For most pitchers, one Tommy John surgery is enough for them to call it a career and realize that pitching for a major league team is just not in the cards. While some persevere through it, it’s a challenge for a player who has both Tommy John surgery and swelling in that same elbow to maintain the mental stamina necessary to continue on in their career.
When looking at the Detroit Tigers’ pipeline for starting pitchers, names like Andy Oliver, Jacob Turner and Drew Smyly immediately come to mind. But Crosby remains a guy people should keep an eye on — the 23-year old lefty was a fifth-round pick of the Tigers in the 2007 draft and has quickly risen through the system, despite his battle with injuries.
Hailing from Maple Park, Ill., Crosby was a young, promising power arm, cut from a similar mold to many of Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski’s draft picks. When the Tigers selected him in the amateur draft, Crosby was faced with the decision between going pro and attending the University of Illinois. In order to help him make the decision a little easier, the Tigers gave Crosby a hefty signing bonus, and Crosby opted to become a professional baseball player.
The bonus aside, Crosby didn’t find the decision to forego school a tough one.
“I was young, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but obviously I wanted to sign and get my professional career started from the get go.” Crosby told The Detroit Sports Site during a phone interview. “I was timid to start, but I knew this is what I wanted to do for sure.”
As most pitchers do after they are drafted, Crosby went into the depths of the team’s developmental system. Most draft picks that land in the low-level leagues never climb the ranks, are not heard from for several years, or become front-page headliners because of an injury.
Crosby fell into the third category, as he tore a ligament in his arm and needed to have the dreaded Tommy John surgery. Unlike most pitchers, he looked at is as sort of blessing.
“Physically (overcoming the surgery) wasn’t a problem for me at all,” Crosby said. “I had surgery and, physically, I was able to come back really quick, and the mental part was probably the biggest thing.
“Getting up every day and doing the same thing knowing every little thing you do that day is going to add up to a healthy season and to a healthy career. You just want to keep that positive approach on rehab because it is a grind, when you’re not playing. During baseball season, you’re not playing, and it was the first baseball season I missed, so it was definitely tough mentally.”
His grind primarily consisted of a lot of “shoulder stuff,” as Crosby called it. He said he did a lot of shoulder workouts, then, after the required four months of elbow rest past, was put on a throwing program. The hidden gem of having the surgery itself, if not the ideal way to accomplish this goal, was that it helped Crosby refine his game.
“While I was throwing I was refining my mechanics, because they were pretty rigid when I was in high school, you know, so I think that helped me take a step back from competition and just get my mechanics down,” Crosby said. “I love telling people about how my injury is a blessing in disguise because it really was. I was able to come back healthy and not have many setbacks at all off of that rehab.”
After almost a year and a half of rehabilitation, Crosby was ready to return to baseball and jumped to Low-A West Michigan in 2009. It was a successful year for the still-young prospect, as he went 10-4 and struck out 117 batters in over 104 innings of work. Perhaps more impressive than his strikeout numbers was the fact he only surrendered three home runs in 24 starts.
It looked as if Crosby’s dream of being a Major League Baseball player was back on track, with a freshly rehabbed arm and a great start at Low-A ball. Then in 2010, it was his worst nightmare all over again. Swelling in Crosby’s throwing elbow caused the Tigers to be cautious with their developing prospect, and they shut him down for the season.
Crosby was able to keep a positive attitude again following his last injury, but he admitted this time it was a little harder.
“Not only was I out again, but this time it was for a reason I didn’t really know,” Crosby said about his second injury. “I never really was able to throw without any pain and nobody could ever figure out why. That was probably the hardest part of it, the fact that I was on rehab again, second time in three years, and I didn’t even really know what the injury was — just pain.”
After being shut down for the season, Crosby came back firing in 2011 and was promoted to Double-A Erie. He would appear in a career-high 25 games and, more importantly, continued to build up the number of innings he pitched. He tossed 131.2 innings and struck out 121 batters, but it wasn’t all good for the young lefty. His ERA ballooned to 4.10 and he gave up 60 earned runs.
Even with the diminished stats, though, he still managed to remain above the .500 mark, going 9-7.
“I’ll tell you the difference between A-ball and AA is hitters take a lot more pitches and they make you throw good pitches,” Crosby said, reflecting on his experiences between the two leagues. “I’m sure it is even enhanced more in AAA.”
Crosby found that to be true in his first two starts at Triple-A Toledo this season. He has taken the loss in both outings, giving up 11 runs (seven earned) in just seven innings.
Still, many pitchers would have called it a career long before Crosby came back from his second injury, and the young pitcher’s perseverance and positive attitude have defined his career. Now, his early slip-up at Toledo aside, he is on the cusp of making it to the major leagues.
This year saw Crosby get his first invite to big-league spring training, and with it, an opportunity to compete for the final position in the Tigers rotation. It was almost as if Crosby had never suffered his injury setbacks — he was competing with other top prospects in the organization, many of whom had already had opportunities to face major-league hitters. Crosby took the experience in stride.
“It was amazing being in the same clubhouse as the guys you watch when you were a little kid, and you see Prince Fielder, you see Miguel Cabrera, you see Justin Verlander in there, and it is really cool,” Crosby said. “You want to try to keep the same mindset that it is just a baseball game, and it was good to get my feet wet in big-league camp for the first time this year.”
Surrounded by the stars in the Old English D, Crosby had the opportunity to meet some of baseball’s best players. One player, in particular, made an impression.
“I’ve met all the other guys before, but Prince’s first year, I wanted to meet him and see what kind of guy he is,” Crosby said. “And he’s a great guy; it was really cool to meet him.”
Crosby had a pretty successful spring, for a guy still working back from two arm injuries. In three games he threw 5.2 innings and gave up three runs, while striking out four. Perhaps the biggest critique of his spring was his command, as he walked six batters. Despite not being chosen for the final spot in the rotation, Crosby says he won’t let it distract him from his goals in AAA this year.
“I definitely look at the positive of (remaining in AAA),” Crosby said of being sent down. “All that I have been through in my career, any time you are playing is a blessing. So the fact that I have never been past AA, being in AAA this year, it is definitely the opposite of being hard to focus, because I am so close that I want to work that much harder and get there.”
Even while he was with the club in spring training, Crosby said he didn’t approach too many of the Tigers’ current starters for advice. Instead, he tried to use another technique to learn from them and help him improve his game.
“The main thing I did, I just want them to go about their business like they usually do, and I just kind of wanted to watch them and kind of take a little bit from them and see what things work for them and see what they do every start,” Crosby said. “You kind of take in the little things and work on things you want to implement. … The main thing was to watch them go about their business.”
Now with AAA Crosby is looking to continue to make his case for a promotion to Detroit. The control issues he had in the spring didn’t follow him in his first start on April 9, but returned on April 15 — he walked four in just three innings of work during that second outing. With only two AAA starts under his belt, however, Crosby has a lot of time to figure out how to pitch to the hitters he’ll be facing most of the season.
A rough start in AAA will not be the hardest thing Crosby has ever recovered from and gives him another chance to improve. With every start, Crosby continues to work towards achieving his ultimate goal. While so many young pitchers aspire to clinch a World Series or throw a no-hitter, Crosby has a different hope in mind.
“My all-time dream scenario is to be a major league pitcher 10 or more years,” Crosby said. “That has been my goal ever since I was probably 10 and I found out guys get there, but guys don’t really stay there. I want to be one of those guys who, once you’re there, you are there for 10-15 years.”
Given the pitching ability and mental fortitude he has already displayed, there is no reason to doubt that Crosby can accomplish that.