Watching Tyler Oliver's slick play at first base, you would never guess the Lexington (Ky.) Christian Academy (LCA) senior only recently learned how to catch with his right hand and throw with his left. By the time he was 16 years old, Oliver had undergone two surgeries on his right elbowone as a 14-year-old to correct osteochondritis dissecan (OCD)an articular cartilage defect, and another two years later to remove a bone chip from the same elbow.
After enduring two painful rehab experiences, the 6'1", 215-pound NCAA Division I prospect was told by doctors that the elbow problems could affect his long-term goal of playing college and professional baseball. Not ready to abandon his dreams, Oliver began an unconventional comeback. He trained himself to throw with his left arm and returned to the diamond and the Division I radar.
Oliver's elbow problems started as a 13-year-old. "I was pitching and felt a weird pain in my elbow," recalls Oliver, who was big for his age and threw hard for a 13-year-old. "I had poor throwing mechanics back thenI dropped down and that put a lot of pressure on my elbow."
Because of his age, the doctors put off surgery, hoping the injury would heal on its own. It only hurt when he threwnever when he batted or fieldedso Oliver gave up pitching. As an eighth grader, he was the starting third baseman on LCA's varsity team. But the pain was still there after the school year ended, so he went in for surgery.
Nicknamed "little league elbow," the articular defect in Oliver's elbow was basically a case of a small piece of bone in the joint dying. During the arthroscopic procedure, Timothy Kremchek, MD, Director of Sports Medicine for the TriHealth System of Good Samaritan and Bethesda Hospitals and Medical Director and Chief Orthopaedic Physician for the Cincinnati Reds, drilled tiny holes in the dead bone fragment to promote blood flow and smoothed the area around the injury.
"It was a throwing overuse injury exacerbated by the fact that he was growing," says Scott Crook, PT, CSCS, a Physical Therapist at Drayer Physical Therapy Institute in Lexington who helped Oliver through both of his rehab cycles. "Something in his mechanics probably caused that articular cartilage to have extra compression. You usually see people have that kind of tension on the inside of their elbow, which sometimes requires Tommy John surgery. But in Tyler's case the tension was on the anterior."
After the surgery, Oliver's elbow was immobilized in a straight-arm brace for two months. Still, he immediately began working with Crook. "We started hip and core work right after the effects of the anesthesia wore offbut nothing that involved his elbow or arm," says Crook. "We wanted to really concentrate on his hips, and later his shoulder, because when somebody has an elbow problem, they usually have a weakness somewhere else in the kinetic chain.
"Oftentimes it starts in the hips, and it's usually the hip that a baseball player pushes off from when throwing," Crook adds. "All of their energy comes up from their legs through their hips and core, where it transfers to their shoulder and then to their arm. But if they have a weak link in that chain, they put stress on other areasand a lot of times it's the elbow. So we concentrated on strengthening Tyler's hips and core."
Crook says a lot of that work involved isolated and multi-hip exercises including box steps, lunges, and single-leg squats, as well as general low-impact abdominal exercises like crunches. Resistance for most exercises came from bodyweight or exercise bands.
About four weeks post surgery, Oliver began doing limited ROM exercises, including isometrics. At six weeks, he began minor strength building for the shoulder. "We started some scapular work that didn't involve the elbow," says Crook. "We didn't want to do anything that would cause rubbing and grinding in the joint."
Oliver was able to regain most of his ROM, but extension came around more slowly. Despite a lot of hard, often painful work with Crook, Oliver never did regain full extensionbut he got close. "Before the surgery he was about 25 degrees from being able to straighten the elbow," says Crook. "After the surgery we got it back to five or six degrees from being straight."
Oliver's persistence and pain threshold during these stages impressed his physical therapist. "A lot of the stretching we did to get motion and extension back can be pretty uncomfortable, but he took it very well," says Crook, who worked with Oliver three days a week for two hours per session. "He was the best kind of patienthardworking and cooperative."
With plenty of time to rehab, Oliver was more than ready by the time baseball season began. And the results of his hard work were impressive. As a freshman, Oliver established himself as one of the team's top hitters, earning regional all-tournament team honors during the team's deep postseason run. The next season, as a sophomore, Oliver led his team to the 2005 Kentucky state championship, batting third and playing a very smooth first base. During those two years, Oliver felt occasional postgame discomfort, but says his elbow never bothered him while he was on the field. He was encouraged and looking forward to a pain-free career.
