Shawn Tolleson’s major league career appeared to be skyrocketing in 2015 when he became the Texas Rangers’ closer.
He collected 35 saves and posted a 2.99 ERA for the American League West champions, and went into the 2016 season confident that he’d be even better after that experience.
But things began to unravel as his ERA ballooned to 7.68 and lost his closer’s role. After signing with the Tampa Bay Rays, he could feel his elbow wasn’t right in spring training of 2017 and ended up undergoing Tommy John surgery last May.
Now the former Baylor pitcher is back for a second stint with the Rangers after signing a minor league contract on Dec. 21. If all goes well, he expects to be pitching by July and hopes he’ll get another shot to pitch for the major league team.
Tolleson was part of the Texas Rangers’ winter caravan that appeared at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday.
“I’m feeling really good, but I have a long road ahead of me to get back,” Tolleson said. “So far, so good. There haven’t been any speed bumps yet. I just want to be on the team and be a good pitcher, and be successful. Whenever they ask me to come in and get outs, that’s what I want to do.”
Tolleson is familiar with Tommy John surgery, a procedure in which a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body, since he had it in 2006 while pitching for Allen High School. He recovered from the surgery to pitch for Baylor from 2008-10 before the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the 30th round.
After making his major league debut for the Dodgers in 2012, he underwent surgery in 2013 to repair a herniated disc in his back. The Rangers claimed him off waivers and he made the major league team in 2014 as he finished 3-1 with a 2.76 ERA in 64 appearances out of the bullpen.
After his superb 2015 season, Tolleson was baffled that he couldn’t get outs in 2016 because his arm felt good.
“In 2016 when I was pitching so bad, I felt really good physically,” Tolleson said. “My velocity was the best it had ever been. I just wasn’t executing my pitches like I had in the past. I still don’t know exactly what was going on. I think it was mechanically.”
Though Tolleson saved 11 games, he was replaced in the closer’s role in May after blowing back to back saves. He left the team for a week to tend to his father who was battling cancer, and was eventually sent to the minors. He ended up on the disabled list with a lower back sprain that kept him out the final two months of the season.
Tolleson signed a contract with the Rays in 2017 and pitched in spring training, but any chance of pitching for the team in the regular season ended last May when he underwent Tommy John surgery.
“When I elected to have the surgery done and start the rehab process, I chose it with the Rangers’ staff, the doctor and team therapist,” Tolleson said. “They’ve kind of been walking alongside me this whole time. We’re all communicating and coming together to come up with a good plan, and I think so far it’s worked out really well.”
The time away from baseball has allowed Tolleson, who turns 30 on Jan. 19, to spend more time with his wife and two young sons.
“I think I’ve grown a lot as a person,” Tolleson said. “It’s given me a lot of family time, a chance to raise my boys and be there all the time. But it’s also intensified my love of baseball. I have zero bitterness, and I’ve gotten the chance to get my body in better shape.”
Rangers pitcher Matt Bush is looking forward to seeing Tolleson rejoin the team after completing his rehabilitation.
“Shawn is a great pitcher for us and he was a great leader for us as well,” Bush said. “I remember when getting called up, Shawn was one of the guys who led me in the right direction with things. He has the stuff and hopefully he’ll be able to bounce back fully and come back and continue to do some of the things he did with us before.”
Tolleson and Bush were joined on the Rangers winter caravan by Chris Martin, who pitched for McLennan Community College in 2005-06. He signed a two-year free agent contract with the Rangers in December after pitching the last two seasons for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league.
The 6-8 Martin posted a 1.12 ERA in 92 relief appearances in Japan after pitching in the major leagues for the Colorado Rockies in 2014 and the New York Yankees in 2015. A graduate of Arlington High School, Martin is excited to join his hometown team.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Martin said. “I’m just trying to focus on getting ready for the season and helping the hometown team win. Whenever they need me, I’ll be ready to go. There’s not a better team for me to sign with.”