Tommy John Surgery: Strasburg and All the Other Cool Kids Are Doing It
This year of the pitcher won't turn into a decade, let alone an era.
That truth was underscored on Friday with the sobering announcement from the Nationals that their rookie pitching sensation, Stephen Strasburg, won't throw the rest of the season. He most likely won't throw any of next season, either.
As feared, the pain he felt in his right arm after throwing a pitch last Saturday, which turned his face to a grimace and stomachs in Washington and across baseball upside down, was the tearing of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Before he can pitch again, he'll need Tommy John surgery, baseball's famous procedure where the torn elbow ligament is replaced with a tendon from the forearm, hamstring, knee or foot. Recovery and rehab will keep Strasburg sidelined maybe a year and a half.
Strasburg is 22. He's one of the new breed of young arms in baseball -- a larger group than ever before -- who regularly throws closer to 100 mph than not, and every now and then faster. His brethren is a large part of the reason this season that there has been a rash of no-hitters, near no-hitters, and 1-0 games, and that batting averages are lower and home runs are fewer.
"I think the resurgence of the power arm is why," Angels broadcaster and former major league pitcher Mark Gubicza told The Associated Press last month. "Outside of [Oakland's] Dallas Braden, who doesn't have overpowering stuff but spots the ball pretty well, you can see an overwhelming majority of pitchers now that have plus fastballs in the 93-96 [mph] range and sometimes top out at 98."
But most of the Strasburgs won't last long; at least they won't last long on their own. Few pitchers like them do anymore.
If baseball is exiting the steroids' era, it is firmly entrenched in the surgical era, where it is the pitcher, not the batter, who stands to benefit the most.
Where Strasburg found out Friday he is headed is almost as routine now for a hard-throwing pitcher like him as a walk to the showers. You toss the phrase Tommy John surgery into a search engine and the hits come back in the hundreds of thousands.
The Yankees scheduled A.J. Burnett to start Friday at Chicago. Burnett has a four-inch scar on the inside of his right elbow from Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg's news Friday came on the heels of a return to the mound Thursday evening of another young Nationals' pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who was coming back from Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann couldn't hold an early 3-1 lead on the Cardinals and got into the record book by surrendering Albert Pujols' 400th home run.
On Wednesday, Cleveland's top pitching prospect, Hector Rondon, 22 years old like Strasburg, had Tommy John surgery.
All the cool pitchers are doing it.
Chris Carpenter had it. Ryan Dempster. Tim Hudson. Francisco Liriano. Billy Wagner. The late Nick Adenhart.
"You look at all the guys in the big leagues who are Cy Young contenders, Hall of Famers who have had this surgery, and it's become such a specialty these days," Strasburg, keeping his chin up, told the media Friday after getting his diagnosis. "I know I'm going to the best [Dr. Lewis Yocum] and I know deep down inside I'm going to work just as hard, if not harder than any of these guys who had to go through it before. I'll be back here soon."
Baseball, which was riding his wave of rock star celebrity, certainly hopes so. For with his departure on Friday, the game got a little more boring.
It is too bad there doesn't appear to be any safeguard against what happened to Strasburg. Blowing out an elbow seems inevitable for someone like him. Maybe it is better the bad news came so early in his career.
The Nationals did everything they could to protect him, short of carrying Strasburg to and from the mound while strapping his arm inside a straitjacket to stop it from moving. They had a pitch count on him. The placed him on the disabled list for the first time last month after he said his shoulder was tight while warming up for a game against Atlanta. They treated him with so many kid gloves that one-time wildman pitcher Rob Dibble, who does color for Nationals' broadcasts, groused that Strasburg needed to "suck it up." Strasburg will be back. Dibble? Doubtful. At least in Washington.
Pitchers have turned into racehorses in baseball. They come up fast and get used quickly. Those that throw so hard, so often, like Strasburg and Kerry Wood, who could relieve Burnett and had Tommy John surgery after his rookie season, struggle to maintain durability.
If there is one benchmark in baseball you won't see surpassed again it is what Steve Carlton last accomplished 30 years ago. In 1980, Carlton pitched 304 innings. Pitchers nowadays don't come close because they can't. It isn't just the increased use of relievers by managers. It is also the wear and tear from heaving so much fire. Strasburg employed a changeup he chucked at almost 90 mph.
It would be great if baseball could implement some sort of regulation to insure its most highly value asset, if not attraction. (Strasburg was selling out on the road as well as at home.) Football protects its quarterbacks, like last season's rookie sensation under center for the Jets, Mark Sanchez, from some damage by outlawing some hits defenders can unleash. An exciting scorer in hockey like the prodigious Sidney Crosby gets protected by a plethora of supporters.
Young pitching phenoms are pretty much all alone. Only Tommy John can save them, or try to.
FanHouse TV's Steve Phillips breaks down Strasburg's troublesome mechanics. Click to watch: