July 15, 2024

JJ Wetherholt is back atop MLB Draft boards after hamstring rehab saved his season at WVU

PHOENIX — It was the hamstring injury that reverberated around college baseball. Just four games into top MLB Draft prospect JJ Wetherholt’s junior season, the West Virginia star suffered a Grade 3 hamstring strain scoring a run on a wild pitch against Stetson on Feb. 19. The injury would cost Wetherholt a significant part of the season, but when it happened Steven Rosier feared it was a much worse injury.

“I actually thought he’d blown out his knee,” said Rosier, the Mountaineers’ associate director of athletic training. “When I got to him on the field, I said, ‘Hey, what happened?’ And he said, ‘My hamstring blew out’. I said, ‘Thank God,’ and he looked at me like, ‘Are you kidding me right now?’ But I was like, ‘If you just saw what I saw, you’d understand why I’m glad that that’s all it is.’”

A season-ending knee injury it wasn’t, but it was still a significant injury and one that Wetherholt and Rosier would work closely together to rehab over the next seven weeks. Midseason injuries are difficult to return from, but Wetherholt’s rehab took on added urgency because of what was at stake, both for him and the program. Wetherholt entered the season as one of a handful of players in the conversation to go 1-1 in the 2024 draft. And the Mountaineers were looking to build off an appearance in the NCAA Regionals in 2023 and establish themselves as a real presence in the national college baseball conversation.

“It was all over Twitter within 10 minutes of it happening and before that game was over, I had like 50 text messages from people that I know across the baseball world wondering what was going on,” Rosier said over the phone last week.

At the time of the injury, Wetherholt could have elected to pack it in for the season and undergo a long rehabilitation to get ready for the draft and the start of his pro career. After hitting .449/.517/.787 with 16 homers as a sophomore, Wetherholt had shown pro scouts enough and likely would have remained a first-round pick even if he didn’t return to the field in 2024. But he wasn’t playing just for himself. He wanted to be out there to help his team. So within minutes of suffering the injury, Wetherholt began an ambitious but methodical rehab that tested his patience but got him back in the lineup for the final nine weeks of the season.

“He took a couple of minutes where he was upset, and let that out,” Rosier said. “And we started some treatment during the game on it. By the time we were done doing that, he was already back in the dugout, doing whatever he could to help the guys, keeping spirits up, being a loud voice in the dugout and letting guys know that he was still there.”

Once the imaging on the injury was done, the process began with PRP injections. When Wetherholt was past that stage, Rosier sat down with him and the two discussed how he was feeling and his goals for when he wanted to return. From there, a detailed, week-by-week schedule was created to get him back as close to full strength as possible. There was some wiggle room for speeding up or slowing down the process, depending on how Wetherholt was feeling, but for the most part it was a structured program that at times had to rein in the ultra-competitive infielder.

Rosier says five weeks into the program, when Wetherholt was cleared to start swinging again, was the biggest test of Wetherholt’s patience. If he was feeling good, he wanted to be in the cage taking 500 swings to try to get that much closer to returning. Rosier had to remind him “we can’t do 500 swings today because that isn’t going to help your hamstring or your body to get back to baseball.”

Wetherholt heeded Rosier’s advice, but admits it was difficult not to push himself too hard, to return before he was truly ready.

“It was tough,” Wetherholt said last month at the MLB Draft Combine in Phoenix. “Thankfully, I had a good plan with doctors and trainers that was pretty strict. … It was kind of just trusting them and following them. But definitely in the back of my head it was like, ‘I want to play right now.’”

Wetherholt was an active participant in his own rehab, seeking out opinions on how to heal effectively, presenting ideas and listening to feedback from the training staff on those ideas.

“He was great throughout the whole process,” Rosier said. “He’s super invested in trying to do everything that’s best for him and his body.”

Rehab wasn’t new to Wetherholt, who had suffered a hamstring injury over the summer while playing with Team USA. But this injury was different from the summer one, which Rosier says was more of a low-grade muscle injury. The February injury was on the lateral part of the hamstring in the middle of the muscle and it tore completely. It was a Grade 3 strain, though Rosier says Wetherholt retained enough functionality that it felt more like a Grade 2 strain.

Wetherholt learned a lot about himself and his mental toughness during his time away from the field.

“You have more free time than ever, so you’ve got to stay disciplined and still find ways to stay locked in,” he said. “The biggest thing, too, is you have to learn how to impact the game when you can’t play. I think everybody knew the kind of player I was and they wanted to see me out there, hitting homers or whatever the case may be, but I had to find a way to be that guy, but in the dugout.”

Some of the ways Wetherholt helped his teammates during his rehab included sharing his own experiences in certain situations, breaking down what he was seeing from opposing pitchers, and keeping the chatter going on the bench.

“I learned a lot on how to do that and how to be better at it and just stay engaged,” he said.

Of course, when Wetherholt returned to the field in April, there was the additional challenge of shaking off the rust, while everyone else had been playing for the past two months. He also wasn’t going to be 100 percent during the regular season, so he had to learn to play with those limitations. To stay ready, Wetherholt worked hard to maintain his timing. Even before he could swing, he’d stand in the batter’s box and track pitches during bullpen sessions. Once he was able to swing, he’d take as many reps as the trainers would allow off hitting machines.

“Having competitive training environments can help you simulate what a game is going to be like,” Wetherholt said.

Wetherholt acknowledges that the simulated reps could only do so much to prepare him for game speed, but he relied on his routine to keep himself as ready as possible.

“It took a while to stay consistent. So it came down to just getting repetitions in the game, trusting the process and knowing that it might come a little bit slower than what it did last year,” he said.

