The success rate for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery is high, but there are no guarantees. A second elbow replacement comes with even more risks.
Shawn Tolleson knows that better than anyone.
The former Texas Rangers closer retired Wednesday after yet another setback some 19 months from his second Tommy John in May 2017. Tolleson, the Rangers Pitcher of the Year in 2015 after registering 35 saves, suffered a torn flexor tendon last spring and it went out again last week.
“Everything in the process has been a bumpy road,” Tolleson said. “For the last three months everything had been going good. Just a few days ago I was warming up before a bullpen session and just kind of felt that I re-aggravated my elbow. I rested over the weekend, and it didn’t get any better. I started having thoughts in my head if this was God’s plan for me.”
He became a free agent following the season after he declined assignment to the minor leagues and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. He never pitched for the Rays in 2017 before having surgery but signed a minor-league deal with the Rangers and was in spring training last year before having an issue toward the end of camp.
“I made the decision leaving spring training last year that I’m going to give it one more year,” Tolleson said. “I said if I’m not ready by spring training 2019, it’s probably time to think about doing something else. When this injury happened Friday, I was just immediately discouraged by it and bummed.”
He initially underwent Tommy John surgery as a senior at Allen High School. He went on to pitch at Baylor and was a 30th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010.
Tolleson made his MLB debut in 2012 and came to the Rangers on waiver claim after the 2013 season. He said that he was thankful to return to the Rangers last spring and for the chance to give 2019 a try.
After discussing things with general manager Jon Daniels, Tolleson received the clarity to his situation he had been seeking.
“It just wasn’t happening,” Tolleson said. “My elbow’s just not ready to throw baseballs like it used to.
“[Daniels] called and was just checking in, and I was extremely honest with him with how my elbow was feeling. I wanted to get a feeling with how he was feeling toward me. He said, ‘Hey, if you can’t come to spring training, I can’t promise you that we’re even going to have a spot for you even in Triple A if you don’t make the major-league roster.’ I was just praying for clarity, and he was very very very helpful in helping me make that.”
Tolleson decided only around lunchtime Wednesday to retire but said that he has been thinking nonstop about what he wants to do. He wants to stay in baseball in some capacity.
“I love the game of baseball,” he said. “I hope to always remains connected somehow to the game. I can’t begin to tell you what capacity that would be, but it’s been the biggest part of my life for as long as I can remember. To step away from that cold turkey and not be involved in some way sounds terrible.”