In 2016 Angels ace Garrett Richards took to the mound just six times before being shut down for the season on May 6, 2016 due to a partial tear of his UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) in his elbow, an injury that typically requires Tommy John surgery and a prolonged absence from any baseball activities.
Fortunately for Richards his tear was a unique one as it ran lengthwise along his UCL, as opposed to a standard tear which goes across one’s ligament. This, combined with new advances in stem cell technology, gave Richards the option to avoid going under the knife and instead undergo stem cell treatment.
This and much more on the topic of stem cell research and its role in baseball was revealed in a recent piece published by Yahoo.com’s Jeff Passan, who also went into plenty of detail regarding the nature of the actual stem cell treatment.
A doctor guided a needle into the iliac crest of his pelvic bone and began to extract bone marrow. Richards was wide awake, the blessing of local anesthesia saving him from physical pain but not the anxiety that crept into his head: Is this really going to work?
Within a few minutes, the harvested marrow was hurried to a centrifuge, spun to separate the good stuff, mixed into a slurry of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and readied to inject into Richards’ damaged right elbow.
“Science, bro,” Richards reportedly told Passan. “I’m a believer now.”
It’s hard not to be if you’re Richards. According to the article, if Richards opted for Tommy John surgery the earliest possible return date for him would have been following the 2017 All-Star break.
Now, Richards is poised to start the season on the hill for the Angels and has been throwing 98 MPH fastballs once again in spring training.
“I feel as good as I ever have throwing a baseball,” said at the team’s spring training facility on Monday.
For Richards, the results have seemingly turned out stellar, and while stem cell treatment could revolutionize baseball, there is still a little bit of skepticism regarding the procedure.
In May 2013, a paper published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found 30 of 34 overhand throwers with partial UCL tears who used PRP had returned to their previous level of competition. This was reason for celebration. If a player could avoid the 14-month-plus recovery from the surgery, better for him as well as the team.
Another study arrived in 2016 that didn’t cast doubt on the value of orthobiologics so much as offer a different avenue: rest. The 28 players used everything from electrical stimulation, ultrasound, laser therapy, massage and other soft-tissue work. And when paired with rest, their return to previous level came in at 84 percent. It was almost exactly as effective as PRP.
Even though Richards is good to go, neither him or the Angels plan on taking any chances with his arm this year.
Passan notes that Richards has used his time off to reassess his mechanics and fix any “inefficiencies” in his delivery, which should also help him stay healthy.
He’ll be targeting a pitch count below 100 for each game and is looking to keep his workload under 200 innings, which should hopefully keep the Angels’ ace on the mound and off the operating/stem cell treatment table for the foreseeable future.