Former Los Angeles Angels and Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Michael Kohn missed all of the 2016 season after undergoing shoulder surgery in October 2015. After nearly 14 months of rehab, Kohn will throw a 35-pitch workout session for major-league teams at the University of Southern California at noon on Tuesday in hopes of landing an invitation to a team’s big-league spring training camp.
Kohn originally injured his shoulder six games into the 2015 season, and orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Altchek fixed the partial tear in Kohn’s rotator cuff in October 2015. With an expected recovery time of 14 months, Kohn set his sights on being ready for 2017.
After his shoulder surgery, Kohn heard about Dr. John Meyer and his rehab facility, the Institute of Sports Physical Therapy, in Manhattan Beach, California. “When I heard that Dr. Meyer handled Kobe Bryant’s rehab, I was sold. So I packed up my stuff, shipped my car to California, and I’ve been here since the beginning of the year.”
For the first several months of Kohn’s rehab — four hours a day, five days a week — there was no baseball activity. He first picked up a baseball for a light game of catch at the end of May, seven months after his surgery. He began playing catch seriously and regularly in July, and he had his first bullpen session last month.
Kohn is almost 14 months removed from his surgery, and he feels that his hard work has paid off. He has been throwing his full mix of pitches — fastball, slider, and changeup — and he has been pleased with his command. He had his first bullpen session in front of a radar gun about ten days ago, and his fastball was sitting at about 92 miles per hour.
“Even in a regular offseason coming off a healthy season, I don’t know if I could have hit 92 at 10:00 a.m. in November with no adrenaline,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll get a couple more ticks on Tuesday with some adrenaline going, but the most important thing is that I’m feeling really good.”
It’s easy to lump major-league players together, especially hard-throwing relievers. But when you look a little closer, every pitcher tells a story (ha ha), and Kohn’s story is more interesting than most. There are challenges along the way — “If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be my story,” he likes to say — but the fact that he was drafted as a pitcher after throwing only 13 career innings tells you a bit about the twists and turns.
If you look at the outdated player page for Kohn on the website for the College of Charleston Cougars, it lists his position as “catcher/infielder/outfielder.” You know, pretty much everywhere but pitcher. Kohn went to college as a shortstop, and he ended up playing everywhere except center field — even catcher, which he had never done at any level. But other than one game on the mound in high school, he was not a pitcher.
“I ended up pitching pretty much as a joke my senior year in college,” Kohn said. “I just begged the coaches, ‘Let me see if I can pitch,’ and finally they said, ‘Okay, throw ten pitches in front of the radar gun.’ I ended up throwing 95 and 96, which I had no clue I could do, and it was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m a pitcher now.'”
Longtime Angels scout and coach Tom Kotchman had a serendipitous inside track on Kohn the pitcher.
“I owe my career to Kotch,” Kohn said. “His daughter, Christal, was the shortstop for the [College of Charleston] softball team, and she was over one day sitting in the stands watching the intrasquad game. She usually sat behind the scouts, and she called her dad during the intrasquad and said, ‘Dad, our baseball team’s first baseman is on the mound and he’s throwing 96 miles an hour.'”
Christal Kotchman’s scouting reports earned her a $100 gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse, and they led the Angels to draft Kohn in the 13th round of the 2008 draft. Tom Kotchman was actually Kohn’s first professional manager that year when Kohn pitched for the Orem Owlz of the rookie-level Pioneer League. Two years later, Kohn was on the mound at Angel Stadium making his major-league debut against the Boston Red Sox. That game didn’t go too well — he allowed two runs on two hits and a walk in 0.1 innings — but he allowed just three runs in 21 innings the rest of the season, finishing a strong rookie year with a 2.11 ERA.
His career since 2010 has been a series of ups and downs. The 2011 season had all the elements of a lousy year: struggles, ineffectiveness, demotion to the minor leagues, and injury. Kohn pitched most of the season with a damaged ulnar collateral ligament that he was not aware of, and his performance suffered. He had a 7.30 ERA in 14 games with the Angels and spent quite a bit of time in Triple-A Salt Lake. In spring training 2012, his elbow finally gave out, and he ended up on the operating table of Dr. James Andrews for Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the entire 2012 season.
Kohn came back strong, putting up solid seasons in relief for the Angels in 2013 and 2014. After 2014, he signed with his childhood favorite team, the Braves, but he was just six games into his Atlanta career when his shoulder went out.
Heading into the 2017 season, Kohn is just hoping for an invitation to a team’s big-league camp in spring training. “If I can show them that I’m healthy again, I think I’ve shown throughout my career that I’m more than capable of pitching in the back end of a bullpen,” he said. “That’s all I’m looking for, and hopefully there’s a team out there that needs a late-inning arm.”
The market for relief pitchers is heavy at the top, with Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon highlighting the group. But once you get past the cream of the crop, it looks like a market where Kohn might make a lot of sense for a team looking for a low-risk, high-reward reliever. When Brett Cecil is getting four years and $30.5 million, a hard-throwing reliever with a track record of success like Kohn could be a great option for a team looking for bullpen help.
The San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, and New York Yankees come to mind as teams likely to be active in the reliever market, and a reunion with either of his former teams might make sense, too. But when you weigh the risk against the potential reward, there could be a dozen other teams for whom Kohn would be a fit.