Baseball’s First Great Hope in Stem Cell Therapy

Angels starting pitcher Garrett Richards. (Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images )

One of the most intriguing storylines going into the 2017 Major League Baseball season was that of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards and stem cell therapy. Richards, who suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament of his pitching elbow in 2016, shocked the baseball world by opting out of Tommy John surgery, which has long been the traditional treatment for such an injury. Richards instead chose to try stem cell therapy as his avenue toward healing, and eventually back to the pitcher’s mound. With a potentially much shorter recovery time, as well as less potential for side-effects that can come with Tommy John surgery, the baseball world has been eagerly awaiting the long-term results of Richards’ return to action.

On April 5, just days into the 2017 season, Richards made his first start for the Angels. And early on, things were looking awfully promising for each one of Richards, his team, and the healing power of stem cell therapy. Unfortunately, the waiting game reared its head once again, as Richards was forced to exit the game early with an irritated nerve in the bicep muscle of his pitching arm. While the previously damaged ligament was still intact, this new injury put the Angels pitcher back on the disabled list.

Though the sample size from his return is still small, Richards finished the game pitching 4 and 2/3rd innings, allowing just three hits, one walk, no runs, and striking out four batters. His fastball velocity was also on par with his performance prior to the torn UCL that sidelined him in the first place. Now, the waiting game still lingers onward. Much of the medical community remains eager to see how well a joint that undergoes as much stress as the elbow of a major league starting pitcher can ultimately recover as a result of stem cell therapy.

Here in Utah, there’s also a sense of hometown pride for someone that grew into the major-league player that he is today with multiple stops here in the Beehive State. Drafted by the Angels in 2009, Richards made his professional baseball debut with the Orem Owlz that same year. Fast forward several years to 2012, and Richards had elevated himself among the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. That same season, Richards took his final step toward the big leagues just a handful of miles North from his first steps, making 14 starts for the Salt Lake Bees before getting the call to Los Angeles for good. Having made multiple stops with multiple local minor league teams, it’s no wonder why baseball fans in Utah are also hoping that stem cell therapy can deliver the regenerative results that Richards and his doctors have hoped. With the continually developing technology of stem cell therapy, a success story like the one that appears to be in the works with one of Utah’s former minor-leaguers could serve as a valuable benchmark to the staggering potential of this treatment.

Richards currently is on the verge of returning to the pitcher’s mound following the setback from his bicep injury in April. The team hopes he can add a valuable boost to its pitching rotation for the final stretch of the regular season in September. But maybe more importantly, a true, long-term recovery from Richards will offer added faith in the healing potential of stem cell therapy from here in Utah, all the way to the rest of the baseball world.