Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Miguel Andujar, Michael Brantley and a Small History of Players Having and Attempting to Play Through Shoulder Labrum Surgery

The New York Daily News reported today that Miguel Andujar, the third baseman of the New York Yankees, would attempt to play through a “small tear” in his right shoulder labrum that he suffered on a play earlier in the week. There are plenty of mixed emotions and opinions on this, but instead of jumping on one end of the spectrum or another, instead I decided to do some research. Honestly, I had no idea if it was a good idea that Andujar tried to play with the injury or not. I honestly had no idea if this could make the injury much worse, or if it would mean more time off if it did for the promising young Yankees star, so I did some research. I looked at some of the more recent and comparable torn labrum situations across MLB and found one such situation that fits that of Miguel Andujar’s situation more so than any other. But before we jump right into that, let’s take a look at some of the more recent labrum surgeries, their success rates, and how much rehab and “off” time it took to get these players back.

Let me preface this post by saying that I am focusing solely on torn labrums for positional players in this post, and torn labrums in their shoulders only. When I say “the most recent labrum surgery” I mean the most recent that fits the aforementioned criteria. Please do not litter the comments section with the fact that Michael Pineda came back from a labrum surgery or that Alex Rodriguez came back from labrum surgery in both hips, neither are really relevant with the Yankees third baseman.

The first question that came to mind when the news broke, at least in my mind, was if Andujar was able to play through the surgery, how would it affect the Yankees 2020 season? Would the team be without Andujar for a long stretch in 2020 as well? And would that be worth it, given the Yankees “window” with this team? My research brought me to San Francisco and the most recent torn labrum surgery that I could find aside from Andujar’s

Steven Duggar of the San Francisco Giants announced on August 31, 2018 that he would have to undergo surgery on his torn labrum in his left shoulder. Duggar had successful labrum surgery during the month of September last year and was back for spring training and Opening Day. Duggar’s production did not seem to slip after the surgery, which was evident when he was named the Giants starting center fielder here in 2019 (well, until the team acquired Kevin Pillar, but that had nothing to do with his rehab from shoulder surgery in my opinion).

Does that extra month that Duggar had help him in his rehab? I was unsure, so I went and looked for an example of a player that waited until the regular season was over to get the surgery and I ran across the story of outfielder Matt Kemp.

Matt Kemp waited until the offseason after the 2012 season before having his torn labrum surgery and was back on Opening Day in 2013. Granted, his spring training was cut a little short and, granted again, the start to his 2013 campaign left much to be desired, but whether that was because of the surgery or not, while assumed, cannot be confirmed with 100% certainty. Then again, every shoulder is different. Just because Kemp struggled after coming back from the surgery it doesn’t mean that Andujar will. The point of it all is to say that conceivably the Yankees could wait until the end of the regular season to have the surgery and still have Andujar back on Opening Day, or very shortly after, if all goes according to plan.

Here are Kemp's before and after stats from the torn labrum surgery for your reference: 

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My next question was whether or not Andujar could even play through such an injury. In my research, I learned that not many players had even attempted to play through it, nor did I find many examples of a player successfully playing through the injury. Luckily enough, I did find at least one example of both instances, although there are a few more of each.

Devin Mesoraco, at that time a member of the Cincinnati Reds, at least considered playing through his torn labrum in his left shoulder in 2016. Ultimately, Mesoraco was limited to just 16 games that season and opted for the surgery, but the initial report on MLB Trade Rumors on May 2, 2016 stated that Devin at least considered trying to play through the injury. For what it’s worth, Mesoraco is right-handed and the labrum tear was in his left shoulder. While that did not hinder him much in the throwing department, through the research I am gathering it DOES affect hitters more in their lead shoulder (for a right-handed batter it would be their left shoulder) than their back shoulder, the right shoulder on a right-handed hitter like Miguel Andujar.

