This season is becoming known as the “Year of Tommy John Surgeries” in baseball. It is insane when you consider the pitchers who have needed surgery already. The Tommy John surgery trend started in spring training when Braves pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy each decided to have their second TJ surgeries within a week of each other.
Also, early in spring training, we found out that Patrick Corbin and Jarrod Parker needed TJ surgery. Other notable pitchers going under the knife this season include Josh Johnson, Ivan Nova, Matt Moore and, most recently, Jose Fernandez.
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The average age for those eight pitchers is 25.7, with Johnson being the oldest at 30 and Fernandez the youngest at 21. So far, 18 major league pitchers elect to have TJ surgery this season, which still pales in comparison to the 35 surgeries in 2012 — but the season is still young.
Why do more pitchers need this surgery? And what can be done to prevent the Tommy John surgery trend from continuing?
First of all, this is strictly my opinion. Many people out there are scratching their heads as to why the number of pitchers having TJ surgery is skyrocketing, but I feel there are four reasons for this epidemic.
Pitchers are too good
Since the decline of the steroid era in baseball, pitching has taken over. We’ve seen the runs per game decline and strikeouts per game spike upwards. With that success, there has to be a downfall somewhere.
Pitchers are developing devastating sliders and breaking pitches that baffle hitters. Fernandez, for instance, throws a slider that looks like it’s going right down the middle for 60-feet, before breaking down toward the batter’s back foot at the last second. In order to do this, he’s using a great amount of torque on his elbow, a motion that our arms weren’t designed to withstand.
This seems to be the case with most young pitchers who throw a slider. Eventually, that pressure on the elbow reaches a breaking point. On the other hand, the slider is why so many pitchers are dominating baseball. So, either you don’t use it and you’re an average major league pitcher or you use it and become the best in the game as Fernandez was before getting hurt.
Pitchers work out too much
This has always been my theory for why pitchers get hurt so often. It’s not exactly a result of TJ surgeries, but pitchers wearing down in general. From my understanding, when the season was over in the old days, pitchers didn’t pick up a ball until spring training — mostly because they had other jobs in the offseason. When the season is over today, players might take a couple of weeks or a month off, but then it’s right to the gym.
Strength training is great, and it’s the reason we’re seeing so many incredible athletes today, but it’s also the reason we’re seeing so many injuries. Bodies are becoming so tight and ripped with muscle that it’s not taking much to pull a hamstring or strain something.
I’m not saying all strength training is bad as muscles need to be built up, but when guys come into spring training saying they’re in the best shape of their lives, it always makes me weary because I know either an injury or down year is coming.
Kids throw too many innings
The number-one reason I’ve heard in response to the Tommy John surgery trend is pitchers are playing baseball year-round now and throwing too many pitches. This isn’t as much of an issue to me as those mentioned above, but this can have an effect to some degree depending on the type of pitches a kid is throwing.
We can’t have 12- or 13-year-olds throwing 100 innings a year if they’re mixing in curveballs. But with all the success pitchers are having by throwing hard and throwing hard with movement, kids are going emulate that success in an effort to reach the big leagues. And as long as that is happening, injuries are inevitable.
TJ surgery has become as common as a B.J. Upton strikeout (sorry for the dig fellow Braves fans). Surgery has become an acceptable option for everything. We have the assumption that we go under the knife and everything is fixed, and doctors are so good today, making that notion true, for the most part.
For a while, we saw pitchers have TJ surgery and come back just as good, if not better, than they were before. But the past couple of years hasn’t exactly been the same. On the list above, Medlen, Beachy, Parker and Johnson all had TJ surgery for the second time. We are starting to realize that it’s not a simple fix anymore.
Who knows if Fernandez or Matt Harvey will be as close to as dominant as they were once before. One thing is for certain, if they’re going to rely on the pitches that got them there, they’ll be back under the knife sooner or later.
How to avoid TJS: become a pitcher
It’s great to see these pitchers who dominate with breaking balls that freeze hitters, but whenever you see a guy like that, you just know eventually it’s going to come to an end.
Today, if you want to have a long career in the major leagues, pitchers have to learn how to pitch. They’re cant’t rely solely on their stuff to get by. Growing up, I watched Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine dominate by being great pitchers. Neither had exceptional stuff, but they knew how to pitch and were effective by managing the strike zone and manipulating hitters.
A great example this year is Jeff Samardzija. A year or two ago, he would have been a guy I tagged destined for TJ surgery (hope I don’t jinx him here as he’s on my fantasy team), but he decided that if he wanted to have a long career in the majors he need to rely more on being a pitcher. This year, he’s become a much more effective and efficient pitcher; although his strikeout numbers are way down, he’s a better pitcher now than he was before. Yovani Gallardo has made the same transition this year and has been much better.
There isn’t a simple solution to stop the Tommy John surgery trend, as long as pitchers are dominating and getting paid for doing so, kids will continue to try and light up the radar guns, and in doing, so we’ll continue to see these great young pitchers go under the knife.
Enjoy the incredible pitchers in the game while you can. Just know that, at some point, the body will break down when it is pushed past the limit of what is capable. This is where the game is today. Athletes aren’t going to stop pushing themselves because there is too much money on the line. As a result, we’ll continue to see a rash of injuries in the game, and some of our games greatest athletes’ careers will be short-lived.