We live in an era where baseball players are bigger, faster and stronger, in better shape than ball players have ever been. Yet not a day goes by where we don’t hear of a player suffering a season ending injury. The most notable of the bunch is a UCL tear, which leads to the infamous Tommy John Surgery. A study done in 2013 showed that 1/3 of the all pitchers in MLB have undergone the surgery at some point in their careers. That is a staggering number that should not be deemed the “price of doing business.”
When Dr. Frank Jobe performed the first surgery on pitcher Tommy John in 1974, I’m not quite sure he knew the impact he would be making on the game of baseball. The surgery is revolutionary, having saved hundreds of careers throughout the years, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest advancements in sports medicine in the last 40 years. But did anyone think we would see the day when parents are pushing their teenage sons to undergo the surgery to “get it out-of-the-way.” Well, that’s what’s happening out in the world today and I’m not sure how Dr. Jobe would feel about that.
The first month of the baseball season isn’t even complete and we already have many high-profile pitchers going down. The list includes Atlanta’s Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, Oakland’s Jarrod Parker, Arizona’s David Hernandez and Patrick Corbin, Tampa’s Matt Moore, The Mets’ Bobby Parnell and The Yankees Ivan Nova could be added to the list any day now. That isn’t even counting the dozen of pitchers who are rehabbing from their surgery and dozens more that will undergo the procedure as the season progresses. Last year, the White Sox alone saw eight, yes eight, pitchers in their organization go down with this injury. It’s a scary thought knowing one of your pitchers could go down for the year at any moment without any warning.
No one seems to be able to put a finger on what exactly is causing the increase for the need of Tommy John surgery. Is it from pitchers throwing harder today? Kids learning to throw curveballs far too young? Or pitchers throwing far too many pitches in their early years? It could very well be a combination of all three of these factors, but I believe the latter is the major cause. Gone are the days where kid’s play three sports all throughout high school. If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “I played 3 sports in high school, what is he talking about?” Well, that’s probably because you weren’t a highly touted prospect in any of the three sports you played. Hope that didn’t come as a shock to you.
Once parents and kids become aware that the professional ranks could be within their reach, they begin to focus all of their attention on that particular sport. Now you aren’t playing games well beyond just your high school schedule, which means year round travel teams, workouts and endless camps. Meaning that you are throwing much more than the average kid ever did not too long ago. Although we have become much more mindful to pitch count awareness at the professional level, there is no telling what amateur coaches and parents are limited their kids too. Beside the point, a pitch count won’t do you much good if you are throwing a ball year round. Without any real extended time off, you aren’t giving your arm an off-season to rest and recover.
The only positive that comes along with Tommy John Surgery is the success rate. A study shows that 97% of pitchers make it back to at least the minor league level and 83% go on to return to the major league level. Those are results that just about anyone would take. With the limited risk the surgery comes with, pitches aren’t even considering rest and rehab for their injuries now, but rather going straight for the procedure to not waste any time. In many cases we are seeing pitchers return to better results than they were seeing before the surgery. Pitchers have returned throwing hard than they ever did earlier in their careers, it has become a fountain of youth of sorts for some.
For better or worse, the combination of those two reasons are a big part of why it has become just another part of the game now. I don’t think there is any way to avoid dealing with these injuries throughout all levels of an organization. By the time these players reach the professional level, the damage has already been done. No one monitors pitchers more than major league baseball, the problem is getting that same thought process to trickle down to the lower levels of play. Keep an eye out to see who the next pitcher will be that needs Tommy John surgery, it won’t be a long wait.