Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Time to face facts about Tommy John surgery

I’m not an injury specialist. I’m not a statistical guru. So, if you’ve started this article and think I am going to be able to add them together and inform you of the reasons why Tommy John surgery is not the answer, you’ll be disappointed. No one knows exactly why some players respond better or worse than others after receiving ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) surgery. All the data in the world has yet to help and apparently the surgery itself is far from a sure thing. Reality is, no one knows what to do about it.

I simply want to discuss the grand disappointment that befalls pitchers who throw their hearts out or should I say their elbows apart only to have to succumb to the knife. For many aspiring and current professional baseball pitchers, one part of the body they all know is the UCL. The procedure to fix damage to the UCL is all at once feared, assumed and dealt with.

More and more, pitchers are having the surgery and many of them are able to toe the rubber again and perform at or near the level they did prior to the surgery. The procedure has become so second-nature that we as fans tend to ho-hum it.

The organizations don’t know what do, the doctors have yet to make the operation full-proof and the pitchers are left with much uncertainty after they step back on the mound.

For every pitcher like John Smoltz who has the surgery and excels until the end of his career, there are the Kris Medlen’s and Jarrod Parker’s going for a second round of ligament/tendon swaps, or more correctly the second time, tendon/tendon swaps. The outlook for those going for a second procedure is not nearly as comforting as after the first.

Let’s just say that the Atlanta Braves are very happy that they did not add Medlen and prospective two-time Tommy John recipient Brandon Beachy to the plethora of multiyear/multimillion dollar extensions this offseason. The prospects of Medlen and Beachy leading the Braves into the latter part of this decade just got dicey.

No matter which way this is cut -- pun intended -- the only assurance a player, the surgeon, the team and the fans can hang their hat on is that we don’t know what’s going to happen to a competitor once the procedure is performed. All too often, the pitcher does not bother to remedy the situation by changing his delivery, so of course there is automatic wear on the replacement tendon from the moment long-tossing begins. The answer is not just about the surgery.

Some players will never need the surgery again, and if they do it is likely to come at a time when retirement is coming into play anyway and they simply take their guaranteed cash and move on to jobs as pitching coaches teaching the same crappy mechanics. I know, I said I wasn’t an expert, but does it require expertise to make a remark like that? I don’t think so.

The answer may very well be that while surgeons look to find an improved method of repairing UCL damage, the pitchers and teams will have to do a better job of putting less stress and wear on the elbow. This requires a change at the lowest levels of baseball, where kids are hurling four different pitches in Babe Ruth games on back-to-back nights to fulfill the dream of a former wannabe professional ballplayer coaching his son's team.

Since that is unlikely to happen, expect more ups and downs where it relates to your favorite players headed to see Dr. James Andrews. And if it is their second time under the knife, don’t hold your breath that even the current mastermind can make a difference.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo.