At first, the right-hander and 2002 first-round pick by the A’s didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want to accept that there was something severely wrong with his elbow, opting instead to try and pitch through the pain.
But the pain soon became too much to bear for the San Jose native and Fresno State alum in late July of ’04. Fritz finally conceded that something was wrong and, through the advice of team doctors, opted for “Tommy John” with less than a month left in the season.
He had won seven games for the RockHounds despite a plus-five ERA, and was consistently reaching the low to occasional mid 90s with his fastball. Since coming back from the surgery, however, Fritz has had to make a few adjustments – the biggest one being that he no longer thinks of himself as a power pitcher with a plus-fastball.
“You have to learn how to pitch better,” Fritz says of no longer featuring an overpowering No. 1.
When he began this season at Midland, Fritz’s velocity was slowly on the rise. He admits to topping out at 92 mph early on with the club, but says that as the season has started to dwindle down, so has his velocity.
Not that Fritz is necessarily complaining, mind you.
“I’m throwing as hard as many guys in the big leagues,” he boasts. “I’m not discouraged right now. I still have enough on my fastball and it isn’t terrible. I’m just not a power pitcher anymore, which is fine. I’ve learned how to pitch and developed a good changeup. Hopefully, I can just roll with that.”
According to Fritz, it’s likely that his elbow had originally gone out a full month before he finally shut things down back in ‘04. He recalls vividly the moment he first thought something was wrong.
“It was a rainy day. I threw one pitch that just didn’t feel right,” recollected Fritz. “I didn’t feel a pop or anything like that, and I finished the game. My velocity didn’t go down and it really didn’t bother me at the time. But gradually, it got worse over the next three starts. Finally, I threw to three hitters and my fastball was topping out at 84.”
“I guess the adrenaline is what got me through it up until that day,” he added.
Having to come to terms with his injury was probably the most difficult thing of all for Fritz.
“I had probably thrown three or four starts on a torn elbow, which elevated my numbers a little bit,” he said. “I refused to accept the fact that I was hurt. Finally, I couldn’t do it any more.”
At 25, Fritz is happy just to be in Triple-A. He spent last season on the road to recovery and made four starts for the Arizona Rookie League A’s and two for Class A Stockton.
Beginning 2006 back in Double-A was just fine and dandy for Fritz, let alone his first career call-up to Triple-A two months later.
“After missing last year and going into this year, I just wanted to prove I was healthy,” Fritz said. “The first couple of starts in Midland, I was more touchy-feely, just worried about my elbow. I started to throw the ball better and got an opportunity to come up here.”
Since arriving in Sacramento in early June, Fritz has put together some quality outings in spite of his 5.69 ERA. He has surrendered 18 earned runs over his last four starts and has gone 4-4 with the Cats overall.
One of the reasons for his periodic struggles this year, Fritz says, is due to periods of dead-arm symptoms.
“I’ve struggled a little bit here and there,” he admitted. “I think I was going through some dead arm, and felt I didn’t have a whole lot of life on the ball. But my last bullpen went really well and I felt like there was some more life to it. I’m happy to be here and want to keep taking strides forward.”
Even if Fritz isn’t currently throwing as hard as he was in the past, or truly is suffering from fatigue, it’s understandable. He’s already logged over 130 innings this season – a career-high for any one season in only his first full year back from Tommy John.
“After throwing hardly any innings last year and only about  the year before, I think my arm is a little fatigued,” Fritz said. “I’ve heard from people that two years after your surgery is when you finally start getting all of your stuff back, and I’m about a week away from that two-year point.
“I’m hoping that’s the magic date.”