Drafted out of a Baltimore high school in June 1993, Ken Cloude was the Mariners' top pitching prospect by 1996 and participated in the Mariners' mound chaos of the late 1990s. Now 27 years old, Cloude is trying to resurrect his career following Tommy John surgery in 2000 and after missing the entire 2001 season with a torn Achilles tendon.
He currently ranks second in the Pacific Coast League in wins and innings pitched, and third in ERA. He took time before a recent game against the Edmonton to answer questions about TJ surgery and his comeback from it.
Baseball Prospectus: It's good to see you back on the mound and throwing well. How close are you, velocity-wise, to where you were before you had the surgery on your elbow?
Ken Cloude: My top velocity used to be anywhere from 90 to 94 miles an hour. Now, I'm probably topping out at 90, maybe 92 on the top end. The 90s are there, but it's not as consistent as you would like it to be, and it may never come all the way back.
KC: I know that Wooten's never came all the way back to where he would've liked it, to where it was before. As for Falkenborg, I don't think so either. But I know Wooten's control was unbelievable. One year in Double-A, he had more wins than walks.
I've noticed that my command is better with my pitches now, and it has to be. You have to have better command when you don't have that velocity that you once had. They say if the velocity is going to come, it's going to come further down the road. This past spring training is the first that I've thrown competitively since I had the surgery, so I don't expect to have great velocity this year, but I'm hoping things improve next year.
BP: Nevertheless, you've had good success this year, so you're compensating nicely. How are you accomplishing that?
KC: I've been pitching better, in terms of the word "pitch"–changing speeds, throwing pitches up in the zone and then throwing something off that down in the zone, using all corners of the strike zone and using all four pitches that I have. Before, I never really did that. I was a guy who had two pretty good pitches, a fastball and slider, and went right after guys with them. If that wasn't working, I was pretty much in trouble.
BP: The change-up was a pitch that you were missing a couple of years ago. Has the improvement in your change-up come just through repetition or did someone give you a tip and things suddenly clicked?
KC: Coming back from surgery, you play catch constantly from a distance of 40 to 60 feet, especially at the beginning. If you're going to be throwing at that short a distance, you might as well mess around with your grip. It's something I just got real comfortable with during the rehab and when I got back on the mound, I just took it with me.
I actually throw a couple of different change-ups now, a four-seamer and a two-seamer. Basically, it came from lots of repetitions playing short catch during my rehab.
BP: Have you backed off on the number of sliders you throw to alleviate some of the stress on your elbow?
KC: Yeah, there's no doubt that I have. Part of the reason is that my change-up is better and I'm not afraid to use it. You don't want to go out and throw 30 or 40 sliders a game because you know that's probably why you ended up tearing a ligament in your elbow in the first place.
BP: You were shut down because of your elbow in June of 2000 after struggling for about half a dozen starts. Were you pitching injured and, if so, for how long?
KC: I first had problems with the elbow in winter ball after the 1999 season. I had to leave early because I was having problems with it then. When I came back, I had an MRI, which said everything was fine, no damage.
I threw pretty well in the spring of 2000, and everything was fine until I felt a pop in my elbow in a game I was pitching right here in mid-May. I didn't really want to say anything about it at that point, but I knew that something was probably going on since I had had problems with the elbow before. I tried to pitch through it for about a month and finally shut it down completely around June 15. I had an MRI again, and again the MRI showed nothing. So, I sat around for two months, trying to get it better again, but it just wasn't bouncing back. It got to the point where it was near the end of the season and they went in and did exploratory surgery. Sure enough, when they went in there they found that the ligament was torn.
BP: How much pressure do pitchers feel to try and pitch through pain?
KC: I'm not really sure about that, I just know the situation that I was in. I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to get back to the big leagues. I was on my last option and wanted to put up good numbers on the season to show that I could pitch, whether it was in Triple-A or the big leagues. I put a lot pressure on myself to have a good season in 2000, and I probably threw a few more innings than I should have early in the season, a few more pitches than I should have. Ultimately, it probably cost me and put me on injured list.
BP: Are your pitch counts being monitored closely this year?
KC: Oh, yeah. Right now I'm up to 102 pitches, but it started off at 75 and has gradually built up every start five to seven pitches. I think we're pretty close to the max. I don't see myself throwing more than 120 pitches. The way I've thrown so far, I've been really efficient and able to pitch late into games. It's been great.
BP: Who performed your surgery?
KC: Dr. [Lewis] Yocum of the Angels did the first one on my elbow, and my Achilles was done by [the Mariners' Dr. Larry] Pedegana. They had to go back into my elbow this past October to clean out some scar tissue that was pinching a nerve, and Pedegana did that one, too.
BP: Are you free to choose your own doctor?
KC: Pretty much, but I don't know exactly how it works. I've heard rumors that if you're on the 40-man roster that you can get whoever you want to do it, and you might be able to get whoever you want to do it regardless. I think you're pretty much free to choose who you want, after all, it's your career.
BP: Is there any consensus among pitchers as to whether one surgeon is better than another?
KC: Well, I don't think anybody has mastered the shoulder yet. It's still a mystery. As far as elbows, everybody has done so many that you probably won't have any problems. According to an article I read a couple of weeks ago, the recovery rate is around 90% now.
BP: You were free to sign with any club in baseball this past off-season. Did you look around at all, or was there not much interest because of your injury?
KC: I didn't even search–there wasn't any question. Of course, I would've looked if the Mariners weren't willing to give me a chance, but they've stuck with me through this whole thing. A lot of guys in the organization have put in a lot of time. Mickey Clarizio in Phoenix; Rick Griffin, Tom Newberg, and Ken Roll up in Seattle… all those guys have spent so much time going through these rehabs that I'd feel really awkward leaving here and doing that. I've been in this organization my whole career and had nothing but great things from everyone–they've been awesome. I just feel so blessed. I want to make it work here, and hopefully it will.