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Pirates' Hudson not slowed by Tommy John surgeries

| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 6:45 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Daniel Hudson pitches during the eighth inning against the Red Sox on Monday, April 3, 2017, at Fenway Park in Boston.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Daniel Hudson pitches during the eighth inning against the Red Sox Monday, April 3, 2017, at Fenway Park in Boston.
Getty Images
The Pirates' Daniel Hudson to the Cardinals' Randal Grichuk during the eighth inning April 19, 2017 in St Louis, Mo.

ST. LOUIS — Almost from the start of the free agent market last winter, Daniel Hudson figured he would end up with the Pirates.

“I had interest from other teams,” Hudson said. “But from the get-go, I kind of thought I'd be in Pittsburgh because of the way they talked to me early on. They were the one team that did it consistently. It seemed like a good fit, and they really wanted me.”

The Pirates were keen on Hudson's arsenal of a mid-90s mph fastball, slider and changeup. They liked the poise he showed in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen and his eight years' experience with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox.

Most important, the Pirates were not put off by the fact Hudson endured a pair of reconstructive elbow operations.

“We have no problem pushing in our chips on some guys who've dealt with adversity,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “A guy who's pushed through adversity … who's spent some time away from the game and had time to think through some things, who takes nothing for granted, we like those guys.”

Hudson's challenge was even greater, as his two Tommy John surgeries were separated by just 344 days. The experience made him mentally tougher, but also forced him to adjust his pitching style — sacrificing some stuff for survival.

“I can't do that rehab again,” Hudson said. “If I really want to make a run at this, I needed to switch things up and try something different.”

Ligament replacement surgery has saved careers. About 87 percent of pitchers make successful comebacks after their first procedure, though many of them perform at a lower level than before.

Although TJ surgery has become commonplace, having more than one is rare.

In 2015, surgeons Robert Keller and Bill Moutzouros of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit studied 33 pitchers who had two TJ operations. Only 66 percent pitched again, and those who did return had shorter careers.

Hudson had his first operation July 9, 2012. The following June, as he pitched in a minor league game on a rehab assignment, Hudson felt tightness around his elbow.

The ligament had torn again. Two weeks later, on June 18, 2013, he had his second surgery. It took another 443 days of rehab before he made it back to the majors.

“You hear about guys coming back from Tommy John and it's kind of like a reset button,” Hudson said. “They start over from scratch, and they're fine for a few years.

“When I got hurt the second time, I found I really had to throw myself into taking care of my body better and fixing a few things mechanically, doing a few things differently and making some other parts of my body stronger to take some of the stress off that ligament. It forces you to take it a little bit more serious and be a little bit more all in.”

Hudson also altered his mechanics so there is less lag — a shorter arm action in back, which many pitching gurus said is good for arm health.

Instead of looping his arm all the way around, Hudson pulls it up sooner. The decreased drag on his arm translates into less stress on his elbow.

“I might sacrifice some deception that way, but with a couple of tweaks and my body being stronger, I'm throwing harder than I did before,” Hudson said. “So, that's an even trade.”

The loss of deception is noticeable. Hitters have swung at 71 percent of his pitches in the strike zone over the past two seasons. Earlier in his career, they swung 67 percent of the time.

Although there is less horizontal movement on his pitches, Hudson is throwing with greater speed.

As a rookie in 2009, Hudson's four-seam fastball averaged 93.4 mph. In 2015, his first full season after the surgeries, his average velocity was 96.0 mph.

“I was more surprised to see those numbers than anybody,” Hudson said. “I wasn't expecting to throw any harder.”

The velo boost is partly because of his switch from a starting pitcher to a reliever, which allows him to throw in shorter bursts of maximum effort.

“And, as I've always said, I did 2 12 years of (post-surgery) shoulder exercises and that can't do anything but help my velo,” Hudson said with a laugh.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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