In our research of an instance where a player did play through a torn labrum, we go to J.J. Hardy of the Baltimore Orioles in 2015. On October 1, 2015 it was announced that Hardy, who opened the season on the disabled list with a “left shoulder sprain” at the time, had been knowingly playing through the year on a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Hardy is a right-handed throwing and batting shortstop, FYI, so it was not on his throwing shoulder, but it was on his lead shoulder while at the plate. Hardy’s final stat line in 2015 with the torn labrum can be seen below. I put his 2014 season, 2016 season, and his career numbers as well just for your reference.

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162 162 16265560275154301207143100.256.305.408.71490
FYI, through my research I have read that it is much harder to play through a torn labrum on your lead shoulder while at the plate, which means your left shoulder if you are a right-handed batter and vice versa.

I think the most compelling case, and maybe the closest case that matches that of Andujar, is the torn labrum that Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley suffered in 2015. Brantley, a left-handed hitting and throwing outfielder currently in the Houston Astros organization, was diagnosed with the same “small” tear of his right shoulder labrum in 2015 after attempting to rob then Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks of a triple in a September 22nd game. Brantley would take his next plate appearance after injuring the shoulder but would be removed following the inning. Brantley would appear in two more games that season before the Indians season ended without a trip to the postseason. Initially, both Brantley and the club thought that they could avoid the surgery following the season, but the discomfort in his shoulder lingered for two weeks into his rehabilitation program, prompting the surgical procedure. Brantley was told that he could not pick up a bat for the four months after the surgery. Brantley was also told that he could not begin getting rehab games for at least another month after that, leaving him out for at least six months after the surgery.

Here are Brantley's before and after stats from the surgery. I included Brantley's 2017 stats as well because he was limited to just 11 games in 2016. Brantley had other shoulder issues as well as biceps tendinitis that limited his season that required a secondary shoulder surgery that also cut into his 2017 season as well:

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So, how does it compare? Both tears are considered to be “small” and both tears are small enough that the team and the player thought that they could play through the pain. Brantley ultimately couldn’t as pain continued to linger in the shoulder, while Andujar is saying that the shoulder still feels healthy and strong. If pain persists, obviously Andujar will shut it down and face the same time period as Brantley did before the 2016 season, but if he doesn’t experience that same pain are the Yankees essentially robbing Peter of time in 2019 to pay Paul by Andujar missing more time in 2020 because the surgery will need to be completed eventually anyway?

The 2019 season ends on September 29, 2019. If the Yankees do not make the postseason that gives Andujar four months of surgery and rehab (October – January) and a return in February, or whenever spring training begins. If the Yankees make the postseason as a Wild Card you can push that back about a week and get the same result. But if the Yankees make a deep postseason run that stretched until basically the end of October (Game 7 of the World Series would be projected to be played on October 22, 2019) then the Yankees may have a bit of a problem. If the World Series ends somewhere around the last week in October, you have to expect Andujar to not get the surgery until at least the beginning of November. Four months of rehab, November through February, and then another month of rehab games, puts Andujar’s readiness into March, and that’s if everything goes exactly according to plan.

Would the Yankees be better off with Andujar even missing the first month of the 2020 season if it means they have a chance at the World Series here in 2019? The more I research, and the more I think about it, the more I am inclined to say yes. It’s really, for lack of a better term, a no-lose situation here for both Andujar and the Yankees. Andujar needs the surgery regardless. If Andujar attempts to play through it and can’t, he gets the surgery early and is 100% ready for the 2020 season. It’s a huge blow, but the window for this Yankees team stretches far beyond just the 2019 season in my opinion. If he plays through it and does more damage, he is going to need the surgery regardless and can clean it up whenever it occurs, or after the season. A labrum surgery is a labrum surgery. A small tear and a larger tear require the same surgery and the same rehab time, give or take very little. It’s still a very serious and intrusive surgery, so I’m not saying that a smaller tear and a larger tear are exactly the same, but I am saying that with either one it’s likely a five-to-six-month process regardless before being game ready.

I won’t sit here and say I am 100% on-board with Andujar trying to play through this injury, but I can’t say that I am 100% against him trying to play through it either. History suggests that he can and that the Yankees, nor Andujar, would be any worse for the wear if he was to attempt to play through the injury, but I’d be lying if it still didn’t scare me just a bit.

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