That optimism ended abruptly in the summer following LCA's championship season. While attending a baseball camp at Florida State University, Oliver's arm again began to bother him. X-rays revealed a small bone chip, and Oliver prepared for another surgery.
"There were small calcium deposits around the original injury site, and a small piece of the bone that was drilled earlier broke off," says Crook. "So Dr. Kremchek cleaned up the deposits and smoothed the area again."
This was a minor surgery with a shorter rehab, but the continued stress on Oliver's elbow had his surgeon concerned. Kremchek told Oliver he would likely experience some pain as he rehabbed, but that it would probably get better.
However, after a few months of continued pain, a follow-up MRI and CAT scan were performed during a visit to the Mayo Clinic. "After those tests, the first question the doctor asked me was, 'What level of baseball do you want to reach?'" says Oliver, who replied that he wanted to play in Division I and possibly professionally. "The doctor told me, 'You probably could get through high school, but to play at those other levels your right arm will most likely give you a lot of problems.'"
That assessment hit Oliver hard. But rather than simply accepting the prognosis, he began exploring other options. "After the surgery, I started throwing a tennis ball left-handed against my bedroom wall and realized I was pretty good at it," he says.
After a little more practice on his own, Oliver wondered if he could train himself to be a left-handed throwerpermanently. "I pitched the idea to Scott and my doctors and they said, 'That would be better for your arm, but...well, good luck.' Nobody really took me seriously," he says.
But their uncertainty didn't dissuade Oliver, and as his two-month rehab from the second surgery wound down, he committed himself to learning to throw lefty. To speed up the process, Oliver met up with former Georgetown University coach Jim Hinerman, who had worked with him in the past. "We met for 30 minutes three times a week during the winter until the season started," says Oliver. "At first my form was really bad, but by working with Coach Hinerman, it got better."
To hone his throwing motion, Hinerman had Oliver do a lot of pitching drills. "The biggest problem was my fingertip controlI had none and was throwing balls 20 feet over his head," says Oliver, who countered his initial lack of control by doing more everyday tasks with his left hand. "I did anything I could left-handedopen doors, pick things up, eatand eventually my fingertip control got a lot better. By January I could throw much more accurately, and by March my arm strength improved to where I could throw to a base."
Though Crook had never seen a naturally right-handed player learn to throw lefty, he says Oliver's athletic ability gave him a better-than-average chance to succeed at it. "He's an extremely dedicated, hard-working kid, no matter what he's doing," says Crook. "He's also a very talented and coordinated person. So I thought if anybody could do it, it would be him. And to many people's surprise, he did."
When the 2006 season started, Oliver worked extensively with LCA Assistant Coach Joe Modica to refine his skills around the bag. It didn't take long for Oliver to perfect his foot and glove work. "It was really hard because I wasn't used to catching with my right hand. I would get nervous and move out of the way because I didn't trust myself to catch the ball," says Oliver, who remains a right-handed batter. "But it didn't take me long to get over that. And I made only a couple of throwing errors all yearI could throw from first to third and make all the relay throws from the outfield."
LCA Head Coach Keith Galloway says Oliver was the top defensive first baseman in the league prior to his surgery. But because opposing coaches knew that he had recently made the change, they naturally wanted to see if he still had the same skills. "Certain teams tested him by having runners leave early and forcing him to throw on a pickoff play, and some bunted on him," says Galloway. "But he's a gamer, and when it came time to make plays, he did."
Oliver estimates his left arm is about 85 percent as strong as his right and that he registers 75 mph on a radar gun. "I still don't have that strong of an arm, but at least I can throw without feeling like it's falling off," he says. "And right now I probably have better mechanics left-handed than I did right-handed."
Mechanics and skills aside, Galloway says the switch had a very positive effect on Oliver's teammates. "They saw his determination and it really inspired them, as well as other kids around the league," says Galloway. "It speaks volumes about Tyler's work ethic and passion for the game."
With another year of high school eligibility remaining, Oliver is working hard to reach his goal of playing college baseball. "The Division I schools I've talked to are impressed with the progress he's made to this point," says Galloway. "He definitely has a college future ahead of him."
PROFILE: Tyler Oliver