(First appeared in The Vanderbilt Hustler)
Jordan Sheffield couldn’t find the plate. The Rawlings High School All-America pitcher was two strikes away from finishing off the fourth inning on Tullahoma High School’s opening day on a near-freezing March night, but his pitches were dying before they reached home plate.
Ball one. A glance to the dugout. Ball two. Another glance over. By the third pitch, Sheffield knew he had to come out of the game as tightness in his forearm and a loss of sensation in his fingers caused him to lose control.
After taking three weeks off from throwing full bullpen sessions, Sheffield and his parents drove to Pensacola, Fla., to see Dr. James Andrews, one of the nation’s top orthopedic surgeons, who confirmed their worst fear: Sheffield had a torn UCL and needed Tommy John surgery.
But Sheffield’s great misfortune became Vanderbilt’s windfall. Players as good as Sheffield — the sixth-best high school player in the nation according to scouting service Perfect Game — usually sign with MLB teams instead of going to college. But his surgery put a hold on his major league dream.
In eighth grade, Sheffield made plays at shortstop that a coach at rival Spring Hill High School thought even high schoolers couldn’t make. As a 14-year-old freshman, Sheffield was throwing 90 miles per hour, leading his team to a victory over previously undefeated Columbia Central High School in the district championship.
He ran a 6.5 60-yard dash in high school, an impressive time for a prep player — MLB all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson ran a 60 in 6.4 seconds. Sheffield showed off his speed on the football field through his sophomore year with a jaw-dropping YouTube highlight film to match and would have kept playing football had he not made the USA Baseball 16U national team the summer before his junior year.
“He’s the most dynamic athlete I’ll ever coach,” said Tullahoma baseball coach Brad White. “I think that’s pretty safe to say, and one of the top two or three to ever come out of this town.”
Sheffield’s stock continued to skyrocket when his fastball was clocked at 98 miles per hour in October of his senior year at a showcase in Jupiter, Fla. But all of that positive momentum fell by the wayside when Sheffield found out he needed elbow surgery.
From surgery to Vandy
Tommy John surgery is a major surgery, but it’s become somewhat commonplace in baseball since the procedure was introduced 40 years ago.
More than a third of the active major league pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery, with many more minor leaguers and high schoolers added to that staggering total. A full recovery for a pitcher usually takes a year, but the success rate is estimated at 85-90 percent, according to Baseball-Reference.
“Tommy John now is like going to the dentist, pretty much,” said Travis Sheffield, Jordan’s father. “Guys are coming back bigger and stronger and faster and able to throw harder than they were before.”
After hearing his diagnosis, Sheffield elected to have surgery the next day, prematurely ending his senior season, and leaving him with a five-inch scar to show for it.
Sheffield’s torn right UCL was replaced with his right Palmaris longus — the tendon in your wrist visible when you touch your first and fifth fingers together. Once harvested, the tendon is weaved through holes drilled in the upper and lower arm and will eventually recreate itself into a ligament.
While Tommy John surgery was necessary for Sheffield to continue his career, it put a big dent in his draft stock. Once projected to be a first-round pick in line for a giant signing bonus — the average first-rounder gets $2.6 million — Sheffield fell to the Boston Red Sox in the 13th round. After the 10th round, teams have to get creative to sign players for more than $100,000 due to rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
But Sheffield was ready to come to Nashville. Though the Red Sox called with an impressive last-minute offer right as his family dropped him off in Gillette Circle at The Commons, Sheffield began taking summer school classes at Vanderbilt in early July 2013.
“Honestly, once I had the surgery, I knew I was going to come to Vanderbilt,” Sheffield said. “It was just a better situation; I’m not all by myself. Plus (Vanderbilt baseball athletic trainer Chris) Ham has helped me a lot, and I knew I’d have a trainer every day there with me, helping me through it instead of me having to get up and do it myself. Having somebody pushing you is a little bit better.”
Going through rehab
Jordan Sheffield isn’t the first Tommy John patient Chris Ham has worked with.
Mark Lamm missed the 2010 season and came back with a 2.00 ERA over 27 innings of relief for his senior year. T.J. Pecoraro underwent surgery at the end of his sophomore year and returned less than 10 months later to post a 5.97 ERA over 34 2/3 innings in 2013. Catcher Curt Casali had Tommy John after the 2009 season and followed that up by finishing third on the team with a .446 on-base percentage and eight home runs.
Since Sheffield didn’t come to campus until nearly four months after his surgery, he had already gone through the toughest stretch of rehab by the time he began working with Ham. The first step is regaining range of motion, essential for a normal recovery.
“(The first day of rehab) was tough,” Sheffield said. “I couldn’t move my shoulder or arm that much. It was more mentally just kind of talking my way through it.”
Initially, Sheffield did light shoulder work for 30 minutes a day, using the wall as resistance. Eventually, he worked with stretching bands to build his strength back up. He even talked to Tullahoma graduates Bryan Morris (a Pirates reliever) and Dewan Brazelton (Tampa Bay’s third overall pick in 2001) for advice on how to rebound from Tommy John surgery.
By the time Sheffield reached campus, he was almost ready to start his throwing program. Ham and the rest of the coaching staff monitored him as he graduated through a step-by-step program that had him slowly progress, throwing in 30-foot intervals until he was ready for his first bullpen on Oct. 22.
When Sheffield wasn’t throwing, Ham had him do early morning full-body workouts for an hour before summer school, doing drills from functional movement patterns to squats to single leg squats to add to the wiry 6-foot, 160-pound frame he arrived on West End with.
“The elbow’s going to heal if Dr. Andrews did his job,” Ham said. “We’ve got to make sure everything else is working right.”
The season ahead
When Vanderbilt played its annual intra-squad Black and Gold Series in mid-November, Sheffield was one of two players unable to fully play. But while Sheffield didn’t pitch, head coach Tim Corbin did use him as a pinch runner and defensive replacement in the outfield.
And for the beginning of the 2014 season, that’s the role Sheffield will continue to play. He isn’t expected to take the mound mid-March, but Corbin is more than willing to utilize his speed in games for short doses of time.
The righty’s rehab is progressing well; his latest benchmark is a 25-pitch outing in a scrimmage. Although he hasn’t thrown an off-speed pitch yet or checked out his velocity on a radar gun, Sheffield and the team are comfortable with where he is.
With so much pitching talent on roster — the Commodores have five very capable starters led by All-American Tyler Beede and arguably the best bullpen in college led by All-American Brian Miller — there’s no big rush for Sheffield to come back.
Corbin says he will still need to monitor how many pitches Sheffield throws, which will mostly be out of the bullpen this season. But once the freshman is back to full health, he’ll be one of the most valuable pitchers on roster.
“The sky’s the limit because he’s a special talent, that’s for sure,” White said.
“I think he’s a top of the line SEC pitcher that can help them hopefully get to Omaha and compete for a national championship.”