“I think I’m going to come back better.”
That was Kyle Schwarber’s prediction for his return from knee surgery. I’m not inclined to disagree with him, at least not to his face, but I wanted to do a little more research on how other baseball players have fared following similar injuries. While baseball is rife with UCL tears — that’s the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow that leads to Tommy John surgery — ACL and LCL tears are far less common.
So not only are we dealing with a small sample size, but I’m not actually a medical expert. Shocker, I know. To make matters worse, I slept in my own bed and not at a Holiday Inn Express last night — which, is that joke even relevant any more? Oh, also, I may or may not be drinking as I write this.
My goal here is not to do some kind of deep-dive statistical analysis, but rather to take a look at a few players — Victor Martinez, Jason Castro, and Moises Alou — who missed a season due to ACL reconstruction. While they might seem like disparate examples, all three men present varying degrees of similarity to War Bear.
Martinez began his career as a catcher but was moved to more of a 1B/DH role a couple years before the injury in question. Castro, also a catcher, was a high draft pick (10th overall in 2008) who made his debut in June of 2010. Alou peed on his hands to strengthen them for the rigors of the Major League season. He also played left field and was an All-Star masher. None of them provide a linear comparison, but if you put all three in a blender — which a certain mid-rotation pitcher might do if he ever had to have his jaw reset for some reason — you’d have a relatively Schwarberian baseballer.
Below you’ll find a chart featuring each player’s pre- and post-injury stats, along with their ages during those seasons.
It’s important to note that two of the guys above are significantly older, though you’d never know it from Alou’s stats. His post-surgery numbers are pretty staggering for a player of any age, let alone one who’s supposedly past his prime. Of course, you have to take the era in which he played into account too.
Alou may have been aided by something stronger than urine, but the jump in his slash line after sitting out all of 1999 (I can’t help but think of Price and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony every time I write/say that) is impressive nonetheless. He would go on to play eight more seasons and pick up three All-Star nods along the way, including one in his second season after reconstruction.
Martinez was roughly a year older than Alou when he suffered his own injury, but he was still able to put up a solid slash in his first season back. It was actually the following season, 2014, in which he put up perhaps the best offensive numbers of his career, .335/.409/.565 with 32 homers. Things dropped off a bit after that, but you’d expect as much from a 36-year-old former catcher.
Likewise, Castro’s numbers jumped in his first post-surgery season but he actually experienced his best offensive campaign in the following year. 2013 saw him slash .276/.350/.485 with 18 home runs and a trip to the All-Star game. He hasn’t been able to maintain the success in recent years, but was never really at the same level of the others from the jump.
The differences in age and time make it difficult to say exactly what this means for Schwarber, but the purpose of this brief exercise wasn’t to attempt to project the Cub’s 2017 numbers. I merely wanted to determine the plausibility of War Bear’s vow to come back better. The sample is admittedly very limited — myopic really — but I think it’s pretty clear that coming back better is very possible. Likely, even.
Having suffered through my own ACL reconstruction, I can say that, done properly, the rehab really does make you stronger. I absolutely busted my ass just so I could get back for intramural basketball — I stepped onto the floor after about three months to hit a 3-pointer, then scored 17 points in my first full game a month later (yes, it’s pathetic that I remember that) — so you know Schwarber is going to crush it in order to get back on the field. Even so, there’s the very real possibility that he won’t be quite able to let himself go full throttle next season.
While the physical aspects of his comeback will draw the most attention, the mental side is going to be at least as important. For an athlete at any level, confidence is key. It’s one thing to be sure of your body when you’re in the weight room or the batting cage, but pushing the last sliver of doubt about your rebuilt knee out of your mind is quite another. No matter what the doctors and trainers may tell you, it can take a long time to really allow yourself to trust your body. I’d wager that factors in the improvement we see from the players above in their second year back.
I do believe the time off will yield other, more positive impacts on Schwarber’s psychology too, though. When you’re laid up, you’ve got all kinds of time to observe the game and you’re forced to experience it from a different perspective. Schwarber’s preparation over the next few months will be all mental and he’ll be able to watch tape and pick brains ad infinitum. If you think this kid isn’t deadly serious about wanting to be the best, you’re dead wrong. Already possessed of a very advanced plate approach, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see him even stronger in that regard when he gets back.
Perhaps I’m just using confirmation bias to convince myself here, Lord knows I want to feel better about the injury. But I truly believe we will see an improved Kyle Schwarber when he reports to Mesa next March. And as scary as the collision with Dexter Fowler was for the Cubs and their fans, the idea of War Bear 2.0 being better than the original should have opponents wetting their pants.