Steel Valley's Morrison battles back after Tommy John surgery
Like others, Derek Morrison was told that pitchers who undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction — better known as Tommy John surgery — often are better after the procedure when it comes to throwing a baseball.
There can be better velocity, better control and better bite on the slider. And, of course, the pain is gone.
Almost 19 months after undergoing the procedure on his left elbow, the Steel Valley senior isn't about to deny he's throwing harder, has better control and has a later break on his slider. But he will disagree on how he got to that point.
“I don't give any credit to the surgery for where I am at,” Morrison said. “I am a believer that you become better and stronger because of physical therapy. Going through therapy, you are working muscles that you have never worked before, and that's where the success comes from. That's where my success has come from.”
Morrison's success for undefeated Steel Valley (5-0, 3-0) through the first three weeks of the season has been remarkable, especially considering a torn ligament in the pitching elbow of a 16-year-old can be career ending — or at least end his days pitching.
After not even being allowed to play the field as a junior, Morrison returned to the mound this spring and has been spectacular. Morrison is 2-0 with a save in three appearances for the Section 4-AA-leading Ironmen. Morrison has struck out 13 in 12 innings and has yet to allow an earned run.
It's been a pleasant surprise for Steel Valley coach Tim Vickers.
“Even though he was talking about coming back to pitch, by no means were we planning on having him,” Vickers said. “It was like a gift for us when was able to go out there. You have to understand, it was almost like he had to re-learn his entire body. It is almost like he is a completely new pitcher.”
Vickers, who was a pitcher at Division II California (Pa.), is amazed by what he has seen from the lefty who had an 8-3 record and started every important game for the Ironmen, including a pair of playoff games, as a freshman and sophomore.
“His delivery is much more repeatable and much more precise,” Vickers said. “Before the surgery, he was more effectively wild. Now he goes out there with a plan, and he works with it. He couldn't necessarily do that when he was a freshman and sophomore.”
Still, it hasn't been an easy road back for Morrison, starting with a slight complication during his surgery that turned a two-hour procedure into more than four hours.
Typically, a ligament is removed from the wrist and placed in a figure-eight pattern through holes drilled through the bone inside the elbow to provide stability. But doctors decided to remove a ligament from his hamstring instead after realizing on the operating table that the wrist ligament wouldn't be strong enough.
“It was weird waking up and feeling a pain in my leg,” Morrison said. “I started to get scared because I thought I went through the wrong surgery.”
Morrison started his rehab almost immediately but wasn't allowed to start throwing until six months later. He gradually built up the strength in his arm and finally was cleared to throw 13 months after surgery.
However, pitching still was a question mark.
“It wasn't the fastball I was worried about. It was letting that first slider go because I tore it on a slider,” Morrison said. “I was able to get the grip and go through the motions, but when it was time to go 100 percent with that pitch, I was a little bit hesitant. After I threw that first one and it felt good, I was good to go.”
Still, Morrison, who hit .491 last year and is at .533 this year, got a scholarship to Division II South Carolina Aiken based on his batting, making him wonder if it was worth trying to pitch again after surgery.
“I definitely had that thought but only after this year,” Morrison said. “I don't even want to think about pitching in college. I think that would be a ticking time bomb when it comes to my arm. I am more than happy to pitch now and will do whatever I can to help this team succeed this year.”