The One Weird Trick That Could Prevent Pitching Injuries

The news this week was startling.

On the heels of Kris Medlen, the projected ace of the Atlanta Braves, needing ligament replacement surgery for the second time in his career comes the bad news this week that Jarrod Parker of the Oakland A’s will undergo the same surgery, also for the second time. For the A’s and Braves, it’s been body blows this spring: Medlen’s teammate Brandon Beachy likely is headed in that direction as well as Parker’s fellow starter A.J. Griffen, who will be out at least through May with a sore elbow.

wallace_four_seamerThen there’s Patrick Corbin, the young lefty ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who the D’Backs said this week is out for the season after a partial tear of his elbow ligament and will undergo replacement surgery; lefty Jon Niese of the New York Mets had to leave Sunday’s game against the Cardinals with “elbow discomfort.” And the Dodgers’ top pitching prospect, Ross Stripling, first felt a sore elbow and then, after an MRI, got the news that he too would take the knife.

I’d like to think it was just a coincidence that the recent passing of the inventor of the ligament replacement surgery on pitchers, Dr. Frank Jobe, came as the news of so many pitchers becoming patients casccaded across MLB Network and ESPN. It was Dr. Jobe who first performed the groundbreaking transplant surgery on Dodgers’ lefthander Tommy John, taking a tendon from his right arm to replace the shredded ligament in his left elbow. The surgery was such a success that it became one of the few medical procedures named for the patient rather that the doctor who invented it.

I’d also like to think it was coincidence in light of the news of so many pitchers needing surgery that the Cardinals announced Tuesday they’d cut ties with longtime team physician Dr. George Paletta.

It’s that last bit of news I’d like to address here.

For years, some Cardinals fans had blamed Dr. Paletta for the drawn-out, stumbling, bumbling treatment of the team’s pitchers, from Matt Morris to Andy Benes to Mark Mulder to Matt Clement to Chris Carpenter to Jaime Garcia and I’m sure more pitchers I’ve forgotten to list. The team announces a pitcher is day-to-day, then on the disabled list, then “progressing nicely” (a phrase used so much it became an internet meme — once, I saw the phrase used as a caption of a prostrate Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed). And finally, the seemingly inevitable: surgery.

So many fans have become used to a track record of pitchers coming back after surgery that they’ve taken to chat boards, social media and sports call-in shows asking why, if surgery is inevitable, the Cardinals don’t simply send their pitchers into the operating room at the first sign of trouble? And it seems at first glace to be a pretty good argument; delaying surgery only delays the successful return of a fan favorite to the mound and to the cheers of the crowd, right?

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Just Imagine If There Was No Tommy John Surgery

All of us as St. Louis Cardinals fans — actually, all of us as baseball fans — should be thankful for Dr. Frank Jobe, an orthopedic surgeon who died a few days ago at age 88. You may or may not have heard of him, but there’s no question you’ve heard of his greatest contribution to baseball: ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery, better known as Tommy John surgery.

collage-Tommy JohnThat surgery is something we as Cardinals fans are quite familiar with, isn’t it? Jason Motte is still recovering from undergoing the procedure last May.

And just imagine what the 2011 Cardinals pitching staff would have been if there were no Tommy John surgery and a pitcher’s career — as happened with Sandy Koufax — just ended because of elbow injuries.

Of course there already wasn’t Adam Wainwright that season, since he’d had Tommy John surgery in February. But there also wouldn’t have been Chris Carpenter (who had the surgery in 2007), Jaime Garcia (2008), Jake Westbrook (2008), Kyle McClellan (2005 — and remember how good he was in the starting rotation early that year?) and Octavio Dotel (2005).

Just imagine … no happy flights and magical September and October without them, and that’s just one Cardinals season.

Also just one team. Last July Will Carroll, an expert on sports injuries, published a study at Bleacher Report that indicated one-third of current MLB pitchers at the time had undergone Tommy John surgery.That was 124 of 360 pitchers and even Carroll was stunned at the high number. Here’s his full list of the 124, if you’re interested.

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