SALISBURY, Md. - For Single-A Delmarva right-hander Gray Fenter, Tommy John surgery not only fixed his right elbow, but it had other long-lasting positive effects, even beyond baseball.
The 2015 draft began with the Orioles selecting DJ Stewart and Ryan Mountcastle. But in round seven, with pick No. 223, they selected Fenter and then signed him to a well-over slot bonus of $1 million. They loved the pitcher from West Memphis (Ark.) High School who touched 97 mph his senior year. They signed him away from a Mississippi State college commitment with a number well over the slot amount of $178,300.
But after pitching well in a few brief innings in the summer of 2015 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Fenter was soon dealing with elbow pain. And on April 7, 2016, he had Tommy John surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews.
Fenter would not pitch in a game again until returning to the GCL in late June 2017. He would not complete a full season until last year, when he began the season building up innings out of the bullpen with Delmarva and ended it making starts and going as long as six and seven innings for short-season Single-A Aberdeen.
Missing a year and half provided Fenter a much greater appreciation of what it means to play the game.
“Not being able to play is probably the worst thing ever,” he said during a Wednesday interview at Delmarva’s Perdue Stadium. “And then there comes frustration with wanting to be who you were before surgery as compared to after. That is very frustrating. You want to be that guy, but you realize you are not that guy anymore and you have to learn to pitch with what you have.
“The consistency of throwing strikes and getting a feel for your curveball and working on a changeup - it’s a lot harder than people think it is. I now understand what it’s like to try and get those things back. When I was younger, it all just kind of came naturally. But it’s great to realize I can still play ball, I’m not done.”
And this year, a full three years since the procedure, Fenter looks like a pitcher finally all the way back. After his latest solid outing for the Shorebirds on Friday night - two runs over five innings - he is 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA. In 27 innings, Fenter has allowed just 17 hits with 13 walks, 37 strikeouts, a .185 average against and WHIP of 1.11.
But the surgery and its aftermath taught him a few things.
“I would say I pay a lot more attention to the game and what hitters do before I face them,” said Fenter, 23. “And I let things go. Short memory. I used to remember everything that happened in a game and it held me back. Like remembering that double I gave up in the first and it was the fourth inning. Things would linger.”
But that doesn’t happen anymore and he knows how special it is to get to pitch in pro ball. After the surgery, Fenter returned to a mound in a game for the first time on June 27, 2017 in the GCL.
“The adrenaline was through the roof,” he remembered of that first day back. “It was being a kid and being able to play the game again. Surgery made me a lot better person than I was before. Beyond pitching, it helped me learn more patience in life and more about overcoming adversity. That can take a guy a long way.”
Fenter had to learn baseball patience and that his stuff and command would not come back right away. Only time and innings could produce that.
“Command of my pitches (was not there). Just feeling like I belonged on the mound,” he said. “Coming back, at times you can feel you are lost on the mound. Some days are good days, but the next week you give up three bombs in two innings.”
Fenter was ranked on the Orioles’ top 30 prospects list by Baseball America at No. 24 at the end of 2015 and No. 28 at the end of 2017. He’s probably headed back to that list after this season is over. And Fenter is indeed a different pitcher now, but not dramatically so. His velocity is not consistently all the way back from his high school days, but it’s solid.
“Probably a little under,” he said. “Some nights, I’m the same as I was, but not really throwing harder than before. Some nights, I’ll be 92, 93 (mph) and then some nights, 93, 95. The 93, 94 range is good for me based on the information we’ve gotten from the coaches. A little more velocity helps me, it kind of hops and doesn’t sink.”
He’s got a solid curveball and adds a changeup, and is also working on a cutter/slider.
“Curveball is my go-to. Use it as a strikeout pitch and will also use it early in the count or even behind in the count. It’s my whenever I want it pitch,” Fenter said.
The Delmarva staff is putting up some impressive stats, but you won’t find Fenter poring over a stat sheet.
“I really try to not do that. I try not to get caught up in all the numbers,” he said. “I try not to be results-based and try to stick with the process. When you start looking at numbers, it can get into your head a bit.”
So surgery helped Fenter hang on to a promising baseball career and it taught him life lessons. He wouldn’t change the past, even if he could. Although there are rare days he might wonder how far along he could be right now without having been through that.
“Sometimes, yes. But at the end of the day, it’s made me better,” he said.