LOS ANGELES — The thought throughout baseball was that Bryce Harper wouldn’t rejoin the Philadelphia Phillies until after the All-Star break, possibly later. Tommy John surgery, the procedure Harper underwent in late November, requires a rehabilitation process that is lengthy, even for position players looking solely to hit. But Harper had his mind set on an earlier date. From the onset of his recovery, he targeted this week’s series at Dodger Stadium as his ideal return, keeping it at the forefront of his mind as he navigated the monotony of his rehab.
“I wanted to put myself the earliest I could in my mind, the understanding to work towards something to get out there,” Harper said Monday. “It could’ve been the middle of April, it could’ve been the end of May, early May, but I wanted to put my mind on something to really take advantage of that.”
Harper received final clearance Monday from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who replaced the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on Nov. 23, and will return to the Phillies’ lineup as their designated hitter for Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, a mere 160 days since the procedure. Harper is the fastest known player to return from Tommy John surgery, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, beating former infielder Tony Womack, who required a 182-day recovery in 2004.
Harper, 30, will rejoin the lineup without venturing out on a traditional rehab assignment, instead accumulating the equivalent of roughly 50 plate appearances against either rehabbing pitchers or minor league pitchers in controlled settings before Phillies games in prior weeks.
Said Harper: “My body has been very good to me in this process.”
Phillies manager Rob Thomson said he’s still undecided on where Harper will hit in the lineup, but he’ll likely separate him and fellow left-handed hitter Kyle Schwarber, like he did throughout the 2022 season. The Phillies have four days off within the next three weeks, giving Harper a chance to be in the lineup on a regular basis so long as his body responds favorably. Harper benefitted from surgically repairing what amounts to his lead elbow when he hits; doctors have noted that it’s more difficult for hitters when it’s the trailing elbow, which goes through more stress during a swing. The concern with Harper, however, is the ferocity with which he swings. The Phillies have made no efforts to tone that down.
“Even if you tried, you wouldn’t be able to,” Thomson said of Harper, who will wear an elbow guard on his surgically repaired elbow. “Through all the doctors, through all the things that we’ve done — I have no worries about that.”
Harper played through most of the 2022 season with a tear in his UCL. He began serving as the Phillies’ DH in the middle of April and remained there when a platelet-rich plasma injection didn’t heal the ligament enough to let him resume throwing without risk of further damage. Harper, a right fielder by trade, adjusted admirably, batting .304/.375/.557 with 23 home runs in 107 games, a stretch that included an exhilarating playoff run that saw the Phillies reach the World Series.
Surgery of some sort seemed inevitable at the onset of the offseason, and an MRI revealed the ligament damage was significant enough to warrant Tommy John, as opposed to an internal brace procedure that would have required less recovery time. The Phillies initially announced that Harper could return as the DH “by the All-Star break of 2023 with a possible return to play right field towards the end of the regular season,” a timetable that fell more in line with recent history. Harper ignored precedent and instead listened to his body, backing off when soreness emerged but pushing himself as hard as possible on the days he felt good.
“I really tried to do everything I could to get to this point,” Harper said. “It’s been a grind, coming in each day — on the field or in [the trainer’s room] — just understanding my body and how I feel and where I can push myself mentally and physically.”
Harper has volunteered to eventually play first base, which helps the Phillies by both freeing up DH and temporarily replacing Rhys Hoskins, who tore his ACL during spring training. But Harper is still throwing from only about 90 feet and has a long way to go before he can play the field. He began working on his sliding a couple of weeks ago, starting with feet-first slides before beginning to dive head first. That aspect might make up the biggest concern with regard to Harper’s return — but he doesn’t believe that concern will lessen with time.
“Whenever you’re having a major surgery, anything can happen — a tag on me, or I slide into a bag or anything,” Harper said. “But I got word today that it wouldn’t matter right now today or in two months. We would’ve been in the same spot that we would be. We’re healed to where I need to be, and we’re just gonna play the game smart, play it the right way and not push the craziness of how I kinda play. But understanding that I help my team when I’m on the field, not when I’m off the field.”