Drew Hutchison’s rookie year in the big leagues didn’t have a proper finale. There was no debate about an innings limit or a demotion and subsequent call-up for redemption.
The right-hander became the fifth starter in the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation three weeks into the 2012 season and posted a respectable 4.60 ERA, despite never appearing in a game above Double-A.
It all ended in June (unbeknownst to him at the time) with nine pitches and a pop against the Philadelphia Phillies.
He reveals his souvenir from the lost season — just shy of six inches long on the crook of his right elbow.
“It’s a just normal Tommy John scar,” said Hutchison, seated in the dugout at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., in his Blue Jay blues.
The 23-year-old is one of the Toronto’s delegates at Arizona Fall League, where top prospects from all 30 major league teams make up the six teams in the six-week off-season finishing school.
Diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament after the fateful start in June 2012, Hutchison expected to rest for four to six weeks and then resume a throwing program.
“After I had the first opinion, I went and got a second opinion,” he said. “I listened to the consensus of the doctors to give (rest and rehab) a try and I did. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. You just have to accept what’s going on and do the best thing for your career at that point. For me, it was giving it a chance.”
By August, he’d celebrate his 22nd birthday while recovering surgery to repair his UCL. Though most tasks were easily resumed, the most important one was next to impossible.
“That’s what was the toughest thing about it,” Hutchison said. “Everything’s normal and everything’s good, but you can’t throw. Your arm doesn’t work. The one thing you need to do what you love and do your job, you don’t have.”
If he needed to know if a feeling was abnormal, or something should be expected, he could look to teammates on the disabled list, Kyle Drabek and Luis Perez. Both had Tommy John surgery in 2012.
“We were in misery together, you could put it that way,” he said. “If I had been by myself, I wouldn’t have been real sure what was going on...it helped.”
And so Hutchison poured himself into his rehab, benefiting from Drabek and Perez, and listening to doctors and trainers.
“You put everything you have into it and have the faith that it’s going to work out,” he said. “Even though I lost almost two months (before surgery), hopefully when I look back eight years from now, two months isn’t going to be that big of a deal. I just listened to what everyone said. I gave it a shot.”
Hutchison can’t stress enough that everything’s going well. His numbers in the desert would support the idea that he’s getting the feel back for being on the mound.
Fall League starts, unlike regular-season starts, aren’t meant to be marathons. With 20 pitchers on the roster, starters are generally replaced early to maximize efforts from multiple relief pitchers.
He worked five scoreless innings in his Thursday start for the Salt River Rafters, striking out three, allowing two hits and a walk. For the month, he’s holding batters to a .127 average and has allowed just one earned run in 15 2/3 innings.
It’s a bright light for Hutchison, who posted a career-high 6.63 ERA in five starts (19.0 IP) when he was reinstated from the disabled list and optioned to Triple-A Buffalo in August.
“Here, I’m getting back to being fully healthy and getting back on the mound consistently,” he said of the staggering difference in performance from his Triple-A stint to October. “When you take that much time off, you’re going to be rusty when you come back.”
In the slow recovery process over the last 14 months, very little has changed and Hutchison is finally (and luckily, he notes) feeling the rhythm of an every-five-days job coming back strong. He barely considers a small tweak in his delivery to be an adjustment at all.
“I’m not as far across my body as I was before, but it’s not even by that much,” he explained. “It’s a little adjustment I made that’s better for my pitches.”
The Blue Jays’ 2014 clubhouse will be decidedly different than the last one Hutchison walked into, but his enthusiasm and excitement for the next challenge is clear.
With storied veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, a healthy Brandon Morrow set to return, and surprise fringe starters Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond in the mix, Hutchison isn’t losing sleep. He knows competition is part of the game.
“I love to compete,” he said. “That’s why I love this game, so I can’t wait for the opportunity.”