'Hit the reset button': Velasquez on why he had surgery

July 8th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Justice delos Santos’ Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

will not throw another pitch this season. As he sat in the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, the 31-year-old expressed he was in a good spot.

“The mental affects the body a lot,” Velasquez said. “Physically, my body is really good. The lower half is moving. Mentally, I think it’s never been better. I’m in the right position, in the right place mentally and physically. It seems like every day is a progression.”

Velasquez’s year has been done for about a month after undergoing season-ending surgery to reconstruct his right ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) -- a crushing blow for the righty who was having a career year.

Velasquez, who signed a one-year deal this offseason, emerged as a foundational member of the Pirates’ rotation in April, posting a 3.06 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings. He concluded his first month by throwing four consecutive quality starts -- the first time he had done so in his career.

On May 4, Velasquez left his start against the Rays after three innings due to right elbow inflammation. He subsequently hit the 15-day injured list, went through the rehab process and made a rehab start with Triple-A Indianapolis on May 20. The right-hander returned to Pittsburgh’s rotation on May 27 but pitched just two innings against the Mariners before leaving with right elbow discomfort.

In Seattle, Velasquez expressed optimism he would pitch again this season. He didn’t believe season-ending surgery was the answer, but following additional testing, the team determined surgery was, indeed, the solution.

This isn’t the first time Velasquez has dealt with arm issues. In 2010, he underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his right UCL. Velasquez’s reconstructed ligament lasted 13 years -- Pirates director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk said -- before an additional procedure was needed.

Velasquez noted that with every MRI test he experienced, dating back to when he first signed with Pittsburgh, the results continued to get worse. Even if he avoided surgery and took extensive time off, there was no guarantee the injury wouldn’t crop back up again. With the health of his right arm regressing, Velasquez ultimately decided surgery was the best decision to keep his career going.

“I think this is something to go with and hit a reset button,” Velasquez said. “I think there was mental clearance of where I felt like this was a reset for me knowing that it wasn’t going to be career-ending. There’s a lot of optimism in the air. I’m making some serious progress from a day-to-day basis.”

For Velasquez, the process has been a tad easier given he’s teammates with , who has gone through his own arm struggles.

In 2011, Hill underwent his own Tommy John surgery. In 2019, Hill partially tore his UCL, but instead of undergoing a second Tommy John surgery, Dr. Jeffrey Dugas of the Andrews Sports Medicine Center inserted an “internal elbow brace” around the ligament. Since undergoing that second procedure, Hill, currently the oldest player in baseball at 43, has thrown 415 2/3 innings -- and counting.

“Having conversations years ago about guys having second procedures is obviously a tough one to go through, but I think it was a lot more comforting when I was talking to Rich Hill and he was having his second one,” Velasquez said. “With a guy that has that much experience and has that many years, I think it’s something that falls back on your work ethic. I believe in my own work ethic and what I’ve done over the last two years to get me in the position I’m in now. I think that falls in all kinds of categories that I feel like I can actually get better at.”

While Velasquez’s '23 season is over, he hopes his Pirates' tenure can continue next season. Velasquez, a free agent following this season, expressed he would love to re-sign with the team if the opportunity made sense. He described how he’s never felt tighter with any team than the bunch in Pittsburgh.

“I don’t think I’ve really meshed with any other team besides this one,” Velasquez said. “I don’t think I’ve felt like I was home. Just coming out of Spring Training, it felt like there was a different interaction, a different communication, whether it was on the field or off the field.”