LAKELAND, Fla. – Johnnie Kirkland is part of the long list of pitchers whose career has been saved by Tommy John surgery.
The right-handed hurler in the Detroit Tigers organization, looking to move up from pitching in the short-season New York-Penn League the last two years, believes that the often-feared surgery – that replaces the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow with a tendon from elsewhere in the body – was a blessing in disguise.
“Tommy John, it’s crazy to go through—the rehab sucks,” Kirkland said. at the Tigers spring training facility on Wednesday morning. “But I think you do come back at 110 per cent because I wasn’t throwing nearly as hard before.
“In college [Polk State College], I was topping out at 88-89 [mph] but after TJ [in 2011]—about 18 months—that’s when I started to see a lot of improvement and I started to top out at 95 at Southeastern [University].”
The 25-year-old has been in the minors for the past two years since moving on from the Fires, and the shaggy-haired pitcher is 5-3 with a 2.97 earned-run average over 63 2/3 innings with 19 walks and 58 strikeouts over that span.
Although Kirkland attributed the rigorous rehab process for producing some more immediate power on his fastball, he candidly acknowledged the needed development of his pitching arsenal and accuracy if he is to keep progressing in the minors.
“It’s definitely a different level of baseball,” he said, sitting in the shade of a palm tree at Joker Marchant Stadium, with coffee in hand . “As opposed to college, they don’t make mistakes. If you make a mistake, they capitalize on it.
“Hitters don’t miss anymore so it definitely sharpens you up.”
Something else that has sharpened Kirkland up other than the elbow surgery has been the talent that now surrounds him within the Tigers organization, in particular Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, two of his favourite players.
Kirkland has admired their tenacity from afar.
“I haven’t been able to really reach out and talk to them. But just seeing their work ethic, they’re in there, day in and day out,” he said.
“I got an opportunity to work out with Verlander a couple times and he puts in some time, and some work. He’s no joke, so it’s motivating for sure.”
With Tommy John surgery and a couple of solid seasons behind him, Kirkland is now looking to take the next step.
What that step is still remains unclear to even him.
“Spring training goals are always (to) make a full-season team, try to move up every year,“ said the 2013 25th-round selection.
Follow Jose Colorado on Twitter @coloradurb.