BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Jay Groome understood he would face challenges in professional baseball. From going up against highly touted prospects to constant travel, life in the minor leagues is an endurance test for young players. While Groome seemed equipped to handle the responsibilities, he did not anticipate Tommy John Surgery sidelining him for more than a year.
“I kept feeling pain in my elbow, which is different from the regular soreness you feel after pitching,” Groome said. “It was tough going through the process, but ultimately it was worth it because of the way my arm is feeling now with the recovery. Each day is a new day. Some days it feels good and others it doesn’t.”
Groome headlined most amateur prospect rankings after a decorated pitching career for Barnegat High School in New Jersey. His junior season at Barnegat propelled him to professional aspirations when he made school history that spring, striking out 19 in a no-hitter against Central Regional.
The promise that Groome showcased at a young age lent credence to the assumption that he would become the first overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft. But when the Phillies chose Mickey Moniak with the top selection, Groome fell to the Boston Red Sox at the 12th overall pick.
“Being with the Red Sox organization made me learn a lot more facing top-tier talent in other organizations in the minor leagues,” Groome said. “It taught me to pay attention when I’m in the stands charting pitches and memorize hitting tendencies of guys that can swing the bat. My baseball IQ skyrocketed.”
For a team that had not developed a homegrown left-handed starting pitcher since Jon Lester, getting Groome was a coup. Reinforcing the notion was Groome’s encouraging start as a pro when he posted a 2.70 ERA in his first three starts and averaged 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 2016. The following season he had a 1.64 ERA with the Lowell Spinners while learning the intricacies of pitching.
“I was focusing on my location pitching at Lowell at the time,” Groome said. “I was trying to get a feel for pitching coming off an injury. When I went to Greenville later in the year, I hurt my elbow for the first time, but I kept the same pitching mindset. After my first year, I learned from watching other guys pitch, especially at Greenville and seeing how to attack hitters with my pitches.”
The difference between competing in high school and competing in pro ball can feel staggering for a pitcher when they begin to struggle. Initially, he started the 2017 season in full-season Class A Greenville, Groome suffered a lat injury in his first start and missed nearly two months. When he returned to Greenville, after a brief stint in Lowell, his ERA spiked to 6.70 in large part to 25 walks in 44 1/3 innings (11 starts).
“My struggles were just a matter of executing my pitches,” he said. “I was throwing the ball down the middle a lot with my pitches at Greenville. The hitters were making me pay, but I had a couple of strong starts where my command was exceptional. Now having better command of my pitches and understanding opposing hitters will benefit me in the long run.”
Groome hoped to return to form the following spring but a torn elbow ligament led to Tommy John Surgery, ending his season immediately. He didn’t foresee the injury, since he participated in spring training and threw the ball effectively, but underwent a 16-month recovery process began he retook the mound in a competitive environment.
“The injury was a recurring injury for me. My elbow was really sore, and I wasn’t used to it. I was a little nervous because I didn’t know how my body was going to react,” Groome said. “The biggest thing I felt was lingering pain. Now my arm is finally pain-free, and I can get my body performing the way that it needs to be when I’m at my best. I’m just excited that everything went smoothly with the surgery.”
Entering the 2018 season, Groome worked extensively with pitchers on the Red Sox staff, including All-Star left-hander Chris Sale, with weight training and pilates. Sale took it upon himself to guide the young southpaw and assist the younger pitchers in the Red Sox system. For Groome, being mentored by one of the top pitchers in the major leagues was an invaluable experience.
“The main thing was seeing how Sale went about his business in the offseason,” Groome said. “He was strictly about getting better, and that was his mentality. We talked about working hard to get better. He told me that if you don’t put in the work, you ultimately will not see the results you expect, and that was the main thing I learned from him.”
In the months following the surgery, Groome couldn’t throw a baseball and concentrated on the lengthy recovery process. By November he posted a video on his Instagram account where he resumed throwing, leading to optimism that he might pitch again in the minor leagues before the end of the 2019 season. Groome felt eager and determined to continue his career and regain his past form.
“After the surgery, it is kind of draining seeing all of your friends perform. It’s tough not being able to be there with them,” Groome said. “It takes a month to two months to lift weights.” Then I resumed running. It was the protocol from my doctor. It is difficult because you don’t want it to get in your head. My trainer reminded me to take things day by day and how invasive the surgery is, but I wanted to get back on the mound.”
Before having Tommy John Surgery, Groome’s fastball velocity registered in the mid-90s with sharp movement. He compliments his fastball with a curveball that features late break. Both pitches can generate swings and misses, while his changeup creates deception when mixed with his other two offerings, especially when he has command.
“My fastball and curveball are my two best pitches, but my changeup has gotten better since before my surgery,” Groome said. “I was throwing that a lot in my bullpens when I was coming back, and if I can keep executing it, it can be a very good pitch down the road.
“I have to trust it more. My command is coming along. It was never an issue except when I was hurt because I was overcompensating. Now it’s just a matter of getting outs and pitch as many innings as I can before we finish the season.”
After making two starts in the Gulf Coast League in late August, Groome took the mound for Class A short-season Lowell and made one regular-season start and remained in the rotation for the playoffs. His first playoff start came Sept. 5 when he pitched three innings of one-run baseball to help his team stave off elimination.
One week later, he struck out three in 2 2/3 innings in the New York-Penn League Finals in Brooklyn. Being able to pitch successfully in competitive games breeds confidence for Groome, who’s trying to regain his form as one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in baseball.
“I was in extended spring with a lot of the guys, so it was great to get to know them and to experience a championship setting again like when I pitched in Greenville,” Groome said. It would be nice to get another chance to get that opportunity with Lowell.
“Since my first year in Lowell, the fans were incredible there for us. The only fans that are there are Red Sox fans, so it’s good to have that support and fans that are rooting for you to succeed. I’m here now finishing up my TJ rehab and looking to finish the season off on a strong note.”