Taillon on TJ rehab: 'My elbow feels amazing'

September 14th, 2020

You might expect a pessimistic attitude from someone who’s been through the professional turmoil that has experienced. Taillon’s promising young career was interrupted by reconstructive elbow surgery, a hernia operation and testicular cancer, only to be derailed again last year by a second Tommy John surgery.

But Taillon, more than a year into his rehabilitation, is as positive as can be these days. He’s facing hitters in live batting practice, with a two-inning outing set for Tuesday afternoon in Cincinnati. He’s taken well to the mechanical changes he made early on in this process.

“I’ve got to be honest. The reason I’m upbeat is because I really do feel so good,” Taillon said Monday via Zoom from Great American Ball Park. “My elbow feels amazing. This rehab’s been great.”

And the 28-year-old right-hander is optimistic that he can contribute to Pittsburgh’s rotation next season, the way he did when he posted a 3.20 ERA while making 32 starts in 2018.

“When I’m healthy and when I’m right, I know I’m pretty dang good at throwing a baseball. I’m feeling great right now, and I’m getting great feedback from my lives and stuff,” Taillon said. “Yes, I want to be considered among the elite and among the best pitchers in the league. But I know that if I’m right, I can do some things that a lot of guys can’t do in the league. I just really need to stay healthy.”

A lot of pitchers hit an emotional low point during the monotonous recovery from Tommy John surgery. Progress can feel so slow, the end so far away, and they’re constantly reminded of how many pitchers aren’t the same when they return. After going through this six years ago, Taillon learned to celebrate each milestone, whether it was the first time throwing or a successful bullpen session.

“Every time I watch him throw live BP, it’s a step closer to him getting back on the mound and pitching at PNC, which is extremely encouraging,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He’s going to be a big part of our club next year, and each healthy step he takes is vital to us.”

So far, Taillon is also pleased with the way he’s pitched against his teammates in live BP.

“Each one's gotten a little sharper. The command’s probably ahead of where I thought it would be. I’m throwing three pitches for strikes,” Taillon said. “Stuff’s been really good. Fastball [velocity is] where I'm used to having it. Spin rate’s been going up a little bit. My vertical break’s been going up a little bit. Spin efficiency has gotten better throughout the rehab. So, there's a lot of a lot of bright spots.”

More important than anything else, Taillon believes he’ll come back from this with a better chance to stay healthy while remaining a starting pitcher. His new delivery is more biomechanically sound, the result of his own research and work with senior rehab coordinator A.J. Patrick, pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage.

“It's tricky to change the way you throw, the way you've been throwing since you're a kid,” Taillon said. “But I came to the realization that two Tommy Johns kind of lets you know that what you're doing isn't working.”

Taillon has a much better understanding of how his body works than he did after his first surgery, and that will be reflected in his between-starts routine. Earlier in his career, Taillon loved getting in the weight room and doing heavy lifts between outings. Those days are probably over.

“Now, my biggest focus is on my throwing. It’s all about my mechanics,” Taillon said “It’s all about my throwing, and everything I do in the weight room, and everything I do outside of being at the field is to put myself in the best position strictly to throw and stay healthy.”

Taillon’s rehab also shows how different the baseball industry as a whole approaches pitchers’ health. Most years, pitchers simply stop throwing when the season ends. They go from full-intensity work to complete rest, then they ramp it back up again before Spring Training.

But Taillon will work his way up to a three-inning outing in the coming weeks, then he’ll slowly decrease his workload heading into the offseason. He’ll play catch four days a week, then three, then he’ll stop throwing, then he’ll just do arm care, then -- after all that -- he’ll actually take a few weeks off.

“It's interesting the way the game is heading. You throw super intensely every five days and you throw every day in between, then out of nowhere you just stop and your body's supposed to adjust to it,” Taillon said. “A lot of guys around the league are starting to do a little ramp-down period or continuing to throw throughout the offseason. You don't get hurt playing catch, and that's when you build your good habits, so I think you're going to see a lot more guys trying it.”