The Tommy John epidemic

Getty Images - Jose Fernandez continues his Tommy Johns recovery this spring
Getty Images – Jose Fernandez continues his Tommy John recovery this spring

By Casey Boguslaw

Tommy John – the name invokes fear to baseball players, managers, and fans. Ironically, the name given to an operation used to remedy a previously-thought incurable injury was named after the first player who had success after receiving said operation. Nowadays, the term is 100% negative. Even though it has a successful history, it is generally looked at as a year-long recovery, which means a lost season of a favorite ball player.

In 2014, the Tommy John operation reached its peak of infamy. It had become an epidemic; seemingly affecting any young prospect’s arm. Matt Harvey, Jarrod Parker and Matt Moore – all promising top prospects to their teams, were all hit with the news that they were going to lose a year of baseball in their 20s. I did some digging, with help from research done at baseballheatmaps.com, to help discover if 2014’s “bad luck” was just that, or are we realizing an unfortunate trend.

Back only a few years ago, it was a common misconception that Tommy John only occurred to two types of pitchers – hard throwers or older arms. The numbers back this up somewhat, as in 2002 the average age of the 32 players who received TJ surgery was 26.3. However, between 2006 and 2014 the average age of TJ recipients has been hovering around 24. Between 2009 and 2011, 171 reported TJ surgeries were performed but in the last 3+ years, there have been 246. The rise can perhaps be explained by two different reasons. One is that the success rate of the operations has gone up, so players are not afraid to go under the knife. College players and even high-schoolers are now receiving the operation. The second may be the evolution of training regimens of young arms which could be leading to more injuries to the UCL, which is the ligament that becomes damaged, requiring the TJ operation.

The major reason why Tommy John hit headlines so often in 2014 is the names that were attached to the operation. Between 4/1/2012 and 3/30/2013 we had some bigger names go under the knife: Joakim Soria, Brian Wilson, Jeremy Bonderman and top prospects Kyle Drabek and Brandon Beachy. These were well-known names but none which are able to turn many heads. In late October 2013, news came out that Matt Harvey; top prospect of the Mets who had just finished the season with a strong debut was announced to have TJ. Right before the 2014 season, Brandon Beachy (again), Jarrod Parker, and Patrick Corbin were all big names that had to have the operation thus losing their season. Parker, at 25-years-old and Corbin at 24-years-old were players whose teams, Athletics and Diamondbacks, respectively, were counting on the young, promising arms. The year climaxed with one of baseball’s biggest names – Jose Fernandez, who at 21, was lost for the season in May.

With these big names being attached to the infamous Tommy John, the operation is becoming more of a norm than a fluke. While the recovery is still roughly a year, each player responds differently. Another commonality, which is scary to all, is that the likelihood of multiple operations during a player’s career has been on the rise. Here is a rundown of some of the big players who received TJ during the 2014 calendar year and their prospects for the 2015 campaign. Consider this a preview for your favorite players and perhaps some helpful hints for your upcoming fantasy drafts.

Jose Fernandez – 22 years old – Miami Marlins – operation performed 5/16/14

Fernandez is throwing off flat ground at Spring Training but news has been somewhat murky on a return date. In January, reports were that he was expected back in June. As of this week, Fernandez has said himself that the all-star break is where his doctors are aiming.

Matt Harvey – 26 in March – New York Mets – operation performed 10/22/13

Reports say that he is looking good in camp, already throwing breaking balls. It is possible that Harvey is the Mets opening day starter. 200 innings, and the playoffs is the current goal, according to Met management.

Jarrod Parker – 26 years old – Oakland Athletics – operation performed 3/24/14 (second operation)

Parker, and teammate AJ Griffin, plan to return to the team from their TJ surgeries in June.

Patrick Corbin – 25 years old – Arizona Diamondbacks – operation performed 3/25/14

Corbin is also scheduled for a June return and is playing catch at his team’s spring training facility.

Brandon Beachy – 28 years old – Los Angeles Dodgers – operation performed 3/21/14 (second operation)

The Dodgers have taken a gamble on Beachy this week and signed him to a one year deal with a club option for a second. Beachy is scheduled to come back around midseason but this is his second TJ in two years.

Matt Moore – 25 years old – Tampa Bay Rays – operation performed 4/22/14

Moore is responding better than most. He threw off a mound in January and is looking towards a May return.

Tyler Skaggs – 23 years old – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – operation performed 8/13/14

No pertinent news available for Skaggs who did not have his operation until later in the season. This could be a great addition to a team likely headed toward the postseason.

Matt Wieters – 28 years old – Baltimore Orioles – operation performed 6/17/14

Non-pitchers are also susceptible to requiring TJ, although it is less common. Wieters, the Orioles catcher, is aiming to start Opening Day. While the stress on a catcher’s arm is less than a pitcher’s, it will be something to watch for him to return in less than ten months after the operation.

Injuries are an unfortunate part of sports but the return to action after a long period away makes for some special stories. Let’s hope that 2015 will be a year away from the Tommy John epidemic and we can enjoy these young arms’ futures.

You can follow Casey on twitter @CaseyBoguslaw and join in the conversation @CTBPod

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