He was a key player the Orioles acquired in mid-2018 in the trade of Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now Orioles minor league right-hander Zach Pop is going through the process of getting back to pitching after Tommy John surgery of last May.
He is progressing well, but finding out some of the challenges of a process that can take a pitcher 12 to 18 months to get back to the mound in a game.
“Definitely the mental battle is tough,” he said recently during an interview at Twin Lakes Park. “The monotony of going through some of the same stuff, especially when I was in that three-to-five month period when you are getting close to throwing, but you’re not quite throwing. That was tough. And also having to jump hurdles. Going through new areas of soreness that you have to push through, work through. Then you get sore in another area because you are building up muscle tissues.”
Pop resumed light throwing in mid-November, advancing from a distance of 45 feet to 60 feet to 75 feet and then some long toss. He is throwing off a flat mound now and hopes to advance past that milestone soon.
“If all goes well, finish up flatgrounds and go to the full mound and then live BPs and then in games hopefully by the end of May, beginning of June,” he said. “And kind of finish off and get pushed out of here. This would be a great scenario. You could have half of the season to play, really be competitive and get into some meaningful games, instead of just being in rehab mode.”
This interview took place of course before the shutdown of baseball.
A native of Brampton, Ont., Pop was acquired by the Orioles in the Machado trade with the Dodgers on July 18, 2018.
The 23-year-old righty went to Double-A Bowie after the trade and began the 2019 season with the Baysox until he was shut down. In 22 games with Bowie over those two seasons, he went 2-1 with a 1.97 ERA and a 0.969 WHIP. In 32 innings, he allowed just 21 hits and no homers with 10 walks and 28 strikeouts.
So, yeah, really good numbers. But now his best attribute will be patience, realizing he has to take it slow and work his way back in the timetable the doctors and medical staff set up for him.
“One hundred percent, it is (important to be patient),” he said. “Every day, you are walking that tightrope of is it too much? Is it not enough? I want to do more, but I can’t do more. You have to trust the process. I know that phrase gets thrown around a lot, but it really is true with Tommy John and surgery. Especially when they have to do something as serious as a reconstruction.”
He had a partner in crime in minor league camp. It was O’s lefty Josh Rogers, who had a second Tommy John surgery on July 3.
“Yeah, it’s nice to have a helping hand there,” Pop said. “Kind of lean on someone and have a rehab buddy to kind of push you through some of the darker days. And to share the highs as well when you first start throwing and things like that.”
Some pitchers are close to their pre-surgery form about 12 months out from the procedure and others could take another four to six months to fully recover. Pop said he’s taking it day by day and has been given no timetable for that.
Before the procedure, he threw in the mid-90s with a good slider and solid groundball rates. Does he expect to be the same type of pitcher when he is fully back?
“Nobody really knows until you are finally there really,” he said. “It is nice to have expectations of yourself with all the hard work you put in during rehab. And you do all this fine-tuning of your body since you have the time now. So you high aspirations of maybe I can throw hard, maybe I can do this or do that. But no one really knows until we take the field.”
Pop said his time in the Orioles organization has been a positive experience.
“It’s been really good for me,” Pop said. “To step in here and meet a great group of guys that push you to excel. They didn’t change anything and let me continue on doing what I was doing. I know sometimes you get traded and it’s let tweak this and tweak that and it wasn’t really like that.”
Note from Steve: Yep, I did get a few interviews in Sarasota before the end of spring training and I’ll be rolling out several of them over the next week or two.
As always, make comments here today on this story and/or any other O’s or baseball topics. Or comment on or ask any questions about the shutdown of baseball. That seems to be the primary topic fans want to discuss right now as we all wait for more developments and answers about when the game can and will return.