Thursday, October 1, 2020

TBT: Masahiro Tanaka’s Partially Torn UCL & Why You Should Chill the F Out

 Throwback Thursday, Masahiro Tanaka and his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right throwing elbow edition. Over two years ago I told everyone to "chill the F out" over it, how does it look two years later? Enjoy! 


You know what Daniel Burch hasn’t done in a while? Rant (or talk in the third person while Daniel Burch is on the subject). He hasn’t ranted in a while, although he has come close, but that is all about to change. I have been hearing it for years, and I have argued against it for years, but for whatever reason this is not registering in some people’s heads. I am so sick and damn tired of hearing about Masahiro Tanaka’s partially torn ulnar collateral ligament and I am even more tired of hearing it used as an excuse for every time the guy throws a ball out of the zone, let alone struggles in a start. The partially torn UCL is not the reason for all his struggles and you are not smarter than a team of doctors that advised against him getting Tommy John surgery. Deal with it and get over yourselves people.

Let’s start at the beginning, the diagnosis.

Tanaka was diagnosed back in 2014 with a slight tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. Tanaka visited three different doctors including Yankees team doctor Christopher Ahmad and Tommy John surgery specialist and expert Dr. James Andrews and all three doctors came to the same conclusion, the need for Tommy John surgery and a new ulnar collateral ligament was not needed. While each doctor had their own plan for how to treat and how to rehab the elbow the consensus was the same, no surgery. The Yankees ultimately decided on a platelet-rich injection on the elbow and rest and rehab, a treatment that at least to date has worked for Tanaka’s particular case.

Despite this diagnosis there are still fans, not doctors, who say the most outrageous and off-base things about Tanaka, his elbow, and about Tommy John surgery in general.

“Tanaka cannot pitch at a high level with a partially torn UCL!”

WRONG! Now that this is out of the way let me tell you all a story. There once was a man named Adam Wainwright who not only pitched once with a small tear, like Tanaka’s, in his UCL, but he did it twice. Wainwright dominated Major League hitters for six seasons before needing the surgery which included 182 games, 99 of them as a starting pitcher, 874 total innings including 233 innings pitched in 2009 alone, and a second place (2010) and third place (2009) finish in the National League Cy Young Award vote. Wainwright was first diagnosed with the partial tear in his UCL as a High School pitcher where doctors advised against surgery. Wainwright tore his UCL partially again while in Triple-A and was once again advised against an ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery. Both times Wainwright took the conservative route, like Tanaka, and came back throwing harder and stronger than ever. Wainwright pitched for six seasons with a partially torn UCL before completely blowing out his elbow and requiring the surgery.

“So, Tanaka will need the surgery eventually.”

No, not necessarily. Tanaka was never ridden like a horse like Wainwright was and has never approached 233 innings in a Major League season. Tanaka also sat out ten weeks after the diagnosis where Wainwright sat out only six weeks while Tanaka also received a platelet-rich plasma injection to promote healing in the elbow where Wainwright did not. Tanaka was closely monitored by a team of doctors and is still monitored closely to this day by the New York Yankees. Tanaka had multiple checkups after the diagnosis and every time he was told that there was no new damage to the elbow or the ligament.

“Why not just get the surgery done, sit out a year and come back strong in the final two seasons of his contract?”

If it were only that simple. While the success rate for Tommy John surgeries are as good as they ever were it doesn’t mean that they are 100%. Not yet, anyway. For every success story with a pitcher coming back in 15 months or so and coming back stronger and better than ever there are horror stories that contradict that line of thinking. It seemingly took Ryan Madson three-or-four years to fully recover from his Tommy John surgery, and he is just a reliever who isn’t relied upon every fifth day like Tanaka. Also, it is worth mentioning that there’s a ton of instances and stories of pitchers NEVER coming back or being the same after a torn UCL surgery. Why just go cutting on a ligament and take that chance when it has deemed unnecessary by a team, not just one, of doctors? Why take the risk? You don’t. Getting what is deemed as an unnecessary surgery like having your tonsils removed or a circumcision is one thing, having the ligament that essentially holds your elbow together ripped out and replaced for no good damn reason is another.

“But, but, but, Wainwright needed the surgery eventually. Tanaka will too!”

Wrong again, Yankees fans. Let me tell you another story. A story about a man many know as “King Felix” but a man I prefer to call Felix Hernandez. Hernandez has been pitching with a torn ulnar collateral ligament for God knows how long. Bob Nightengale of the USA Today has reported on it and Andy Van Slyke opened up about it in that interview about three years back where he claimed the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted to trade Yasiel Puig. It seems to be common knowledge around the league, yet Hernandez has yet to undergo the ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery. And, FYI, Felix’s velocity did drop to around 92 MPH, yes. It was AFTER his velocity drop that he found his changeup and truly morphed into the “King” that he was nicknamed recently. The velocity drop did not coincide with the partially torn UCL, not even close.

“I know more than Daniel Burch.”

No, you don’t. Next.

Okay, so again on a serious, and less cocky, note you can sum up this entire article in just a few sentences. Every elbow is different, every person is different, and everyone’s body is different. Just because Adam Wainwright was able to pitch through the elbow injury and didn’t immediately require the surgery doesn’t mean Tanaka will, although he has thus far. Just because Felix Hernandez has reportedly a 25% tear in his UCL and has yet to require the surgery it doesn’t mean that Tanaka won’t require the surgery. No one knows. What the point of this post was is to show people that their opinions mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Doctors told Tanaka not to get the surgery, specialists in fact, and I trust them way more than I trust a casual fan. I trust the specialists more than I trust my own knowledge and opinion, so please stop acting like you know more about Tanaka, his elbow, UCL’s, and Tommy John surgery than someone who went to school for the better part of a decade just to learn the trade. You don’t, and neither do I. Thank you for listening to my rant while learning a little bit about Tanaka, ulnar collateral ligaments and the history of pitching with a tear in it.