Even Tommy John Calls Tommy John Surgeries 'Epidemic'

Even Tommy John Calls Tommy John Surgeries 'Epidemic'

Dr. Frank Jobe, the medical innovator behind Tommy John surgery, died during spring training. The young 2014 baseball season shows that his gift to sports medicine will long outlive him.

Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova, who will undergo the procedure on Tuesday, becomes the 15th player sidelined by the surgery in 2014. Less than a month into the season, pitchers appear well ahead of the pace of last year’s 19 Tommy John surgeries and seem poised to challenge the record 36 such surgeries in 2012. From 2000 through 2013, Major League players underwent the operation an average of just of 16 times per season. The numbers, clearly, have taken an upswing in recent years.

“It’s unreal,” the surgery’s namesake said in a speech covered by the Watertown Daily Times. “And it’s crazy that they would pick 2014 to be an epidemic year, it seems like guys are going down right and left.”

Patrick Corbin, the young Diamondbacks pitcher who threw a greater percentage of strikes than anyone in the majors last season, has already been lost to the season due to elbow damage requiring the surgery. So have Bobby Parnell of the Mets and Luke Hochevar of the Royals. And given the 12-18 month recovery time, several of the pitchers enduring the operation may miss next season as well. Since 1974, when Tommy John underwent the experimental procedure, which takes a tendon, often from the forearm, and attaches it at the elbow, more than a thousand MLB players have gone under the knife in Dr. Jobe’s procedure, known in medical circles as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) surgery.

The popularity of Tommy John surgery stems much from the success of Tommy John. What had been a career-ending injury for Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax, worked as a career extender for Dodger Tommy John. The pitcher went 10-10 upon his return to the majors in 1976 and played in 13 more seasons in the big leagues, which at the time tied a career longevity mark. 

A new study found a 97 percent return-to-play rate in the minors or majors among MLB competitors undergoing the operation. About 83 percent returned to the major leagues. “After UCL reconstruction, pitchers played in fewer innings per season and had both fewer wins and losses per season versus before surgery,” a March article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine reported. “However, these pitchers also had a lower ERA and WHIP per season. In comparison with controls, pitchers who underwent UCL reconstruction had a lower ERA and WHIP, had a lower losing percentage, and gave up fewer hits per inning. The fewer wins and losses after UCL reconstruction could be explained by the fewer innings pitched because it is an MLB requirement to pitch a minimum of 5 complete innings before a pitcher earns a decision.”

Despite the operation’s success rate, Tommy John would like for all levels of baseball to take preventative action so that players won’t have to get operated upon. “What I would like to see these guys do, these surgeons and all,” John told northern New York’s Watertown Daily Times, “is ask all the guys who have had the surgery–how much did you pitch as a kid and how often, and did you pitch year round? And 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.”

Photo Credit: Julian Gonzalez