After a year and a half of injury rehab, MLB Pitcher Chris Friedrich is ready to pitch again
“I don’t want to say shitshow.”
Chris Friedrich, a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies from 2012 to 2016 and San Diego Padres in 2017, paused and inhaled deeply before he said something he would regret. He, of course, was recounting the steps that led up to the arthroscopic elbow surgery he underwent on August 23rd.
Before the decision to undergo surgery, Friedrich was content aching with the small, harmless, injuries. The strained left lat and general soreness in his left arm were just roadblocks, not full-blown detours, he thought.
But the incremental accumulation of stress, to his elbow and to his psyche, proved too derailing to overcome.
“With the [elbow injury], I don’t feel like I have that much pain because it almost feels like you’re in a cast — you’re protecting your body and not letting yourself loosen up.”
Friedrich exhaled and let the words trickle from his mouth, confronting the harsh reality of a grueling year and a half of injury rehabilitation.
“But, whatever, it’s a shitshow.”
Chris Friedrich has suffered many injuries since he was chosen 25th overall in the 2008 MLB Draft by the Colorado Rockies.
The 2008 MLB draft was normal: 30 teams made calculated guesses drafting players in 40 rounds, a crapshoot like any other one. The higher the pick though, the more attention scouts put in, and the more calculated the guess was. In that sense, Friedrich’s career has been disappointing.
His path to the league was also normal, he paid his dues in the minor leagues like any other player. Friedrich spent four years in the minors before he made his big league appearance at age 24.
But his major league career has been anything but normal. By 2012, he was starting in the Rockies’ four-man rotation. He won 5 games, and lost 8, and one game, he threw a wild pitch that allowed three runners to score.
By 2016, he was starting again, this time for the Padres, and one game, he struck out nine batters and spattered only two hits over six frames. But by the end of the year, he cleared waivers and entered free-agency.
Through four years of Major League Baseball Friedrich’s statistics read: 10 wins, 28 losses, and a 5.37 ERA.
Relatively, Friedrich isn’t that disappointing. Tim Beckham, the first overall pick in the same draft, took five years to reach the majors and has struggled. There is a better lens in which to view player projections: prospect rankings.
In Baseball America’s prospect rankings, Chris Friedrich once found himself sandwiched between Wade Davis and Freddie Freeman. But innings passed and Friedrich never found his footing in the league.
His fourth season in the MLB, two years ago, Friedrich almost woke up from the nightmares of recurring injuries. He pitched his lowest ERA. He allowed the fewest number of hits per 9 innings. He pitched the most innings he ever has.
To understand Friedrich’s mindset to this injury, you have to understand the obstacles dotting his detour. Before the major leagues, before the tender arms, before the embattling decisions.
Rewind to high school when Friedrich was gaunt, 30 pounds lighter than he was through his first season in college. He was athletic but couldn’t decide which sport to try his hand at; soccer, baseball, or basketball. Once Friedrich decided on baseball, his fastball was slow and nothing about him stood out.
It was his senior year that Friedrich finally separated himself from the pack.
It was then that his dominance surfaced when his team most needed him; striking out 18 batters in 7 innings in an all-regional game.
It was then that the awards piled in; the all-state selection, the All-American selections, the ‘cream of the crop’ nomination by the IHBSCA.
The hours of dedication to his craft, the late-night pitching sessions led to SEC powerhouses picking up the phone and dialing him; Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas, you name it. But Friedrich only wanted the calling coaches to promise enough playing time.
“As a kid growing up, you see the college world series and the big name schools. Everyone was promising [that I would be] a Wednesday starter and then work my way up through the week,” Friedrich recalled.
The kid that used to watch the college world series in awe? The kid that couldn’t decide which sport to play? The kid who didn’t stand out until his senior year?
He’d grown up and decided on the college that was tailor-fit for him: Eastern Kentucky University.
Hold on a second. Where?
The small school in the quaint, rural Richmond, Kentucky, was Friedrich’s next stop.
