It was a crisp and sunny 44 degrees on February 25, 2017 in Oxford, Mississippi as No. 23-ranked University of North Carolina Wilmington was getting ready to take on No. 8 and undefeated Ole Miss. The hard throwing starter for UNCW, Josh Roberson, was making his second start of the year when he noticed his arm “felt tight and not working like it should” while warming up before the game. There was a definite “tightness” in the elbow, as he describes nearly 14 months later. The 6’3” RHP Roberson threw 93 pitches that day spanning five innings. He scattered seven hits, struck out eight Ole Miss hitters and gave up two runs before leaving the game.
However, the discomfort lingered—the next morning, Roberson struggled to even bend his arm. The same weapon once capable of touching 97 on the radar gun, and had some scouts predicting Roberson to be a late first or early second round pick in the 2017 MLB draft, was now acting up.
Ten days later, Roberson returned to the mound against Florida Gulf Coast. He lasted six innings, allowing one earned run, striking out six and walking an uncharacteristic five Eagle hitters. At that point, Roberson knew something was wrong and was shut down for seven weeks before returning to pitch again on April 26 against High Point. He pitched three innings that game and one final time in relief against Delaware to end his season, when he specifically felt something “go” in his arm. The date was April 30, just 42 days before the draft.
On May 31, 2017, the 21-year-old underwent ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, more commonly known as “Tommy John” surgery. The rehabilitation typically takes anywhere from 12-15 months for pitchers and about six months for position players. Corey Seager, shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is among the many athletes to go under the knife at the major league level.
The procedure has become quite prevalent in the baseball world since it was originally performed on Tommy John himself in 1974. There have been 76 UCL reconstructions completed on professional baseball players in the United States alone since Robertson’s surgery last May, according to data compiled by FanGraphs’ Jon Roegele. The chance of a full recovery is estimated between 85-90 percent.
Not surprisingly, Roberson’s draft stock took a plunge after the injury and subsequent surgery. On Day 3 of the draft, Josh was home with his father making breakfast, still patiently waiting to hear if his name would ever be called. Only a couple weeks removed from surgery, he couldn’t fully extend his arm and was months away from throwing a baseball again.
Then the phone rang and a Marlins area scout broke the news that Roberson had been selected in the 12th round. He later signed for $150,000, $25,000 above slot value. For perspective, a mid second-round pick in 2017 had a slot value of around $1.3 million. Nevertheless, Roberson was now a professional baseball player and anxious to start his career.
Fish Stripes caught up with Roberson in Jupiter, Florida last month where he continues to rehab. He was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Fish Stripes: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced while recovering from Tommy John surgery?
Roberson: Staying motivated was never a problem for me, but sticking to the same routine everyday can be grueling at times especially for the first couple of months as you are limited as far as what you can do. I think staying mentally sharp is the biggest thing and I also had a great group of guys to work with in the process. I had two awesome strength coaches to help me put the weight on that I needed. The trainers also helped with arm care and anything else that I needed as well.
Fish Stripes: So you didn't play eight hours of video games a day?
Roberson: No, I tried not too.
Fish Stripes: You were drafted in the 12th round, what was that day like for you and your family?
Roberson: I had some family members come home on day two of the draft (rounds 3-10). When I was not picked, obviously I was a little discouraged. On the third day of the draft, it was just me and my Dad which was cool because we are so close. When I was drafted, the discouragement from the day before just kind of went away. I was so appreciative of all that the Lord had done for me and how far he had brought me. It was such a blessing and just to be drafted at all was such a gift. The spirits were pretty high that day.
Fish Stripes: Who has had the biggest influence on your baseball career?
Roberson: My parents taught me true perseverance and engrained in me a longing for things greater than just baseball.
Fish Stripes: My sources tell me you are one of the strongest guys in the weight room. What is your routine now, 11+ months after TJ surgery?
Roberson: Honestly, I would say the six-nine month range is when I could really push myself physically. Now, I’m able to throw 45-60 pitch bullpens, so I’m letting my body rest a little bit more so I can give more on my bullpen days. In the 11th month, it’s just about getting my body prepared for the second half of the season.
Fish Stripes: What are your goals over the next six months of your recovery and when do you think you will see game competition?
Roberson: I expect to play in the second half of the season, although, I’m not sure where that will be yet. As far as goals go, I just to pitch and feel good. Wherever they send me is better than where I have been so far. I’ll just be glad to go out and pitch no matter where that is.
Fish Stripes: Does the arm feel good and did it take a while to learn how to pitch again?
Roberson: Yeah, it feels good. When you first start, your arm might feel good but your command is not quite there. Just finding your release point is tough in the beginning. It probably took four to five bullpens to find the release point and then your command gets a little better and you start the feel the way you used too.
Fish Stripes: You haven't had much of an offseason, but what do you enjoy doing in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
Roberson: I like to serve my church and go fishing. When my family is in town, I love hanging out with them and also hanging out with my teammates off the field.
Fish Stripes: Thanks for your time. We really appreciate it and best of luck on your continued recovery Josh.
Fish fans, keep an eye on Roberson as he makes his way through the minor league system. My guess is that he could land with the big club sometime around 2021 barring any setbacks. Josh is a special talent and an even better person. Health permitting, the Marlins got a steal in the 12th round last year.