Kris Bubic's season ended before it ever really got started. The Royals lefty is scheduled to undergo full ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, or Tommy John surgery, the team announced on Friday.
Bubic is scheduled for surgery next week with Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles.
“It’s never easy,” Bubic said Friday on a Zoom call with reporters. “I feel like we were really making some good strides, turning the corner to elevate the stuff, a new approach, and just being aggressive. I was getting pretty close to a really good version of myself out there.
“But unfortunately, I’ve had to put that on pause for now and hope that I can pick that back up when I get back.”
Bubic hit the 15-day injured list on Sunday with a left forearm flexor strain following his five-inning outing against the Braves. He had felt some soreness leading up to the start but figured it was general aches and pains that pitchers work through in between starts, believing it was manageable.
When he got on the mound for a cold and rainy start against the Braves, he noticed his stuff was down but wanted to pitch through it. He downplayed the tightness he felt in his forearm.
“You can always come out of the game early,” Bubic said. “But being a competitor, I wanted to be out there. I wanted to give it all I had. I didn’t want to leave the game early, put the team in a bad spot, having to use a bunch of pitchers to get through the game. I just felt like it was manageable enough the other day to get through it. I have no regrets about pitching that day.”
Bubic went for imaging the next day and was diagnosed with the flexor strain, an injury that typically would require rest. But through the MRI process, Bubic and Royals doctors found that his UCL was damaged enough to warrant a discussion about surgery. Bubic hadn’t felt the usual symptoms of a UCL tear, but the imaging showed the damage had been building for some time.
After seeking a second and third opinion in California on Thursday, Bubic decided to undergo elbow surgery. The typical recovery timeline for Tommy John surgery is 12-15 months.
“I think he's in a really good frame of mind about it,” said manager Matt Quatraro regarding Bubic prior to Friday’s series opener in Anaheim. “As [Bubic] said, there's gonna be ups and downs through the whole rehab process -- that's natural for everybody -- both physical and emotional. But I feel really good about the people that we have helping and surrounding him, and I feel really good about where he is and what he knows he's trying to get back to. So I think he's in the best spot he can be.”
“I would say it was on the mild side of what guys report,” Royals head athletic trainer Kyle Turner said of Bubic’s forearm soreness. “Each week, with each starter, we work our butts off, they work their butts off to get rid of all the soreness from the previous start and be ready on Day 5. We were doing a lot of that between starts, and we all felt comfortable about where we were going into the start. Unfortunately, he sustained a strain to his flexor while he was out there.
“And subsequently, through diagnostics, we found that the ligament is insufficient to hold up to the stress he’s putting on it. The discomfort was from the flexor strain, not from his ligament.”
The surgery news comes at an unfortunate time for the Royals, who entered Friday’s series opener against the Angels in Anaheim with a 4-15 record, and for Bubic, who looked like he had turned a corner in 2023. After three years of up-and-down results and a 4.89 career ERA from 2020-22, Bubic made sweeping changes to his arsenal this offseason. He added a slider, changed the grip of his changeup and saw an increase in velocity this season.
Before the start against the Braves, Bubic had a 1.64 ERA in two starts with 13 strikeouts and just one walk.
“Any time you tweak a repertoire or add certain pitches or change your mindset or change your intent, all that kind of comes together,” Bubic said. “Sometimes, your body adapts to the stress well, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just kind of how it goes. It’s the risk you accept as a pitcher. Being an overhead thrower obviously isn’t a natural motion.
“It’s not that this is all that uncommon in the game anymore. No regrets in terms of tweaking stuff and changing stuff, just trying to bring out the best version of myself.”
The Royals will use an opener in Anaheim on Friday in place of Bubic, with Taylor Clarke starting and Ryan Yarbrough following with the bulk of the innings. Who takes over that fifth spot in the next turn remains to be seen. Lefty Daniel Lynch is still on the injured list with a left rotator cuff strain but figures to return by mid-May. Yarbrough could take over until then, or the Royals could call up a starter from Triple-A, like Jonathan Heasley or Mike Mayers.