PHOENIX -- Five Brewers pitchers were standing in a cluster during the first week of March when someone remarked they had four Tommy John surgeries among them.
And yet, there were only two elbow scars.
All four surgeries belonged Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa, the 100-mph-throwing Brewers relievers whose eye-popping debuts in 2020 put them right in the thick of the team’s bullpen plans in ’21, whether they make the Opening Day roster or come up during the season. Rasmussen and Topa have undergone two Tommy Johns apiece, yet they were the two hardest throwers to appear in a game for Milwaukee last season.
“I think this is just how medicine improves, right?” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It’s not the curse or whatever that it used to be thought of: ‘two Tommy Johns, you can’t recover from that.’ There’s guys recovering and thriving after that situation.”
Chris Capuano remembers when the situation was different.
Now a top executive with the Major League Baseball Players Association, Capuano was pitching a Spring Training game for the Brewers against the Mariners in 2008 when his elbow blew out for the second time. He had been working on a new, 12-6 curveball, and had thrown a lot of them in the days leading up to that outing.
“Sure enough, it was on one pitch that I felt that familiar popping sensation in my elbow,” Capuano said. “Immediately the sirens started going off in my head. I knew something was terribly wrong.”
He’d undergone his first elbow reconstruction in 2002 while pitching in the D-backs’ system. Capuano was now 29, still young enough and healthy enough, he figured, to successfully navigate another rehab if he could stay mentally strong.
Still, he was attempting something rare. Even now, it remains relatively rare. After Padres pitcher Mike Clevinger underwent a second Tommy John surgery last year, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that he was the 43rd Major League pitcher to have the procedure a second time. Most either did not pitch in the Majors again, or had brief and unsuccessful returns.
The newspaper cited two success stories in Clevinger’s cohort: Nathan Eovaldi and Capuano.
“There’s a larger sample size of guys who have done it successfully, and I guess I would count myself on that list,” said Capuano, who logged 718 Major League innings after his second Tommy John for the Brewers, Mets, Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees and Brewers again. “At that time, I don’t think there was anyone who had come back into a starting-rotation role again and logged a significant number of innings after No. 2. I’m pretty sure the list was very small then.
“But it’s almost like the technology curve, where growth is fairly exponential. I think it’s a combination of more guys have done it successfully, the recovery technology is getting better, and the ability to get instant feedback in the recovery process and more detailed information about the load and the stress that’s being put on your body. All that stuff leads to improved outcomes.”
Which brings us to Rasmussen and Topa.
Both thrived in 2020, Rasmussen after a quick rise through Milwaukee’s Minor League system and Topa in out-of-nowhere fashion after reviving his career in the independent leagues. When club officials met in a conference room at the start of 2020 Spring Training, COVID-19 still a distant threat, they went through dozens of slides of players with a chance to impact the team in the coming season, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Topa didn’t even have a slide.
Brewers fans learned Topa's unique story when he was promoted to the big leagues last September. Two Tommy Johns -- one in college and another as a Pirates Minor Leaguer. Released at the end of 2017 Spring Training. Independent ball and a velocity jump. A brief stint with the Rangers. Thoughts of retirement. A pitching video posted to Twitter and shared by the @PitchingNinja, which led to an opportunity with the Brewers in 2019. By the spring of 2020, Topa was beginning to open eyes.
“You did see him throw in a Minor League ‘B’ game or an extra game or whatever and say, ‘Wow, that’s a really good arm,’” Counsell said. “So, he was coming on the radar at this time in the spring last year.”
It was while baseball shut down for the coronavirus pandemic that Topa made his biggest strides. He’d been talking to Brewers Minor League pitching coordinator Cam Castro about refining his slider into a more sweeping pitch, and Topa set about making those changes at home in Philadelphia.
The results when Topa reported to the Brewers’ alternate training site were remarkable, and they showed up when he made his big league debut at age 29. His 99.9 mph sinker against the Cardinals on Sept. 24 was the hardest pitch thrown by a Brewer in 2020, and he paired that power fastball with a slider that averaged 83.3 mph and 15.6 inches of horizontal break -- 136 percent better than average, according to Statcast.
“This time last year, I was excited to get an early camp invite on the Minor League side to get out here and throw in a few backup situations in big league games,” said Topa, the Brewers’ No. 28 prospect. “To think it’s come full circle, making my debut last year and to have the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs, it’s been an unbelievable opportunity, something that I’ll never forget.”
Then there is Rasmussen, four years Topa’s junior but just as tested.
He had his first Tommy John surgery at Oregon State before being drafted in the first round by the Rays (31st overall) in 2017 only to see the opportunity slip away when he learned he needed another surgery. The Brewers took a shot on Rasmussen in the sixth round of the 2018 Draft while he was still recovering, and he made it all the way to Double-A by the end of ’19 and to the big leagues in ’20.
Last season, Rasmussen’s 97.6 mph average fastball was tops on the team, edging Topa by 0.1 mph.
“I made my debut, an incredible moment, an incredible season, I had a ton of fun, and then we got married after the season,” said Rasmussen, who wed his wife, Stevie, in November. “A very high point in my life. But it's almost bittersweet because a lot of people are struggling right now and doing everything they can to make ends meet and just coping with what's going on today.
“There’s a lot of negativity. But whenever you get a chance to celebrate, I think people should right now. You should celebrate the highs right now.”
No one understands that better than Capuano. He remembers running a thousand laps around the Brewers’ rehab complex in Phoenix while waiting for his arm to heal. In the years since, he occasionally has been contacted by players facing the same grueling process.
Capuano marvels at the power arms in today’s game.
“I’m very impressed by the level of polish and stuff I see in the younger guys, especially from the velocity and explosiveness standpoint of it,” Capuano said. “It used to be pretty rare to see guys throwing above 95 mph. Now we’re almost desensitized to the level at which these guys are able to perform.”