MLB Tommy John Surgery Updates
Thursday August 16th, 2012
Bernie Olshansky: Over the course of this year, there have been more pitchers going in for Tommy John surgery than I can ever remember. And make no mistake, it is mostly pitchers that are falling victim. According to our TJ Tracker, there have been 39 pitchers (including Michael Pineda who had arthroscopic surgery) that had the surgery since March. In the month of August alone, there have already been two pitchers to go under the knife and one that most likely will. Neftali Feliz had the surgery on the first of the month after trying to come back from an arm injury, and he was then being shut down in a rehab assignment. Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays also had this surgery. It seems like every pitcher will eventually need this surgery in his career. It is becoming the reality of modern day baseball.
Before the surgery, pitchers’ careers were much shorter, some just 7-8 years long. Now with this new technology, careers are prolonged. It’s been said that Tommy John surgery can even strengthen an arm. The ligament is replaced with a tendon (usually from the leg) and the arm is made stronger. Sometimes pitchers are said to throw even harder after the surgery. This may or may not be true; there is some debate. It could be that pitchers are taking more time to condition, but it could also be that they are given a stronger arm. Some pitchers have had the surgery multiple times. One that comes to mind is Brian Wilson of the Giants. Wilson had his first surgery in college. He fully recovered and was converted from a starter to a reliever in the minors. Upon arriving to the majors, Wilson was a fireballer and became the closer. He threw in the upper 90’s even after a surgery like this. It will be interesting to see how he recovers from his second surgery and if he can retain the closers’ role.
Another famous victim of this surgery is Stephen Strasburg. Coming off his much-anticipated debut season, Strasburg was plagued with elbow pain. When I heard that he was having this surgery, I immediately thought that he might even throw harder after his recovery. He was already hitting 100, so would that mean he would hit 103 after his surgery? Would his arm get even stronger? He recovered and threw at about the same velocity, but he was still an intriguing case. Most pitchers end up fully recovering, but it’s still alarming: why are so many pitchers getting this surgery?
In this day and age, pitchers are throwing just as much as ever. The average starter is expected to throw at least five innings every fifth day, with one full-length bullpen session in between starts. Pitchers also play catch almost every day. Innings limits are set for young pitchers, but ironically these limits are set for those that had past injuries. Aces for teams end up throwing over 200 innings a year. Let’s take Felix Hernandez of the Mariners as an example. He’s thrown at least 200 innings for the past four years, and he’s already thrown 171 innings this year. That will make five years in a row with at least 200 innings. Since 2006, Hernandez hasn’t thrown less than 190 innings in a year. Pitchers usually have TJ Surgery because of wear and tear, so it seems inevitable that Hernandez may need it within the next few years. Only time will tell.
Before innings limits and five-man rotations, pitchers pitched on back to back days. Sandy Koufax, in the last two years of his career pitched 658.2 innings. He apparently pitched with a lot of pain, so he must have been a perfect candidate for the surgery if it had been available. It could have possibly prolonged his career, which only lasted 12 years. In the present, TJ Surgery is available to all who need it. Before the surgery, pitchers simply pitched through the pain, like Koufax. Now, pitchers sacrifice a year and get the surgery in hopes of adding a few years to their career.
It seems like the patients of this surgery are more likely to be relievers than starters. This could be the nature of their work. Relievers (especially closers) are expected to go all out for an inning and “shut the door”. This puts the most stress on the arm, as opposed to a starter pacing himself to get through multiple innings, sometimes even a full game. Especially pitching in high pressure situations on multiple days. The most recent closers to undergo the surgery are Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, and Brian Wilson. Neftali Feliz could be counted too—he was converted back to a starter this season.
The mass of pitchers that are undergoing TJ surgery has definitely gone up, but is it because more are getting injured? I don’t think so. I think in the past—even over the past decade—pitchers were tentative about getting this surgery due to the possibility of a bad outcome. Now, after many years of pitchers returning to form, there is much more confidence in this procedure. So, instead of pitching through the pain, pitchers are opting for the surgery.
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***Today’s feature was prepared by Bernie Olshansky, Baseball Writer & Facebook Administrator. We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers. You can also follow Bernie on Twitter (@BernieOlshansky)***
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Posted on August 16, 2012, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis and tagged baseball, dr. james andrews, felix hernandez, injuries, joakim soria, mlb, neftali feliz, out for the season, pineda, pitching, ryan madson, stephen strasburg, surgery, tj, tommy john, Tommy John Surgery, wilson. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.