There’s a persistent urban legend in baseball circles that parents are having their teenagers undergo voluntary Tommy John reconstruction in order to make their elbows stronger and as a preemptive strike against something that’s probably going to happen anyway. Setting aside the stupidity of the latter aspect and the abhorrent ethics involved all the way around, there is actually a legitimate kernel of truth buried within the myth.
As anyone who’s gone through joint reconstruction of any kind can tell you, the rehab process is not fun. Doing it right requires battling through a series of exercises to improve strengthen and range of motion, many of which were probably not part of the patient’s daily routine prior to surgery. In addition to increased stability in the joint, it’s entirely likely that the post-surgery regimen creates stronger surrounding musculature.
I know that was the case for me following an ACL reconstruction nearly 20 years ago, since I absolutely busted my ass to get myself back on the court for intramural basketball in college. The haste with which I came back was foolish in hindsight, and the lengthy delay between tear and repair — nearly three years — meant I’d essentially ruined my meniscus, but the fact of the matter is that my legs were both stronger afterwards than they had been going in.
Why does any of that matter? Beyond me getting to briefly revisit my semi-athletic glory days, it doesn’t. Except that I do feel a little kinship with Steven Souza Jr., who I believe can be better and stronger this season than he was when he hit 30 homers for the Rays in 2017. In what was his really his only good season in MLB.
Look, you’re absolutely right to be skeptical of a guy who has played just 72 games in the last two seasons and it’d be silly to count on him as an everyday starter in a corner outfield spot. At the same time, it’s easy to see how he could serve as a platoon bat with serious pop.
Souza missed all of 2019 after destroying his left knee when he skated awkwardly across the plate while scoring a run late in spring training. He completely tore his both ACL and LCL in addition to partial tears of his PCL and posterior lateral capsule. You probably don’t need me to tell you just how brutal an injury that is, but it’s difficult for someone who’s not gone through it to really understand how much work is involved in the recovery.
“I was just talking to the guy who rehabbed me, Charles Maka,” Souza told MLB.com’s Russ Dorsey. “I was like, ‘I really don’t think people know how much work I put in.’ Doing two-a-days pretty much since the day I got hurt, trying to get my knee strength back.”
Even if Souza was an absolute workout freak, it’s unlikely he would have put in that same level of effort had he not been injured. His in-season regimen would have been aimed more at maintenance, while even an intense winter routine would not be fueled by the same desire he felt to return to the field. After all, fear can be a helluva motivator.
“I think that question in my head hovered a lot,” Souza admitted to MLB.com. ‘Am I going to have to be a different guy? Am I going to pepper the ball over the yard? Am I going to be able to drive it out? Six months out of surgery, I was driving the ball. When I hit that mark and saw the exit velo and the ball leaving the yard, it was peace of mind.”
At 6-foot-4 and well over 200 pounds, Souza is built like a linebacker and his game is heavily predicated on power. As such, being forced into a finesse game by a loss of lower-body strength probably wasn’t going to work out. There’s really no way to know for sure exactly how he’ll perform over a larger sample, but the Cubs were confident enough in his health to hand him one of only two guaranteed MLB deals they agreed to this offseason.
I mean, yeah, a $1 million base isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement from a front office that had to shop in the scratch-and-dent aisle. Who knows, maybe Souza takes a big cut and steps out of the box funny, straining the same right pectoral that limited him in 2018 and trashing his knee again to effectively end his career. If that happens, there’ll unfortunately be more than a few naysayers dancing on his grave.
He seems like a good dude, though, and I really believe the work he put in over the last year is going to pay off. Not in some sort of All-Star breakout or anything, but maybe with Souza serving as a competent fourth or fifth outfielder who supplies a little right-handed pop and brings positive energy to the clubhouse. By today’s baseball economics, that would be a hugely successful return on investment.