“[Coaches] at Eastern Kentucky said whatever you earn [you get]. That was a nice telltale sign that they were straight shooters,” he recalled.
There were no traditions like Friday Night Lights there, no football powerhouses, but there was playing time. And right off the bat, he got to showcase his fastball and slider to the scouts, dominating MVC competition.
It was at Eastern Kentucky University, where MLB scouts preyed like vultures at Friedrich’s every movement; pitch, long-toss and, yes, even warm-up throws. The season began and it was hard for scouts to miss Friedrich’s program-low 1.84 ERA and 327 strikeouts.
It was even harder to miss his First All-American Honors in 2008. And when the 2008 MLB draft rolled around, it was impossible to miss the 6’3’’ lefty’s tantalizing potential as a front-line starter, capable of shouldering a rotation with a dazzling array of devastating pitches.
The kid who turned into a man once he chose Eastern Kentucky University was now a prospect. The kid that once chose the calmness of rural Kentucky now was chasing storms, named an All-American and promptly invited to try out for the Junior USA Team, pitted against future stars.
“I didn’t make [the Junior USA Team], but to be around those guys; David Price, Pedro Alvarez, and [other top players in the country] and have more success, especially against hitters, and say ‘alright, I’m just as good, if not better than some of these players.’”
The kid, er prodigy, that packed on 30 pounds and now was equipped with loads of confidence?
He didn’t reach the majors until he was 24. Which would be fine, if not for the endless layers of injuries once he arrived on the scene.
Friedrich didn’t face injuries when he was a kid, when he was a draft pick, nor when he was a prospect. Before the derailing injuries, Friedrich’s future seemingly spun like a hanging slider. He would be closing in the waning minutes of a wild-card game. He would be named to three all-star contests. He would be the face of a withering franchise.
Friedrich’s arm felt his arm tensing up. But he only threw 10 pitches.
It was August 2017 and Friedrich had to walk off the mound. He was on the DL for the Padres, pitching in his second appearance for their Single A-Team, the Lake Elsinore Storm.
It was in Lake Elsinore when the pitcher put his foot down and addressed the beginnings of the shitshow, and specifically, the deceleration of his velocity.
“I wasn’t finishing [the sliders],” Friedrich said about his final Lake Elsinore Storm outing. “I was getting guys out, but I wasn’t getting them out the way I normally do. I wasn’t getting the swings that I normally get.”
In the two starts he made for the team, his slider dipped down to 81 and started resembling a deceiving changeup rather than a devastating slider.
“[The best part of my game] is definitely my slider. The best part of my pitching has always been to a spin a ball,” Friedrich said. “I normally get hitters to swing their bats with a devastating slider in the range of 86 to 89.
After that start is when I decided when I couldn’t keep doing it,” Friedrich said, sighing with every word.
After being limited to 19 minor league innings in June and July, Friedrich underwent the season-ending arthroscopic elbow surgery.
“They took a long-sized nickel of buildup and scar tissue out of the backside of my elbow and cleaned up that back slot with bone spares, ” Friedrich said.
By October, the surgery was completed. As time passed in January, his velocity was rising, but his arm was wearing down with every throw.
“I had to figure out what the heck it was.”
What he found out was that the sheer force exerted with every swinging arm motion was being compensated by his elbow. That much stress on a joint is extremely overwhelming, especially for a person who whips the ball with the force and curve he does, every five days.
The stress built up slowly and caused Friedrich to be faced with short and long-term implications. On one hand, he could have returned at 75% and signed a minor league deal. On the other, he could have waited it out and rehabbed the debilitating elbow for months on end in hopes of the same outcome.
Friedrich has lost the battles to injuries before. This time, he decided the battles didn’t matter so much as the war. He determined how, not when, was vital to his ultimate return to the major leagues.
“I got calls in January and February and did MRI’s for teams. I wasn’t going to get a big league deal, Friedrich said, “it was going to be a minor league deal. I didn’t want to go anywhere and get off on the wrong foot. Right now, I want to make it the best version of myself.
