitchers have fashioned jewelry out of their removed ribs or just carried them around as good luck charms. In January, Oberg stated detailed plans for his rib, which was at the time in a cabinet in his house in Sewell, N.J.
“I talked to the doctor, and he saved it for me,” Oberg told MLB.com’s Thomas Harding. “My next-door neighbor is a pathologist, so he took that to work, cleaned it up for me and threw it in formaldehyde, and that’s where it is currently. It’s probably about three inches in length, so I can probably end up making it into a paperweight.”
Bard preserved his own and said he might make a necklace out of it after his surgery in 2014. Between trying to lock down wins for the Rockies, the two will also share the unique bond of being able to talk about the accessories they made out of their spare ribs.
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Austin Gomber’s first media season as a Rockie left Patrick Saunders giving a shoutout to the left-handed pitcher’s “chutzpah.”
Gomber believes he has a good curveball and he doesn’t think Coors Field can stop it. The only pro-level player the Rockies acquired in the Nolan Arenado trade also said he’s a flyball pitcher and he’s “not going to become a groundball pitcher” despite the thin air and vast outfield realm of Coors Field. He certainly seems pretty confident and maybe his attitude can translate to the altitude as he vies for a spot in the Colorado starting rotation.
As Saunders notes, he does have one win in one appearance at Coors Field from when he gave up two runs in six innings in a 12-3 St. Louis victory in 2018. “I’ve only pitched there one time, but I don’t see any reason why I can’t sustain that,” Gomber said. “Guys have had success there in the past and guys are going to have success there in the future.”
Most of the baseball world and many Rockies fans are writing off the team in 2021. Kyle Freeland is fine with it. He sees it as a challenge.
“As a whole, the team, we’re using that as a chip on our shoulder to push us through this season and shock the world and prove the doubters wrong,” said the homegrown lefty who will need to fully return to his 2018 self if he wants to the Rockies not to be the laughingstock of the league.
It’s great and not at all surprising to hear this from Freeland. He’s a competitor and fans love him for it. Freeland will need help though. As Sean Keeler points out, there is some potential for that, but the odds aren’t in the Rockies’ favor.
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