Forty years after he was the first pitcher ever to undergo ground breaking surgery, Tommy John cannot believe the popularity of the surgery that was named after him. John told the the Watertown Daily Times, “It’s unreal…it seems like guys are going down left and right.”
In the young 2014 season, there has already been 15 pitchers that have seen their campaign end early with Tommy John surgery. Some notable pitchers on the list include Mets’ closer Bobby Parnell, Braves’ starters Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, Yankees’ starter Ivan Nova, and Padres’ starter Josh Johnson (for the second time). At the rate pitchers are going down this year, this list could grow substantially by the end of the year.
Tommy John surgery is a procedure that occurs when a pitcher’s ulnar collateral ligament is torn and must be replaced. In today’s surgery, there are three different ways to replace an ulnar collateral ligament: use the patient’s palmaris longus (a dispensable tendon in a person’s wrist), a piece of the petallar tendon below the knee, or a cadaver. What causes this ligament to fray and eventually tear is still being researched today. Typically, it is not that one pitch that tears the ligament, but rather the increased throwing at younger ages coupled with poor mechanics. John voiced his opinion to the Daily Times, “It’s what you did down the road when you were younger. … In essence, the injury itself is a buildup of overuse. And not overuse as an adult, but overuse as a kid.”
Kids nowadays are playing baseball at a much earlier age and most are playing on teams that play year-round by age 10. Is this increase in throwing at a earlier age causing the Tommy John epidemic? John seems to think so. “Nowadays, probably 70 to 80 percent of the pitchers today have been pitching 12 months a year since they were seven, eight or nine years old. And your arm is not made for that.” Or could it be the amount of two-way players, who throw 100 pitches one day and then trot out to third base the next day and take no days off? Some people argue that kids who don’t throw enough growing up are the one’s who are more at risk to surgery. Either way, the surgery numbers are increasing while the debate rages on.