In the Washington Nationals pursuit for their first winning season, there has been one constant that has plagued the team throughout their six years as a franchise. That constant has been major injuries. From Nick Johnson’s fragile body to Ryan Zimmerman’s DL stints, the team has seen its fair share of season altering injuries. Most recently though in the last three years, it has been the Nationals’ top starting pitchers that have felt the pain with very similar UCL tears that led to Tommy John surgery.
It all began in 2009, with the Nationals’ No. 2 pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann. Two months into his impressive rookie debut in the majors, Zimmermann was placed on the disabled list with elbow pain that affected his throwing arm. By his first rehab start in the minors, nothing had changed and he was diagnosed with a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery.
One year later, the No. 1 prospect in all baseball, Stephen Strasburg, made his highly anticipated debut in Washington. Almost two months later, just like Zimmermann, he was placed on the disabled list for shoulder pain. In his third start back against the Phillies, he was taken out of the game after showing visible pain and discomfort in his throwing elbow. Shortly after, he received the same exact diagnosis as Zimmermann with a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery.
To today’s everyday baseball fan, Tommy John surgery is so common that it almost feels commonplace for major league pitchers. The surgery is most frequently attributed to repetitive use or strain of the elbow, which explains why pitchers are primarily subject to it. Before the surgery was discovered, a torn MCL or UCL would mean the end of a pitcher’s career. When it was first performed on Tommy John in 1974, the odds of a full recovery were said to be 1 in 100. According to Discovery Health, today the odds have increased significantly to around 85% to reach full recovery, but the recovery time is still long for baseball standards at around 12-18 months.
Although there have been vast improvements in medical treatments, there is a significant amount of speculation as to whether or not Tommy John surgery affects a player’s career, but at a 85% full recovery rate, there are many that have had huge success. The most famous examples nowadays are John Smoltz, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, and C.J. Wilson.
In more recent memory, there are two cases that have clear similarities to both Zimmermann and Strasburg: Josh Johnson of the Miami Marlins and Jaime Garcia of the St. Louis Cardinals. After a terrible/disappointing start to his second year in the majors, Josh Johnson underwent Tommy John surgery in the beginning of the 2007 baseball season at 23 years old, which is around the same age as Strasburg and Zimmerman when they both underwent surgery. When Johnson returned an amazing 11 months later, nothing held him back. From 2008-2011, he has posted an amazing 2.80 ERA, winning 36 games and losing only 13. In addition, he was voted to the All-Star game twice and in 2010, he came in 5th in the Cy Young voting after posting the best ERA in all the majors. It is obvious to state that Tommy John surgery did not hurt his performance, but it may have actually helped.
After Jaime Garcia’s debut late in the 2008 season, Garcia missed all of the 2009 major league season rehabbing his arm after Tommy John surgery. Since then, he has been “lights out” for the Cardinals. In two seasons, his rookie season and last year, he has put up a 3.17 ERA with a 26 – 15 record, 288 strikeouts, three shutouts, and one World Series Championship. Incredibly in his first season back, he came in third in the Rookie of the Year voting after posting an incredible 2.70 ERA. The same can be said about Garcia as Johnson; that Tommy John surgery did not hinder his performance but may have actually helped.
After seeing these results numerous people have inquired into the possibility of getting Tommy John surgery just to improve their game. There is even a myth that the surgery actually improves pitch speed. Many doctors have explained that the surgery itself does not help a player but the emphasis on intense rehab and conditioning afterwards is what helps immensely and often leads to the results. This conditioning is what the fans should focus on and not the actually surgery itself. These days it is very rare to see a failure with our amazing medical technology.
The return of Strasburg and Zimmermann showed that both players conditioned themselves to the point past full recovery like Johnson and Garcia did. Zimmermann raised his fastball speed while posting a career year and Strasburg pitched 24 innings with 24 strikeouts and a 1.50 ERA. Next season, Strasburg will be on an innings limit just like Zimmermann, but that shouldn’t slow him down, and Zimmermann will likely be free to let loose. There are no sure things, but based on the best medical care possible, past player’s experiences, and last year’s stats, there is no reason to be anything but optimistic.
The most important thing to remember is that good conditioning and patient recovery ensures that pitchers do not hurt their shoulder when rehabbing from elbow injuries. Elbow injuries are treatable, shoulder injuries are a death sentence.
The problem is that shoulder injuries can happen when hurlers with elbow problems over compensate by putting too much stress on their rotator cuff. Strasburg and Zimmermann, so far, have done it the right way, which may make them better off in the long run.