Tommy John was an accomplished pitcher. In fact John won more games after his pioneering surgery, later named for him, than before. Pitching to the age of 46, he amassed 290 wins, retiring in 1989 the definition of the word persevere. Like another New York Yankee before him, however, he would become just as famous for something medical as something baseball.
In 1974, at the peak of his powers with the Los Angeles Dodgers, John destroyed his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Dr. Frank Jobe, a notable sports orthopedic surgeon, offered John a shot in the dark, a one in one-hundred opportunity to save his career. His solution? Replace the tendon in John’s elbow with one from his non-pitching forearm. It worked. In fact it worked so well that today nearly ninety percent of all pitchers who undergo surgery reach full recovery, including St. Louis Cardinals luminaries Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter.
But what might not be so much common knowledge is the concept of the inverted W and its potential link to the elbow damage. The inverted W thrower will follow through with his elbow angled above his shoulder. This will create more movement, but also much more torque on the pitcher’s elbow. The result is often destruction. Fast forward to today and the news that Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect Jameson Taillon is going to require a Tommy John operation. This marks yet another inverted W thrower with amazing stuff that is now on a long term shelf. This spring alone has been a virtual M.A.S.H. unit filled with injured pitchers, including the Atlanta Braves Brandon Beachy, and Kris Medlen. The evidence is piling up rapidly that this throwing motion leads to elbow disaster, leaving prospects with these sort of mechanics almost having to relearn the way they pitch.
This is a serious problem for the game, as prospects younger and younger continue to go down like flies, most likely due to the inverted W. While it warrants a complete medical study, it would be advisable for young pitchers to take note of the angle of their elbow at follow through, and determine if the quality of the stuff they are throwing will come with the price of a surgeon’s scalpel.