I’m tired of grinding and trying to make it work just for the sake of it. I want to do it, feel good about it, and compete rather than thinking of [something] will break down,” he said about the process of going through another injury rehabilitation.
To figure out what the heck exactly was aggravating his throwing motion, the doctors had to dig deep to the fiery core of the issue.
He tried to whip his arm faster, he tried to lower it slower. He tried to change his pitching motion. He even tried to ignore the injury.
To tackle the complications of this equation of this variable-laden problem, he needed to think even further outside the box.
Friedrich found Premier Neurotherapy in Baltimore, a business that hosts elite athletes, such as David Wright, Steven Matz, and Mike Minor. They specialize in stem-cell therapy, which neutralizes the shock in the nervous system by re-engaging the muscles in the elbow.
After undergoing treatment, he flew back to Texas Medical Institute to get checked by the doctors that performed the arthroscopic elbow scope surgery originally, where scouts were aplenty. He was preparing for the season, aiming to return by the start by next season’s spring training. But his legs were buckling with every pitch.
Friedrich needed more time.
He came back to Chicago to regroup with family, catch up and explain his elbow troubles. Then he swiftly flocked westward to Little Rock, where he visited former Padre teammate Dustin Moseley, a 7-year MLB pitcher.
“[Dustin Moseley] has some really interesting theories, that the exit velocity off the bat matches your arm’s [exit velocity],” Friedrich explained in detail. “We were trying to train with bands to be more explosive because most I’ve had a lot of injuries so I was trying to make it more slow and controlled.”
Friedrich stayed in Little Rock for one and a half months, until August. There, the hypothesis of the tender arm was answered; the velocity on his fastball darted up to 91, but by then there were no coaches or scouts awaiting his return.
At that point, teams had their 40-man rosters set for the playoffs or were preparing for the offseason with already rostered players. An oft-injured pitcher who had been out of the league for two years fell off the radar.
“I still felt like my legs could be better. Over the course of three years, I stopped pushing off my backside,” Friedrich said as he pointed down his left leg. “I was throwing 88 with only being a week into it. But I’m really starting to see how it translates to where I think I can be, in the 92 to 95 MPH range. With that, my breaking balls will have more bite.”
The problem stemmed from his legs. His back leg lifted before he released the ball, causing his elbow to bend at a steeper, harsher angle.
His left arm was the only thing driving the ball into motion. He needed to go back to the drawing board; to try to bend his knees and deliver the ball at a lower angle to de-stress the elbow, using gravity to his advantage to push the ball through space.
The drawing board was in Highland Park, Illinois. Doctors there looked at his legs and determined they were stressing out his elbow.
“[Illinois Bone and Joint Health] started to get in my abductors and tried to have me lower into my left glute a little bit more and have more heel contact.
Two weeks ago I started to have the heel to heel contact, where when you’re going to throw, you’re actually connected to the ground,” Friedrich said.
Change your perspective and you could digest the elbow injuries which have plagued Friedrich as blessings in disguise. A darker timeline awaited if he was relying on his shoulder rather than his elbow when he threw his weight forward.
Steven B. Cohen, MD, and colleagues studied the records of 44 professional baseball players who underwent elbow and shoulder surgery. They found that 52% of players having elbow surgery returned to the same or higher level when they returned while only 35% of players had shoulder surgery did the same.
Friedrich is confident he belongs in the majority of players who bounce back with resilience, with pride, with bite back in their sliders, and he would do anything to scrape back.
“I think I have a lot to offer as a starter, but if I get back in as a bullpen guy, that’s more than fine with me. I just want to compete again and prove that over the past four years I could have played better.
I’m excited because what I can do when I come back will be better than everything I’ve done in the past,” Friedrich remarked. “It’s weird to be excited at this age. My body feels way different than it did at 24.”
Reference: Cohen SB, Sheridan S, Ciccotti MG. Return to sports for professional baseball players after surgery of the shoulder or elbow. Presented at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine Specialty Day Meeting. March 8, 2008. San Francisco.