Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Pitchers, Tommy John Surgery and the Analysis of Why

I hope you find the topic of Tommy John surgery, who it’s happening to and why it’s happening so frequently in today’s game an interesting subject because it’s going to be the only subject we really talk about today on the blog. I put a lot, and I mean a lot, of research into this blog post and rather than have it buried in the masses here in a couple of hours and pushed to the second page I am going to give this post the time on the front page it deserves. All day long. It may take you all day long to read it so take your time and really let the information soak in as we take a look at the pandemic facing Major League Baseball right now. Tommy John surgery.

For the sake of this post we took the last 100 Tommy John surgery recipients and pooled our data from that. I felt like 100 ulnar collateral ligaments not only gave an ample sample size for any conclusion we could draw but it’s also a nice, even number that didn’t require a $400 graphing scientific calculator to spit out the numbers I wanted. Lazy, yet efficient. After pooling the last 100 Tommy John surgery victims we looked at certain criteria listed below in the excel spreadsheet in order to see if we could find a pattern, common denominator or something that may lead to figuring this whole thing out. Do I expect to change the world with this post? No, but I’m hoping that maybe I can spark the mind that does and that would be payment enough for me.

MLB Player Analysis has a Google Doc that you can reference online and that is where most of the information below both in the chart and written in this blog post came from so kudos to them. I included certain things in the chart like average fastball velocity, build/frame and other materials as well that I thought may piece together the puzzle as well so if you want to see the original document you can find it HERE. Without further ado here is the last 100 Tommy John surgery victims (at the time of this writing) and some pertinent information that we will dissect below.

Here are a few bullet notes from what we found that I think really can help us figure out what is going on here and why this is happening at such an alarming rate:

*      84% of the pitchers were born in the United States while 8% were from the Dominican Republic, 5% were from Venezuela, 2% were from Japan and 1% were from Australia.

*      82% of these pitchers were age 30 or younger while 18% were above 30-years old.

Now this raises an interesting question. 84% of the last 100 pitchers to get Tommy John surgery (at the time of this writing) were born in the United States. Now Major League Baseball, a sport that thrives on being culturally diverse, has players reach the big leagues from all over the country so why are mainly American born pitchers having the surgery and not players from Mexico, Canada, Korea and other parts of the world having this pandemic with their arms? Why have only two from Japan, one from Australia, 5 from Venezuela and 8 from the Dominican Republic had the surgery?

Is it the throwing at such an early age? Is it the throwing of breaking balls as early as Little League? Is it pitching once every five days in the Major Leagues where Japanese pitchers for example throw once a week? Every pitcher not named Mariano Rivera throws breaking stuff so is it fastball velocity? Or is it merely a coincidence? It’s hard to call 84% a coincidence but let’s keep delving into this and see what we find out.

The final thing I wanted to look at was a pitcher’s frame and how fast they throw a fastball. Some say mechanics may have a lot to do with it but when I see a fluid delivery like Chase Whitley and Ivan Nova undergo the surgery while in Yankees uniforms while pitchers like Aroldis Chapman and Tim Lincecum not going under the knife for elbow ligament replacement surgery I tend to think the windup and delivery has little to nothing to do with it as well. For every Carter Capps on this list you have another 10-20 Nathan Eovaldi’s who simply rear back and throw. Is it velocity? Is it frame? Is it both? Or is there simply no common factor here? Let’s look.

The average height and weight for a man in the United States according to a simple Google search is 5’10” and 195.5 pounds. Common sense would tell you that the higher above that average, up to a certain extent of course, the more “durable” you would be assuming conditioning and such being comparable across the board. Well as you can see there is no rhyme or reason to the pitchers frame either. You have big build undergoing the surgery, where stereotypically the bigger framed pitchers are thought to be more durable, while you also have some, albeit less, smaller framed pitchers undergoing the surgery as well. For the longest times the Johan Santana’s and Pedro Martinez type frames were considered to be a walking time bomb but this excel spreadsheet shows that to not be the case anymore, at least when it comes to Tommy John surgery.

