A little over five months after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Bryce Harper might be on the verge of returning to the field. According to The Athletic’s Matt Gelb, Harper is scheduled for a Monday appointment with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed Harper’s TJ surgery on November 23. If Dr. ElAttrache gives the green light, Harper will likely be activated from the 10-day injured list on Tuesday, when the Phillies face the Dodgers.
While pitchers have a pretty firm 12-to-15 month recovery timeline for Tommy John procedures, hitters face shorter timelines, obviously because they don’t have to rebuild arm strength to the same extent. For instance, Shohei Ohtani underwent a TJ procedure at the start of October 2018 and was back in the Angels lineup as a DH on May 7, 2019. That might be the closest comp for Harper’s situation since he will only be acting as a designated hitter for now, though he has been working out as a first baseman for the first time in his career. A return to his customary spot in right field late in the season might be a possibility if Harper’s elbow continues to improve.
With all this in mind, Harper is still beating Ohtani’s timeline by nearly two full months, making this something of an unprecedented recovery from TJ surgery. The Phillies initially targeted the All-Star break for Harper’s potential return, and yet as the weeks and months went by following his surgery, more optimism began to grow about a quicker comeback. Harper started hitting off a tee in early March, then advanced to regular battting-cage work by the end of the month, and has since been taking batting practice and even participating in simulated games against live pitching.
Most tellingly, Harper was only placed on the 10-day injured list to begin the season, rather than the 60-day IL. Philadelphia president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said at the time that the decision was made because the Phillies didn’t have any immediate need for a 40-man roster spot, but it seemed clear that there was already a possibility that Harper would be ready before the end of May.
“He’s absolutely amazing. He’s a great athlete,” Dombrowski said about Harper to Gelb. “He works hard. He’s focused. He wants to get back. I mean, it’s amazing what he’s accomplished. We have that next step (with Dr. ElAttrache), but the progress he’s made is phenomenal.”
Monday’s appointment shouldn’t be seen as a foregone conclusion, as it is possible a full examination and check-up might reveal some type of physical issue that would set back Harper’s progress. That said, Harper played most of the 2022 season with a small UCL tear, and while he was limited to DH duty, it didn’t impact his effectiveness at the plate. Harper hit .286/.364/.514 over 426 plate appearances during the regular season and then posted a whopping 1.160 OPS over 71 PA in the playoffs, winning NLCS MVP honors en route to leading Philadelphia to the National League pennant.
Getting Harper back at anywhere near his top form would be a huge boost to a Phillies team that has started to heat up, winning seven of their last eight games. With Harper at DH, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos would again be the regular corner outfielders. Alec Bohm has filled in capably at first base for the injured Rhys Hoskins, and if Harper is able to eventually play some first base, Bohm can move back to third base (though Edmundo Sosa has been playing very well in regular duty at the hot corner).