Despite those challenges, he collected three hits in his first game back, against Kansas on April 5. He struggled a bit over the next few games but found his groove by the end of April and finished the season with a .331/.472/.589 line in 36 games.

West Virginia finished the regular season in fourth place in the Big 12, but with Wetherholt back in the lineup, the Mountaineers advanced out of Regionals and made the program’s first Super Regional. They eventually fell to North Carolina in that round.

“By the time we hit the last weekend of the year and Big 12 tournament, he was playing free, and he wasn’t thinking about (the injury) and he was moving and running around at full speed,” Rosier said. “I can’t say enough good things about the way he handled the whole process. It was really impressive.”

Wetherholt felt he was just hitting his stride physically when the season came to an end.

“I wanted to keep playing with the guys, but the game doesn’t really care how you feel sometimes,” Wetherholt said of West Virginia’s exit from the postseason in the Super Regionals.

With his rehab and his junior season behind him, Wetherholt’s focus is now on the draft. His solid return to play, coupled with the team meetings he had at the combine, have put him firmly back into the discussion as a top-10 pick in the draft. The Athletic’s Keith Law projected Wetherholt to go at No. 5 to the Chicago White Sox in his latest mock draft, and mentioned him as a possibility for Cleveland at No. 1 if the Guardians are feeling good about his medicals and can get him to sign at a discount for that slot, which is $10.57 million.

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Wetherholt doesn’t look like an offensive force, yet he may be the best pure bat in the 2024 class. Law said Wetherholt “might (have) the best swing for contact in the class” and that he can “really, really hit.” Wetherholt had an elite chase percentage (14.1 percent) this season and made contact on nearly 85 percent of pitches he swung at. And it was quality contact, as his 90th percentile exit velocity was 108.2 mph this season. All of those numbers were improvements over his sophomore season, despite the time missed with injury.

He says both skills took conscious effort to develop, but added that he always had an innate ability to make regular contact and separate balls from strikes, dating to his Little League days. In 145 games at West Virginia, he struck out 82 times and walked 82 times. Over his last two seasons, he sported a 56:39 BB:K.

During his time at West Virginia, Wetherholt honed his approach to go beyond simply swinging at strikes and not chasing outside the zone. He wasn’t always aggressive on off-speed pitches early in counts at the start of his college career, but he attacked hittable ones as his collegiate career progressed.

“I learned to hit more mistakes and elevated pitches, pitches I have a good chance of driving,” he said.

As he honed that approach, his power numbers improved. He more than tripled his freshman home run total as a sophomore, blasting 16 out of the park while driving in 60 in 55 games. The power continued to be evident even in the injury-shortened junior season, as he hit eight homers in 36 games and posted a .589 slugging percentage.

“Deep down I still consider myself a pure hitter with power, but I definitely have the strength and I’ve shown the power to be able to hit the ball out to all fields, which walking by me, you probably wouldn’t expect it,” Wetherholt said.

Wetherholt says one player at the combine was shocked when he met him and realized those hitting numbers were being generated from a smaller frame.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, dude, I don’t look crazy but I can swing a little bit,’” he said with a laugh.

Not surprisingly, given his size, Wetherholt counts Jose Altuve and Dustin Pedroia among the players he most admires. He even played with a Pedroia model glove growing up in the Pittsburgh area. Like those two, Wetherholt has played a lot of second base in his career, but he has his eye on sticking at shortstop at the next level, a position he played in high school and when he was healthy this season.

“I love to play shortstop. It was so much fun,” he said. “I think I can play it at the next level. It’s something I need to continue to get better at, but it’s gonna come with experience.

“I think I have all the tools to do it. It’s a matter of gaining more in-game instincts, which will come with training. … The more in-game experience that I get there, I think the better that I’ll become at it.”

Wetherholt isn’t limited to second base and shortstop. He’s also played a lot of third base, has some experience in the outfield and even got a little time behind the plate growing up. The only position he hasn’t played is first base, he said. Speed is also a big part of his game. He stole 36 bases as a sophomore and swiped six in the injury-shortened season.

“I think versatility is a big part of my game,” he said, noting that he considers himself versatile as a hitter, as well, with his ability to handle all types of pitchers and use the whole field. “Defense is nothing different. In my pro career, maybe I settle in a home at shortstop and play there, but as you learn, there’s only one shortstop really for a big-league team, so if a spot opens up at second or in the outfield, or wherever it is, I’m willing to go there and just play.”

Though his junior season didn’t play out exactly according to plan, he looks back at his time at West Virginia with pride. He came to Morgantown with the goal of putting the WVU program on the map nationally. He left having seen it take a big step in postseason play.

“It means a lot to me because it’s something I wanted to do for the fans and the state and the university,” he said. “It’s a testament to the coaches there and to my teammates who have been on my side for the longest time.”

As Wetherholt makes the transition to pro ball, he knows one of the biggest challenges will be the 140-plus game minor-league season. He’s taking what he learned in rehab and throughout his time at WVU to work on his body to prepare for the grind of that daily schedule. Rosier has no doubts that Wetherholt will put himself in the best possible position to get through a pro season.

“He’s very in-tune with his body and he wants to do what is best for him and is going to help him compete and perform at the highest level possible,” Rosier said. “I think he really learned a lot (from the rehab) and took a lot from it. He’s the kind of kid that if he finds something that helps him, makes him feel good, and he likes it, he’s going to do it, and it’s going to be part of his routine.”



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(Top photo of JJ Wetherholt at Super Regionals: Jeffrey Camarati / USA Today)