Essential Viewing

Spring Into Baseball, Fall Back on Tommy John Surgery

It’s starting to feel a lot like spring. Not just because taxes are due, or because in parts of the country the sun is beating down on us. Not just because flowers are in bloom or because fruit is actually decent. (After a season of  apples, thank goodness for berries.)

Today marks the official start of the 2015 baseball season and, for many, a true welcoming of spring. And even with the excitement of seeing first pitches and old favorites out on the field, it seems the good ol’ American pastime has been having a bit of an existential crisis these past few decades.

Aside from the doping scandals that have plagued the sport, a spotlight is beginning to be shown on the issue of over-pitching, Tommy John surgery, and the kind of example it sets for the young folks coming up through the sport. Leaving some asking — in an era of the 100mph fastball, at what cost are these pitches coming?

Tommy John surgery, developed in 1974 and named after the first pitcher to undergo the procedure, replaces the elbow ligament with a tendon usually from the forearm or hamstring. It is arguably the baseball equivalent of football’s concussion issue. There has been an “epidemic” of the surgeries according to a 2014 position statement by the American Sports Medicine Institute on Tommy John injuries in baseball pitchers. The statement also places an emphasis on optimizing the mechanics of pitching rather than looking at surgery as a safety net for overexertion of the pitching arm.

Though it is a commonly held belief that having Tommy John surgery will make you a better and stronger pitcher, research has shown this isn’t necessarily true. Furthermore, the American Sports Medicine Institute reported the number of surgeries done on young pitchers to have more than doubled since 2000.

So, if surgery can’t make you into a better, stronger pitcher, then what? Biomechanical research literally points the pitching community back to, well, good mechanics.

This position was also highlighted in a recent 60 Minutes Sports piece. The segment showcases two pitching coaches who are working with young athletes to basically stave off another generation of pitchers relying on Tommy John surgery.

USC’s Dr. Tom House, one of the pitching coaches featured in the piece, emphasizes the extreme pressure on young pitchers to be desirable candidates for NCAA Division One teams by having a fast pitch in their arsenal. Combine that with longer seasons of extended pitching, and more and more players are looking to the surgery as a means out.

baseball-60-minutes-screenshot

So what is the solution to keeping kids away from surgery? Dr. House and others really believe using technology to analyze the mechanics of good pitching, resting the arm, and being vigilant of pitch counts as being the best course of action.

“I think baseball overall is 10 years behind the other sports. The technology from other sports is out there…someone has to embrace it,” says Dr. House in the 60 Minutes Sports report.

Even if some of the greats came back after Tommy John surgery, it may not be the best model for the young ones. Those mythical moments, like Madison Bumgarner pitching the seventh game of the World Series on minimal rest, remain an inspiring part of baseball history, but should not be the model for the next generation of pitchers.

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