How Yukon’s Ethan Horton is bouncing back from Tommy John surgery

Yukon product headed to Cowley County

Ethan Horton delivers a pitch during his junior season at Yukon High School.

By Blake Colston
Sports Writer

Ethan Horton’s 93-mile-per-hour fastball and his grisly repertoire of offspeed pitches helped make the Yukon product one of the state of Oklahoma’s top pitching talents in the Class of 2023.

He committed to Cowley County Community College (Kan.) in the summer of 2022 with the ultimate goal of continuing on to a Division-I school. Everything, including a Major League Baseball career, was within the realm of possibility for the 6-foot-4, 180-pound prospect.

All of those things are still in play, but a three-inch scar that runs from the side of Horton’s right elbow up toward his bicep has complicated his path.

On Dec. 28, 2022, during a routine throwing session, Horton heard a pop followed by lingering discomfort in his right arm. Horton continued his workout, but soon after realized something wasn’t right.

“I couldn’t go full intensity without pain,” he said.

A month later, an MRI revealed Horton had suffered a Grade 3 injury — a complete tear — to the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his right elbow that would require Tommy John surgery, followed by an arduous recovery and rehab process.

Tommy John is a procedure that was introduced and first performed by Frank Jobe, M.D., on baseball pitcher Tommy John in 1974—hence the colloquial name Tommy John surgery.

“It was shocking,” Horton said. “I was very upset because I was excited to get to throw for coach (Ryan) Phillips in his first season at Yukon. I felt like I was letting everyone down.”

Ethan Horton shows off the scar from his Tommy John surgery. (Photo Provided)

Only a few weeks before the start of Horton’s senior season at YHS was supposed to begin, Texas Rangers team physician Dr. Keith Meister surgically repaired Horton’s damaged ligament.

That marked the start of Horton’s long road back. Four months removed from the surgery, Horton is in the midst of a year-long rehabilitation process.

“Right now, I feel awesome. It’s getting stronger and stronger everyday and I’m really excited,” said Horton, while detailing a rigorous physical therapy schedule that entails three, two-and-a-half-hour visits per week.

Horton has regained enough strength in his elbow to do some light two-handed plyometrics with a medicine ball. In July, he will advance to one-handed throws and, at the six-month mark, he can begin to throw a baseball again, but only with light intensity.

“I have a long way to go,” he said.

The UCL injury is not unusual for baseball players, particularly for pitchers like Horton who throw above 90 MPH.

A 2018 survey of active players found that 26% of Major League pitchers and 19% of Minor League pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery at some point in their careers. While the total number of Tommy John surgeries per year in adolescent pitchers is unknown, the rate of increase in the number of Tommy John surgeries each year in players aged 15-19 years has been over 9% per year.

“There’s such good technology and so many good doctors that know what to do,” Horton said. “They can even increase your chances of being a better baseball player.”

Horton said, initially, he was self-conscious about the scar the surgical procedure left. He kept it hidden as much as possible. Now, it’s a source of strength — like a battle scar — both as a physical mark and a mental reminder.

“Seeing the improvements I’ve made to not only my elbow, but also the rest of my body, I’m happy about the progress I’ve made,” he said.

Horton has visualized what it will be like to be on the mound again with the ball in his right hand and a fully healthy elbow to rely on, but, for now, it’s a day-to-day process.
For the first time since he was six years old, Horton’s not able to play baseball.

“I’m bored,” he said.

Horton has watched the Men’s College World Series to help pass the time between physical therapy visits. He was rooting for underdog Oral Roberts before they were eliminated. Now, Horton thinks Florida and Louisiana State are the favorites. He’s even allowed himself to daydream a little bit while watching the CWS.

“I want to pitch in Omaha one day,” he said.

Horton is scheduled to take the mound at 100% health in February of 2024. Cowley College never wavered with their offer to Horton following his injury. Since his surgery, the school’s coaches have suggested Horton redshirt his first year on campus.

“It’s not the most exciting idea, but if it’s better for me and my elbow health and getting me back to what I was, I’m OK with it,” he said.

Some major hurdles remain in his recovery process, but Horton knows when he’ll be able to say he’s gotten past them all.

“Once I get to hop on the mound and let loose without having any doubt in my mind, that’s when I’ll know I’m back,” he said.

At the beginning of Yukon’s 2023 season, Horton struggled with the helpless feeling of having to sit in the dugout without being able to contribute.

“But all of my teammates were supportive of me and wanted me there,” Horton said.

So, Horton found different ways to make an impact. He tracked pitches and analyzed the opposing team’s pitchers to find weaknesses that Yukon could exploit.

When the Millers faced Stillwater in the opening round of the Class 6A state tournament, Horton did some of his most important scouting. He zeroed in on Pioneers starting pitcher Barrett Morgan, and after a few innings, Horton noticed some subtle differences in the right-hander’s delivery that tipped off what kind of pitch he was sending to the plate.

YHS used the intel to rally from an early deficit to win 3-1.

Ironically, Morgan is also a Cowley signee who previously underwent UCL surgery. A few weeks after Yukon’s victory over Stillwater, Horton told Morgan — his soon to be college roommate — about the gamesmanship.

“He already knew. We laughed about it,” Horton said.