Posted on August 16, 2016 by Bryan Zarpentine
Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards became a bit of a trailblazer earlier this year when he chose to receive stem-cell therapy rather than undergo Tommy John surgery after suffering a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his right elbow in early May. Recent images of the elbow showed “significant improvement” from images that were taken in June, allowing Richards to begin a throwing program on Monday, a little more than three months after was placed on the DL and far sooner than if he had opted to undergo Tommy John surgery, which is protocol for such an injury.
Richards threw the ball 25 times on flat ground Monday, doing so from a range of 45 feet. It was the first step in what is a six-week throwing program. If there are no setbacks, Richards could be on a mound by the end of September. It’s unlikely he will pitch for the Angels this season, but the 28-year old is hoping to participate in the Arizona Fall League, which could put him in position to be ready for the start of spring training next year. Had he opted for Tommy John surgery, Richards would have likely missed all of 2017.
The Angels have lost both Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano to Tommy John surgery this season, with both unlikely to be available next season. Like Richards, Heaney also received stem-cell injections from Dr. Steve Yoon. Heaney’s elbow did not respond to the treatment and he ultimately underwent Tommy John in July. However, Richards has responded positively to the treatment, giving him a chance to circumnavigate Tommy John surgery.
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“As far as [Dr. Yoon] is concerned, this has been a remarkable turnaround,” Richards explains. “I couldn’t hope for anything better. It’s moving in the right direction. From what it looked like before to what it looks like now, it’s pretty amazing. If this happened later in the summer, I don’t know that I would have been able to take this step. I probably would have had surgery. I’m very fortunate that it happened when it happened.”
Richards is excited at the progress, although Angels GM Billy Eppler describes himself as “cautiously optimistic.” Eppler said Monday: “I want to see how he goes through his long-toss progression and bullpen sessions. When he does that, I’ll feel better. I’m trying to rein in any overt optimism that we can pencil him in for 2017, but I do feel better about it today than I did yesterday.”
This has been a lost season for the Angels, in large part because of the injuries to starters like Richards, Heaney, Tropeano, and C.J. Wilson, but the return of Richards for the start of the 2017 season could give them a big lift next season.
Richards returning from a UCL tear without Tommy John surgery could also change the way pitchers handle that injury in the future. Stem-cell treatment didn’t work with Heaney, so obviously it’s not a perfect treatment. But if Richards returns to the mound and remains healthy over the long term, stem-cell injections could at least give pitchers a viable alternative to surgery. It’s safe to say a lot of eyes will be on Richards as he continues his throwing program over the next six weeks.