And as you can see, and probably already know without me listing it, you have examples from every part of the velocity map here as well. You have your hard throwers like Nathan Eovaldi and the recently deceased, your soft tossers like Bronson Arroyo and Chase Whitley (and remember Jamie Moyer when you consider whether velocity has any bearing on Tommy John surgery) and about everything in between. They are all throwing off the same mound dimensions, using the same ball, etc. etc. etc. You also have players who have had duplicate Tommy John surgeries, Tim Collins, and players who never spent a day on the disabled list throughout their careers, Bronson Arroyo, on the list showing it’s also not a durability issue. It seems like these things simply just happen. And when you replace the ligament these things can still happen. And happen again.

Onward to the “probably useless knowledge but I wanted to include anyway because I found it interesting” portion of the program ladies and gentleman. Carry on.

*      72% of the pitchers were right-handed while just 28% were left-handed.

*      46% were from American League teams while 54% were from National League teams.

*      28% of players never returned to the Major Leagues after their Tommy John surgery while 19% are still under that 12-15 month window which signifies they are still recovering.

*      If 12-15 months is the general and average time to be out after a Tommy John surgery then 25% of pitchers missed that mark (again keeping in mind that 19% are still yet to be determined and 28% never returned). Only 28% of pitchers had the surgery and were back in the Major Leagues in 15 months or less.

*      44% of these pitchers had Dr. James Andrews conduct the surgery.

So there you have it folks. Are we any better off or more knowledgeable than we were 20 minutes ago? Maybe not but like I said I don’t expect to change the game or the world with this post but maybe, just maybe, I can spark the mind that does with it. One can only hope. I hope you enjoyed reading and I hope this post wasn’t too awful long. If it was I at least hope you learned something from it. Have a great day everyone.

Oh, and please pass this post along to anyone and everyone you think may be interested in it. I put a lot of work and research into this and I want this post to touch as many people as possible. Thank you.


  1. AWESOME POST. I understand how much time you put into that work.
    When is the last time your family saw you ? But, thank you.

    * I, patrick, hereby acknowledge that I have read every word of
    the above epic post. I am also willing to be tested on it's content.

    It may not have been Twasp, but it was great effort...

    Six more weeks to 'Long Beach Polar Bears'. Bring your boys up, and
    we will all dive for shells / blondes on Feb. 5th.
    Followed by tunes, and cold beers back at my place.

    1. patrick,

      We won't talk about how long this took me. I'd be slightly embarrassed to admit it. Let's just say it took way longer than I expected it to and longer than I wanted it to... and by the time I figured this out I was too far into it to stop.

  2. I read the whole post too. I don't know why the Tommy John list grows. Common sense says that people weren't supposed to throw the ball like that. I can understand somebody like Dellin to throw the ball 100 MPH. He's 6'8 and 265 lbs. Should Severino be throwing at the same speed? No, he shouldn't. But that's the state of the game today. If you're in the minors and don't throw mid to upper 90's, you're not going to make it.

    1. That's fine but what do you say when Bronson Arroyo and Jamie Moyer and all these soft-tossing guys get the surgery?

      Especially when they have what are widely considered to be fluid motions in their windup and such. That's what I don't get.

    2. Well that's the argument. Like I said, I don't know why the epidemic grows each year. I think people overthrowing is one reason though. Maybe the torque on the arm from too many breaking pitches is another reason. Maybe there's not enough of a "mix" of pitches. Maybe pitchers don't throw as much as they should in between starts. A couple of years ago, MLBnetwork had a special on this. John Smoltz was part of the panel. He said that during his early years with the Braves, He, Maddux, and Glavine threw everyday in between starts. It wasn't until pitchers started to get "coddled" with pitch counts and innings limits that this epidemic started. Again though, I'm just speculating. I don't have the answer.

    3. That's true and one could argue that this is at least contributing to this but Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine were throwing everyday in the 90's. Tommy John had the first Tommy John surgery in 1974.

      Keep in mind that there was probably thousands of cases that were misdiagnosed or never treated before 1974 that would have been cured or repaired with today's modern medicine.

      TJ isn't a new thing. Sure there is an uptick in it but there is also an uptick in a lot of things. The mound has been changed, the ball has likely been changed. Pitchers throw harder. Pitchers throw less. There is more specialized pitching changes.

      The fact of the matter is though there is no definitive pattern here whatsoever. Unfortunately.

    4. There may not be any proof of this but...
      After they lowered the mound, there were a lot of Big Time pitchers that retired from baseball within a year!
      They changed the stringing of the baseball and went to a 5 man rotation etc.,!
      I know one thing, I can't get my left arm above my head...but then most of us old guys can't do that anyhow!


Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)