Let’s first list a few of the more prominent pitching casualties:
- August 2008: Tim Hudson has a “Tommy John” surgery. He returned to pitching September 1st, 2009. No issues since.
- August 2010: Kris Medlen was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament tear in his right elbow. “Tommy John” surgery.
- June 2012: Brandon Beachy placed on the DL with elbow discomfort. On June 18, he was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
- Beginning of 2013 season: Jonny Venters is hit with a second TJ incident. Curiously, a Wikipedia report notes that” Venters was placed on the disabled list on July 5, 2012 due to a sore left elbow.” His first Tommy John surgery came back in 2005.
- May 2013: Eric O’Flaherty. An elbow strain turned out to be a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament.
- March 2014: Both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy end their scheduled starts early and abruptly. Both are likely to have second UCL procedures performed (Medlen for sure as of this writing).
If you think that the Braves are bitten by this problem more than other teams, then you’d be right. But it’s probably worse than you’d think, too.
I’m now going to cite two charts below, copied from this excellently researched post from BeyondTheBoxScore.com – all credit to Jon Roegele for this work, which is now nearly 18 months old.
The first chart is really no surprise… we know that this surgery is on the increase. The question I do have about it is this: “what’s changed in the past twenty years?” Are pitchers throwing differently, or was the UCL problem still happening at the same rate (and those experiencing the injury simply fading off into baseball oblivion?)?
The second chart, though, is absolutely alarming. You never want to be the worst at anything, and yet here we are: the Braves’ organization is, in fact, the worst in all of baseball with TJ surgeries – all time. The scope is staggering: over triple the quantity of the Chicago White Sox. In fact, the Braves would have to cut their number in half just to get into the middle of the pack.
One important note: Leo Mazzone believes that his training methods result in fewer injuries, and points to guys like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as evidence. The failing of these charts is that we do not have dates attached to them… except in the aggregate of all teams together. Leo’s tenure with Atlanta lasted through the 2005 season, and we simply do not know if the TJ rate under his leadership is better, worse, or the same as that under pitching coach Roger McDowell.
Another quick note: Gavin Floyd is now a Braves’ employee, though he was a ChiSox player until last year. His surgery post-dates this chart, but also moves the White Sox’ number up only one notch.
Is Anybody Noticing This Stuff?
Yeah – finally. But maybe not sufficiently, either. Here’s MLB.com’s Mark Bowman writing on the subject:
“I think we’re always evaluating and looking at how we do things and why we do them and do we need to make changes,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “That’s an ongoing process. I think you are probably tempted to look more deeply when something like this happens.” …
Along with losing two of the top members of their starting rotation, the Braves now have to evaluate what might have led these pitchers to both potentially have to undergo this procedure for a second time in less than four years.
“There are a lot of factors involved and every rehab is different,” Wren said. “It’s unfortunate. I don’t think we’ll ever stop researching and analyzing. But I can’t tell you today that we feel there is a common link [between Medlen and Beachy] other than that they’re wearing the same uniform.”
He goes on from there:
The Braves plan to evaluate a range of potential factors including the treatment their trainers and physical therapists provide to pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery. There will also be an analysis of the strength-and-conditioning activities some of the rehabbing pitchers have done outside of the team’s care.
Wren refers to an “internal audit” of their rehab protocols. The rehab is based, he says, on the recovery plans outlined by Dr. James Andrews himself. I find it interesting that there used to be a 13-14 month recovery plan and now – while saying that the player will not be rushed back – this time frame seems to be a bit on the long side. Note Tim Hudson’s return shown above: 12 months (he pitched in rehab games prior to his 9/1/2009 return to the majors). Gavin Floyd, despite an extensive surgery, thinks he will be ready to pitch in May.
Kris Medlen was worked back in somewhat slowly – with bullpen appearances, though his timing was considerably different: missing virtually a year-and-a-half of calendar time. Beachy tried to return after just 12 months… and failed. Another attempt was aborted late in 2013. As Wren states, “every rehab is different.”
But is an Audit Enough?
It sounds as if Wren is interested in the rehab process – it disturbs him that these players are having to start over again with a second surgery, particularly one so quickly after the initial injury. I submit that there’s a bigger problem.
If I’m Roger McDowell, I’m sitting down with Gavin Floyd (and others from that team) and talking with them at length to see what the Chicago White Sox are doing that must be so different from what the Braves are doing. The problem here is systematic, and organizationally wide. There’s simply no statistical way to account for such a disparity between the numbers in the charts above: there must be a reason that involves conditioning, preparation, workout routines… something. This audit is well overdue. And it’s not like they need me to expose this: that data is from an 18-month old blog post!
The Braves are known for their excellent pitching across the organization. That part need not be changed. But those pitchers are also dropping like flies. And that could impact much more than just one season:
- Will free agent pitchers want to reconsider Atlanta as a destination, fearing that they could be at risk for injury?
- Can this team afford to replace pitchers so often – especially since many of the casualties happen at or near the major league level? Certainly from the unemotional business point of view, it is much cheaper to do the necessary things to keep pitchers on the field.
I certainly hope this internal audit extends to more than the rehab procedures and protocols. It needs to extend to prevention techniques as well. These players deserve no less. The fans also want to see the best pitchers on the field.