Tommy John surgery might have been the best thing that could have happened to George Kontos. In 2009, the Giants’ right-hander was in Triple-A for the first time, and he had the kind of stuff that would make him a big leaguer in somebody’s bullpen: A 92-mph fastball and a wipeout slider that usually produced more than a strikeout per inning. That isn’t to say that he didn’t have some of the flaws inherent with a fastball/slider guy with only passable control, but he was well on his way. Then he felt that signature elbow pain, went under the knife, and a year and a half later, the reliever came out from the experience having changed two important facets of his game for the better.
That isn’t to say that rehab was an easy thing. “The thing that was difficult for me is that I am a ‘ready now’ type of person,” Kontos said at Giants’ Media Day. “As soon as I was healthy, I expected my stuff to be where it was pre-surgery, and it doesn’t work that way,” he added. Looking through the numbers, it’s obvious that Kontos did not return to minor league play showing the same stuff that he had pre-surgery, so he faced struggles even once re-hab was done. A strikeout rate that regularly pushed past 25% snuck below 21% for the first time in his career in 2010. A fastball that was “92-93” was now “89-90” according to the reliever himself. If you asked 2010’s version of George Kontos if Tommy John surgery was a helpful thing, you’d be lucky to get an answer — you might just get a glare.
But Kontos was working on two things during his rehab, and eventually they stuck. For one, Kontos started focusing on location. “I’ve always had pretty good stuff, and earlier that got me a little bit further than the location did, but as you get up in the system, throwing 92, 94, 95, you’re not going to blow that by guys anymore,” said Kontos. Fastball command became his mantra, and he worked on hitting both sides of the plate regularly. The old adage that control comes back last from Tommy John surgery only served to focus Kontos even more on a facet of his game that needed advancement. His 7.2% walk rate in Triple-A in 2011 was the second-lowest of his career, and last year Kontos followed that up with a 6.8% walk rate in the major leagues.
Focusing on his mechanics had another — perhaps unexpected — benefit. During rehab, his coaches really zeroed in on his mechanics and implored him to “stay on top, get your arm up” — directives that stuck, since Kontos admits that his arm angle raised during that time.
Maybe we can take a look ourselves. Here’s Kontos pitching in 2008.
And here’s an excellent slow-mo breakdown of Kontos with the Giants last season. It certainly looks like Kontos is more over the top to this untrained eye.
Going over the top changed the quality of Kontos’ slider. “Before Tommy John, my slider was a little bit more side-to-side, and I had gotten taken deep a couple of times by lefties just because it was a good slider but it broke right into their bat path,” said Kontos of his main weapon. With the new arm angle, his slider has “more depth,” is “more up and down” and has more of a curveball break.
Kontos is well aware of the research on platoon splits on pitches, and the value that his new slider has compared to his old one. Instead of breaking into the bat path of a lefty, his new slider “comes in looking like a fastball and goes straight down.” In Max Marchi’s work on the subject, the ‘tight curve’ was the second-most platoon-neutral pitch in baseball, and Kontos’ new movement is somewhere between a ‘slurve’ and a tight curve. In a small major league sample, Kontos has been excellent against righties (3.14 FIP) and lefties (2.78 FIP) alike.
“Things have a way of working themselves out, and I think they worked out pretty well for me,” says Kontos of his trade to the Giants. The team would probably agree. They’ve got a platoon-neutral pitcher who has great control, gets ground balls, and strikes batters out — only six other relievers in baseball last year managed more than a strikeout per inning with above-average control and more than 50% ground balls (Sean Marshall, Wesley Wright, Fernando Rodney, Sean Burnett, Aaron Crow and Luke Gregerson), so it’s rare thing. Once you add in the platoon-neutral aspect, Kontos was one of four or five relievers with his statistical profile last season.
And, in a round-about way, both the player and his new team have Tommy John surgery — and the resulting rehab — to thank for it.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.