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Hong-Chih Kuo and His Tale of Perserverance

In the dog-bites-man story of the week, the Dodgers announced that lefty Hong-Chih Kuo will have surgery on Friday. This time, the surgery is not major: arthroscopic surgery designed to remove some loose bodies. Nevertheless, the unique reliever has mentioned retirement as a possibility. That would be a shame — no pitcher has ever overcome so much before his 30th birthday.

His story is one saturated with injury. It even starts with an injury — after his very first minor league baseball game in America, the Taiwanese lefty was shut down with elbow pain. He would eventually need Tommy John surgery that year. Kuo was an 18-year-old, though, and these things happen. He even managed 19-plus innings in 2001, with 21 strikeouts against four walks in rookie ball. Maybe he’d be fine.

But 2002 came with harbingers of doom. He struck out nine in his first six rookie ball innings and was moved up to High-A and Vero Beach. Immediately a problem emerged. That same left elbow was barking. He only managed eight innings — 39 batters faced — before he was once again shut down. He was now three years into his pro career and he’d managed a mere 36.1 innings. Yes, he’d struck out 45 guys in those innings, against only seven walks, but that’s a paltry innings total for three years of hard work.

Lesser men with less fortitude would have quit the game in 2003. It took until that year for the doctors to discover that Kuo needed a second Tommy John surgery. He hadn’t even tasted Double-A, and here he was, headed for year-ending surgery for the second time. It probably wasn’t a surprise, then, that he missed all but six innings of 2004 as well. At this point, he wasn’t even a blip on the prospect radar. John Sickels wrote up the system for ESPN that year and mentioned 17 players, and didn’t even lament Kuo’s injuries in a side note.

2005, still alive. He blew through High-A and Double-A (with a strikeout rate over 14 per nine and an average walk rate) and debuted in the major leagues. Take it away, Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia‘s Tragic Illness:

Kuo’s had more lives than John McClane. When he first came up in the awful 91-loss season of ’05, he was just a flamethrowing oddity with little control and a fun injury backstory. In ’06, he was a nondescript piece of the bullpen who somehow got thrown into starting an NLDS game against the Mets (who, by the way, it’s been a running joke for years that he absolutely owns. I have Met fan friends who follow nothing about the Dodgers but always ask me about Kuo, because they’re terrified of him.)

Thus ended the two healthiest years of his career (172.1 innings). So far in his tale, Kuo has managed to be an oddity made interesting by his high strike out rate and many injuries, who scared exactly one team. He had an ERA of 4.43 but he’d also hit the high nineties from the left side and struck out 81 dudes in 65 innings.

By now you know what’s coming. 2007 brought an ERA over seven, Rotator Cuff soreness, and more surgery (bone chips in the elbow). Because of his history, most Dodgers fans (Mr. Petriello included) thought that might be the last of him. Even after he came back in 2008 and pitched to his best results (2.14 ERA in 80 innings), he missed thirty days at the end of the year (and the start of the playoffs) with elbow soreness. Next verse, same as the first.

In 2009, the Dodgers decided to try things differently. Instead of occasionally starting — where, the reasoning went, he would only have to warm up once every five days — he would be a full-time reliever. That… didn’t quite work. He only managed to make it to the second day of May before his elbow started barking. 87 days later he returned for thirty innings, but a new problem emerged. He started to have trouble finding the plate. Petriello:

One time he was warming up in the bullpen and launched a ball so far over the catcher that it landed at second base of the actual game.

But! No surgery at least. 2010 you might remember. In what might end up his peak season, he pitched 80 innings to a 1.2 ERA and even racked up 12 saves when closer Jonathan Broxton went down. He still hit the DL with soreness, but missed only 14 games. No surgery, no yips, no problem. Almost 11 strikeouts per nine, 2.7 walks per nine… he was elite (and in one piece) for one, shining moment.

This past season brought all of his previous problems back into the light. He hit the DL in April for his back. The yips returned and he walked close to eight per nine. Perhaps all of it became too much for Kuo, as he also missed a month and a half with anxiety disorder. The cherry on top of this calamitous cake will be his Friday surgery — his fourth on that same elbow. The scars!

Yes, Kuo has been… well, Petriello one more time:

I’ve always seen Kuo as a warrior. Even when he’s not hurt, he has a ridiculous daily training regimen to try and keep himself whole. He’s affectionately called “the cockroach” by the training staff because nothing can kill him, ever. That’s why it’s so sad to see him hurt again, because he’s been through so much and clearly has all the talent in the world to offer. It’s amazing, really, because Dodger fans can eat their own (see Broxton, Billingsley) so quickly, but I’ve never seen any thing but affection for Kuo.

Plenty of things seem unique about Kuo at first. He won’t hit free agency ever if he retires this year — next year would be his last arbitration year. But Andres Torres debuted in 2002 and won’t be a free agent until 2014 if he’s still in the bigs, so we’ve seen something like that before. And Kuo has had two Tommy Johns, yes, but here’s a short list of other pitchers that have suffered the same fate twice: Brian Anderson, Chad Fox, Doug Brocail, Lance Davis, Darren Dreifort, Tim Spooneybarger, Derek Thompson, Jason Isringhausen, Jose Rijo (four times?!!), and Jeff Zimmerman. So he’s not alone there either.

But the whole story, put together — that makes Kuo peerless. Two Tommy John surgeries before he hit Double-A is an unbelievable thing. Imagine. Sometime in early 2005, he was 23 and toeing the rubber in Vero Beach, a town of faded pink flamingos, flea-ridden motels along Route One, and decent fishing — but without a Taiwanese population worth mentioning. He must have felt very far away from home, and very alone. He’d been in America for four years and had only managed 50 innings. The majors might have seemed very far away. And yet that day he nodded at the sign, reared back and threw a 94 MPH fastball, then snapped off a vicious 80 MPH slider, all the while ready to keep moving forward.

We should all be rooting for him — maybe even Giants fans. And if he can remember what it felt like on that mound in Vero Beach six years ago, maybe we will see him on the mound again, trying to prove that no injury can keep this ‘cockroach’ down for long. That would cap this tale of perseverance with the understated smile and fist pump that they’ve come to love in Chavez Ravine.

Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman for the list of those twice-bitten by Tommy John surgery.