If you were to ask famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews which of today’s MLB pitchers might require Tommy John surgery at some point in their careers, he would be able to give you an extensive list.
How is that possible you ask?
Because scientists and doctors have identified some of the main causes of tearing your UCL, the injury that requires this surgery. There is enough knowledge out there that even suggests Tommy John surgery might not be inevitable like baseball seems to treat it, but rather near preventable.
The only question then is why isn’t it?
For far too long now, Tommy John surgery has become the norm for some pitchers. Managers barely flinch anymore when the doctor prescribes this surgery as a way to fix the torn UCL, which is caused by bad pitching mechanics that increase stress to the elbow and arm. And while the surgery has an incredible success rate, it should not be seen as the solution to a torn UCL and when required, should not be taken lightly like it seems to be these days.
The most recent player to tear his UCL was New York Mets phenom Matt Harvey. Harvey, 24, had been enjoying a fantastic season but then it was announced that he tore his UCL and it is expected he will need Tommy John surgery.
And considering how Stephen Strasburg returned after this surgery, the Mets have no reason to worry, right?
The Mets should be concerned about Harvey because while he may come back 100 percent, like Strasburg, there was a reason he needed the surgery in the first place. According to Andrews, that reason was and is, his poor mechanics. “The No. 1 risk factor for UCL injuries is poor mechanics,” Andrews said. “The No. 2 factor is overuse. And if you overuse with poor mechanics, you’re doomed.”
Seeing as Harvey is in just his second season with just 237 innings pitched, it is much more likely he fits into the risk factor of bad mechanics. But it is like what they say, “don’t fix what ain’t broken.” And with the exception of the torn ligament, nothing about how Harvey pitches could be called broken.
That is where the biggest problem lies though. Harvey is a great pitcher. Why would the Mets risk changing his mechanics and risk him losing what has made him so good thus far? After all, Tommy John surgery while an inconvenience is far from a career death sentence.
But what teams, and MLB as a whole, are choosing to ignore is that Harvey would have the chance for a better, longer and more successful career if he and Mets’ pitching coaches fixed what is in fact, broken. And putting a restrictive innings limit on Harvey like the Mets would have done just isn’t enough.
This is a problem that needs to be fixed from the youngest levels. Surgeons including Andrews and his colleagues at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) have identified the biggest risk factors and they are focused on improper delivery and an arm/elbow angle that is referred to as the “inverted W.” Strasburg displayed both of these problems and because of how hard he throws the ball, only compounded the stress on the elbow.
Had someone corrected these problems when Strasburg and Harvey were young, there is reason to believe neither would have needed the surgery. The problem however is that no one has instructed these kids on how not to pitch. As a result, since 2000, Andrews has seen a five-seven times increase in pitchers that have needed the surgery by the time they reached high school.
That is a huge problem and one that restrictive pitch counts in the little leagues is not going to fix.
Strasburg returned from his surgery saying that he felt “like it almost never happened.” It did happen though and because Strasburg continues to deliver the ball the way he does and continues to put that extra strain on his arm, it is quite possible it could happen again. Plus, Tommy John surgery is far less successful the second time around.
If MLB and teams don’t take preventative measures to fix mechanics of pitchers while they are still young, more and more of the game’s best phenoms are going to fade away because of something that was entirely preventable.