The player for whom Tommy John surgery is named was one of the smartest and tenacious pitchers to ever throw from a major league mound. Check the record: John pitched for 26 years, compiling a 288-231 record with a career 3.34 ERA and 162 complete games. He threw well (he led his league twice in winning percentage and three times in shutouts) and often brilliantly for four good teams: the White Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Yankees. It’s a shame, truly, that Tommy John is remembered best for the surgery that was performed, first, on him — after he “blew out his arm.” For while we credit medicine with inventing “Tommy John Surgery,” the procedure that repaired his arm was really his idea and was performed at his insistence by Dr. Frank Jobe. That fact is important, because most (and damn near all) pitchers before Tommy John who suffered from “forearm stiffness” or “a dead arm” (the names then given to symptoms that pointed to elbow ligament damage) simply left the game. Tommy John didn’t.
Baseball commentators (Peter Gammons, Steve Kurkjian and others), sports talk junkies (ESPN 980’s Tom Loverro and Rick “Doc” Walker) and Nationals’ fanatics (me and you and God knows who else) seem to have come to three conclusions about the news that Stephen Strasburg will have to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. The first is that the Strasburg injury is “devastating” and potentially career ending, that the injury derails Nationals’ plans to contend in 2011 (or even 2012), and that the news reflects the fragility of modern pitchers — whose susceptibility to blowing out their pitching arm shows they aren’t as tough as “old school pitchers.” All three conclusions are false. And here’s why.
Okay, okay: the Strasburg news is “devastating” for Strasburg because it will keep him off the mound for 12 to 15 months; but the news is not fatal either to his career or to the long-term prospects of the Washington franchise. Others have had the surgery, many others, and have come back as good as new — or better. After having “Tommy John surgery,” Tommy John went on to win 164 games. A.J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Arthur Rhodes, Carl Pavano and Billy Wagner have all had the procedure and have come back — in some cases they actually pitched better after the surgery than before. Tommy John surgery does not simply repair a damaged ligament, it replaces it. The goal of the procedure is to make the arm stronger than it was before the surgery. And isn’t it an irony (or, if you prefer, isn’t it nauseating) that the Nationals got the news on Strasburg on the same day that Jordan Zimmermann returned to the mound 12 months after having his own Tommy John procedure — and was able to throw well and without pain.
Is the news “devastating” for the Nats? It would be crazy to argue that the Strasburg news will have no impact on the club. It will. There’s little doubt that the 2011 rotation will suffer without his presence. But to believe that Stan Kasten or Mike Rizzo (or Jim Riggleman), have stated that they are “stockpiling pitchers” because they just happen to love pitchers is perverse. They know. They know that a certain percentage of pitchers will blow a ligament, tear a cuff or strain an elbow — and somebody will have to come in to take their place. The Nats have plenty of young pitchers who want to be in the show, and while none of them have the talent of the phenom, the team is not without hope. Then too, the era of free agency ensures that, should a team lose its best talent to the D.L, it’s possible to sign a savvy and healthy veteran (like, well . . . Tommy John) who can revive a franchise’s fortune. In 1974, while Tommy John was rehabbing from the first-ever Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers finished in second place in the N.L West. But two years later (in 1977) the Dodgers won the pennant — because of Tommy John, who had his best year ever (20-7, 220 innings, 2.78 ERA). Tommy John’s injury was “devastating” for Tommy John, but not for the Dodgers — who did just fine without him. They did what all ball clubs do: they compensated.
Is the kind of injury that sidelined Tommy John — and that is now sidelining Stephen Strasburg — a new development? Does it somehow signal some kind of systemic problem with developing major league pitchers? Weren’t pitchers just “tougher” in past years, and aren’t “these kids” being coddled just a bit too much? This is complete nonsense. The reason that Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal (the two examples most prominently cited, because of the Spahn-Marichal marathon) were able to pitch as effectively as they did for as long as they did is not because they “sucked it up,” but because they never suffered career ending ligament damage. If they had (in the era before Tommy John surgery) their careers would have been over. They weren’t tough, they didn’t “suck it up” — they were lucky. High school baseball, football and basketball squads of the 1960s were littered with coaches whose damaged arms ended their careers. They didn’t refuse to tough it out: they were out of baseball because their arm was “dead.” The difference between then and now is not a difference in “character,” it’s that now we have Tommy John surgery — back then we didn’t.
The news on Strasburg is bad news. It’s very bad news. But Tommy John surgery is not a death sentence. Not even close. It’s an injury — and it will take time to heel. There will be months and months of rest, even before rehab. “The kid” is in for a long journey. But my bet is that he’ll return. Wouldn’t be nice for him to know that when he does — we’ll be there, cheering him on. It’s not time for Stephen Strasburg to suck it up, it’s time for Nats fans to suck it up.