How Tommy John Surgery Helped George Kontos

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.

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11 Responses to “How Tommy John Surgery Helped George Kontos”

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  1. Wil says:

    Every time I see George Kontos’s name I just think of a large Native American man:


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  2. walt526 says:

    I still can’t believe that the Giants only had to give up Chris Stewart, a journeyman AAAA catcher, to get Kontos last year. He’s a solid middle reliever who will be quite cheap for a few more years (won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2015, according to BBRef). Given that the Giants basically didn’t have a spot on the 25 man roster, it’s pretty impressive that Sabean was able to get someone with the type of upside that Kontos had, even if he was something of a project last spring.

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    • I wouldn’t quite label Stewart that way. Despite playing perhaps a third of the innings that starting catchers do, in 2011, he had a DRS up among the leaders in the league. On top of that, he hit LHP very well.

      Because of that, I felt that he had a spot sewn up on the Giants roster for 2012. Posey needed days off at 1B, so the Giants could use a top defensive backup like Stewart. Since Stewart hit LHP well, I figured he could get a lot of the LHP starts, so that there is negligible drop in offense as a result of replacing Belt at 1B with a catcher, as I expected Belt to still not be hitting his potential yet.

      I was disappointed by the trade when it was announced, but upon looking at his numbers, was happy for the trade, just disappointed to lose Stewart. And Hector worked out pretty well too.

      Look at Stewart’s contact rate and K/BB ratio, he’s actually a pretty good hitter, and in my mind, since catcher’s offense develops last, typically, he could be one of those late bloomers who become a starter in his 30’s (he was 30 last year if I recall right).

      And frankly, most sabers dismiss the value of a good reliever, it is not like Kontos is closer material. I appreciate a good strong bullpen, from the work that Tom Tippett did while he was at Diamond Mind.

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      • walt526 says:

        Heading into 2012, Stewart was a 30 year-old catcher with fewer than 250 career MLB plate appearances that had been accumulated over parts of 5 different seasons with 5 different teams. Most of which came in 2011, when he was on the roster only because of Posey’s injury. I agree that he has an above-average glove, but if he isn’t a AAAA journeyman than I don’t know what is.

        In my view, Stewart was pretty expendable for the Giants at the start of 2012 and I didn’t really lament giving him up at the time. In addition to Sanchez, they had Eli Whiteside stashed in AAA at the start of 2012. I agree that Stewart was preferable to Whiteside, but the two are pretty similar players: good defense (Stewart’s is better, but Whiteside is above-average), weak bat (both were predicted to be ~65 OPS+), and reputation as having a good relationship with the pitching staff.

        Given that the Giants were going to break camp with Sanchez as the backup catcher, they had no place on the 25 man roster for Stewart. He also didn’t have remaining options and someone likely would have picked him off waivers. For Sabean to get anything halfway useful for him is pretty remarkable. To get a guy like Kontos, who was a project with relatively high upside and quite cheap for several years, is an outstanding acquisition.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          I’d rather have Kontos. A spare part for a useful bullpen arm with team control a cheap salary, already had the elbow done and in his baseball prime (relievers bloom late). YES PLEASE

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      • cs3 says:

        What are you talking about with this nonsense about Stewart?
        “he’s actually a pretty good hitter”?

        His career 59 RC+, .281 OBP, and .085 ISO say the exact opposite.

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        • Kellin says:

          that has to be a troll job. When Stewart played the defense was amazing, but it was like having TWO pitchers in the lineup.

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  3. Great article, I greatly enjoyed reading it. It was very informative.

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  4. brian fawcett says:

    I looked at Stewart’s stats: he was a .611 OPS hitter in 2012, and he’s 31 in a couple of days. His only offensive weapon is a decent contact rate.

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    • Spit Ball says:

      Last I knew contact percentage was not aa offensive strength when your OPS is .611. Wasn’t it like a decade ago we figured out an out was an out and that a strikeout was no worse then a batted ball out with runners on due to those dang double and triple plays. The pesky 2 hole hit and run man is a farce.

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