Sean Doolittle will have season-ending surgery to repair the partial tear of his elbow ligament that he hoped to return from this year, believing the operation will allow him to return healthy in time for spring training.
The surgery, an internal brace procedure in which a collagen-soaked wrap is placed around the ulnar collateral ligament, is less invasive than Tommy John surgery, with recovery expected to be five to seven months instead of 12 to 18 months. By having it done now, Doolittle sees a path to be ready for the start of the 2023 season.
“I feel really good about it,” the left-hander said. “I don’t feel good about getting surgery. I feel really good that this is the right course of action for me right now at this point in my career, at this point in this process with my elbow. As far as I’m looking at it, 2023 starts right now. I’m viewing this as a long, extended ramp-up into the season next year.”
Doolittle initially landed on the injured list in April after five consecutive scoreless appearances with what was deemed a partial tear of the UCL. With consultation from doctors, he attempted to avoid surgery with a rehab program that included a platelet-rich plasma injection. He began building up his arm strength again, and last week threw off a bullpen mound for the first time and was pleased with how he felt physically during it.
But as he continued to ramp up, he began experiencing the same elbow soreness he had in April, and that was a red flag to him. A new MRI was taken and sent to doctors, who found no more serious tear but not enough healing of the original tear to believe it was wise to continue pitching.
Veteran lefty Rich Hill had the internal brace procedure after the 2019 season, shortly before turning 40, and has since made 54 big league starts and posted a 3.83 ERA. Doolittle, who turns 36 in September, believes he can enjoy similar benefits from the surgery.
“This gives me the best chance to continue my career on my own terms, not have it lingering in the back of my mind as I continue,” he said. “I’m ready to get to work.”
A stalwart of the Nationals bullpen from 2017-20, Doolittle spent 2021 with the Reds and Mariners, then returned to the Nats on a one-year, $1.5 million deal at the start of spring training. He’ll be able to begin the rehab process through the remainder of the season, working with the Nationals medical staff, before officially becoming a free agent in November.
It remains to be seen if the Nats will re-sign Doolittle this winter, but manager Davey Martinez spoke glowingly about him and didn’t rule out the possibility of a continuation of the relationship.
“He wants to pitch again,” Martinez said. “And he’s hoping this will help him come back sooner.”
Doolittle also stressed his intent to return from this surgery and continue his career, not only in 2023 but beyond.
“One thing I learned going through the rehab process the last three months was how much I still want to do this,” he said. “I’m still willing to put the work in every day. I’m still willing to bring that positive energy to the field every day. If anything, it just reinforced the idea that I’m not going out like this.”