Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Yankees Decision to Forego Tommy John Surgery w/ Masahiro Tanaka. Good Idea or Bad Idea?


When the New York Yankees decided to sign Masahiro Tanaka out of Japan a couple years back I doubt there were many Yankees fans that were happier than I was. I loved the idea of not only getting greedy and getting the top pitching arm on the free agent market but I also loved the fact that he was young, dominant and from Japan. See the Yankees had seemingly shied away from Japanese pitchers after the Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa debacles and for them to jump back into the pool and jump in face first into the deep end made me happy. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when I learned that Tanaka had a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right throwing elbow, usually a diagnosis like this is followed by the need for Tommy John surgery, and you can imagine how cautiously optimistic, yet extremely skeptical, I was when the team announced they would try a rest and rehab program rather than going under the knife. We are now almost two full seasons removed from that decision giving us enough of a sample size to determine whether the Yankees made the right choice avoiding the knife or if they should have went ahead and got the surgery done. 

I will preface any talk of Tanaka with the fact that every elbow is different, every tear is different and every injury is different. I only use comparisons in this post to show a similarity and possibility that the decision to not undergo surgery could have been the right one. With that said I just want to remind everyone that Ervin Santana had a similar diagnosis and has never required the surgery, the same can be said for the Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez who also pitches with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. One pitcher who eventually had the surgery, but it wasn’t until years later, was Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals so it’s not like the Yankees just flew by the seat of their pants on this decision, especially considering five doctors including the team doctor and Tommy John specialist Dr. James Andrews suggested the rehab program. 

All that and a buck buys you a coke if Tanaka doesn’t pitch well but thankfully for the Yankees he has done just that. Heading into his start today Tanaka has posted the following stat line in his Major League career via Baseball Reference: 


Year Age W L ERA G GS CG IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2015 26 12 7 3.51 24 24 1 154.0 126 66 60 25 27 139 114 3.98 0.994 7.4 1.5 1.6 8.1
2016 27 8 4 3.32 23 23 0 146.1 136 61 54 14 27 120 127 3.33 1.114 8.4 0.9 1.7 7.4
Do those stats look like the stats of a pitcher who is holding back and nursing an injury to his elbow? If so can you imagine how good he would be if he had undergone the surgery? Which I will also warn you of the fact that no surgery is 100%, see Ryan Madson as a recent example of pitchers who struggle for years to come back from what many fans think is a routine surgery. Every elbow is different, every ligament is different and every injury is different. The rehab program will work for some, and in my opinion has worked for Tanaka, but for others it won’t. That’s life and that’s baseball but I think, for now anyway, we can finally put the rest the debate of whether the Yankees made the right decision or not skipping the surgery. It looks like they did make the right decision and the team, and Tanaka himself, are benefiting from it. 

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