PHILADELPHIA — All of this is nonsense, but this is Bryce Harper and everything about his career has defied convention. There was never a recovery from a Tommy John operation like this because, rather than spending it in solitary confinement like most do, Harper stayed with the Phillies. His recovery process is public – not on the back grounds of a distant training complex. Each of his movements is filmed. He cleared all the checkpoints faster than expected by club officials.
This is really what is happening. Harper is soaring towards one of the fastest reconstructive elbow surgery comebacks of all time. He has a doctor’s appointment scheduled for early May in Los Angeles when the Phillies are there for the back half of a six-game road trip.
“If we get clearance from the doctor, we’ll see when he can start DHing,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said Thursday. “But it shouldn’t be too far after that.”
It’s possible Harper will be in the lineup the first weekend in May — or soon after — once the Phillies return from California. As long as the doctor allows it. The Phillies are operating, team sources said, as if it were a plausible scenario.
Unpack the details and it’s even more absurd. Harper underwent surgery on November 23. He could return less than six months after having his right elbow (thrower) reconstructed. He would do that without playing in minor league rehab games. He would beat the vague schedule – “sometimes before the stars break”, set by the Phillies on the day he underwent surgery – by more than two months.
But the Phillies have always said they’ll keep pace with Harper — as long as doctors, athletic trainers and strength coaches approve. Team officials remained open-minded about Harper’s return date, but were surprised by the pace.
Harper practiced batting in the field for the first time on April 5 at Yankee Stadium. Over the next 15 days, Harper spent a lot of time learning first base. But his main focus has been his striking because right now he is fully allowed to swing without restrictions.
Harper caught from 60 feet on Thursday – the first time he’s done this since last year. It was an important step. But that has nothing to do with his return schedule as a DH. There is no indication when he might play on the pitch. The final restriction Harper needs to clear for DH: full-intensity slides, including diving into first base on a pickoff. Even if he slides feet first into second base, for example, his elbow may hit the ground. The reconstructed elbow is at risk of breaking for some time after surgery.
In Los Angeles, Harper will see Dr. Neal ElAttrache, an orthopedic surgeon who has become baseball’s hottest doctor. He performed the surgery on Harper and is the doctor of choice for Harper’s agent Scott Boras. If the Phillies pushed Harper to the point of risk, Boras would have stepped in.
Instead, the process went down to this doctor’s appointment.
“I think the plan is really that we cover everything we need to cover before that,” Thomson said. “And then we talk to the doctor and figure out when is the best time to start DHing.”
Harper chose to do his rehab with the Phillies because it was the most comfortable setting for him. He spent hours with batting coach Kevin Long to restore his swing. He faced rehabilitated big league pitchers Ranger Suárez and Nick Nelson. He received immediate feedback from Paul Buchheit, the club’s head sports coach, who oversees everything.
But there is no precedent for what Harper is trying to do.
A 2018 study of position players who had Tommy John surgery published in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery found that the average time for a player to return to their previous professional level was 382 days, or 12 month and a half – more than twice as long as Harper’s projected return.
The study, which was authored by a team of orthopedists and athletic trainers, reviewed 168 Tommy John surgeries on position players from 1984 to 2015. The fastest return identified by the study was from 154 days. This was accomplished by an infielder, and it is unknown if he was returning to the majors or minors. Second baseman Tony Womack had the fastest recorded return by a major leaguer; he didn’t miss a game and needed only 182 days to return to the pitch in 2004.
If Harper returns on May 5 against the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park, it will be 163 days since he had Tommy John surgery.
The study separated positional players into three categories: receiver, infielder and outfielder. There was no specific designation for someone returning solely as a hitter, which Harper does. The closest comparison is Shohei Ohtani, who returned to the Angels in 2019 as a DH just 218 days after his Tommy John surgery.
One of the study’s authors, Stan Conte, said Athleticism a best-case scenario for a position player to return to competition, strictly as a designated hitter after Tommy John’s surgery, is normally six months – and nine to 11 months to play the field as he used to previously.
Conte, who worked for decades in baseball for the Giants, Dodgers and Marlins and now leads Conte Injury Analytics, led the sport’s research efforts to better understand the causes and recovery of Tommy John surgeries. He didn’t heal Harper. He expressed concern about a player accelerating his return from reconstructive elbow surgery and skipping rehabilitation matches.
“You know, I’ve never met him. I never spoke to him,” Conte said. “But he is a confident player. So trust me. They will talk about it (he does not slip head first). And in the beginning, he can do a feet-first slide several times. But then he relaxes and he’ll go headfirst, if that’s what he’s used to. But these are the risks that come with everything. I mean, you could wait 12 months on him, and he could still do something to burst the ligament. We have seen it.
But, in Harper’s case, Conte noted that a left-handed hitter with right elbow surgery is a favorable scenario because there’s more stress on the left elbow when Harper hits.
Harper tested this theory with his on-field strikes. They look like Harper’s trademark, violent swings. The Phillies called up Victor Vargas, a 22-year-old right-hander who played A-ball last year, to pitch Thursday afternoon at Harper. They turned on the pitch clock to simulate a real at-bat at Citizens Bank Park. There were no cages or screens — just one behind Harper to act as a safety net and protect a Trackman device and a Phillies employee watching the swings from an iPad. At one point, Harper picked up a tone and turned to ask if the tracking software thought he was in the zone for a strike.
Harper knocked away some throws from Vargas. The unknown in all of this is what Harper can do against major league pitchers when he returns, but the Phillies are confident at-bats in the minor leagues won’t do much for him.
“It doesn’t look like he’s going to do a rehab assignment,” Thomson said. “We have everything we do here – we bring in pitchers to simulate bats, we have this new projection machine down there that you can put any pitcher on the planet on video and play his stuff – so he can fight there. So we think that when it comes to DHing, we’ve got all the bases covered.
The Phillies had prepared for the realities of this process. There are often setbacks. Harper felt pain as he increased his activity. But that was not enough to halt his progress. His body reacted better than anyone could have ever imagined.
A surging or collapsing Phillies offense that was shut out Thursday for the third time in six games would be quite different with Harper in the middle of the batting order. The Phillies have insisted they won’t rush their star’s return based on how the team played in April. There are higher priorities.
But they won’t stand in the way if the doctor says everything is fine.
“We are encouraged by his progress,” Thomson said. “He is coming.”
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— AthleticismJayson Stark contributed to this report.
(Top photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)