Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 4, 2011

Strasburg Returns As Tommy John Records Another Save

On Tuesday Stephen Strasburg will take the mound for the Washington Nationals, one year, one month, and sixteen days after last doing so. He will be resuming a young career that was abruptly interrupted last season when he threw a changeup to the Phillies’ Dominic Brown. Wincing after his follow-through, Strasburg certainly knew that he was hurt, but probably didn’t realize at the time just how serious his injury was.

With that fateful pitch the Nationals’ phenom had snapped the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. One year and one day ago, Dr. Lewis Yocum drilled holes in Strasburg’s elbow and attached the bone to a tendon removed from the pitcher’s thigh. As the healing and rehabilitation process went on, that one-time thigh tendon remade itself into a new ulnar collateral ligament. That thin strand of precious tissue is what has allowed Strasburg to pitch again.

As he has made his way through the Nationals’ minor league affiliates in a series of rehab starts, Strasburg has shown flashes of the overpowering fastball, sharply breaking curve, and wicked changeup that made him the talk of Washington and of much of the majors last year. He has also, not surprisingly, shown a fair amount of rust; in particular struggling at times with his control. So it’s impossible to know and unreasonable to predict just how his future as a major league pitcher will unfold. Perhaps he will meet and even exceed all of the great expectations that have been heaped upon him. Perhaps he will fall short of those lofty heights while still having a respectable career. Perhaps he will never again be quite right, or prove prone to other injuries, and one day be remembered as just another potential star whose promise was greater than his reality.

But the fact that Strasburg is about to pitch again, barely more than a year after what would have once been a career-ending injury, means that he will happily not be remembered as a phenom who burst brightly upon the Great Game and burnt briefly with a white-hot incandescence only to suddenly flame out, like a meteorite flashing across the firmament on a summer’s night. For that Strasburg can thank Tommy John.

The left-handed John spent 26 seasons in the majors from 1963 through 1989, pitching for six different teams. His most notable years came with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1970’s. With 288 lifetime wins, more than 2,200 strikeouts, and 4 All-Star selections, there are some fans who regard John as the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame. In truth John never came close to the 75% of the vote needed for election to the Hall during his 15 years of eligibility on the ballot, and in his first chance for election by the Veterans Committee in 2010 he was passed over again. But if there were a wing of the Hall dedicated to those whose actions off the field forever changed the game, John would be one of the first to be enshrined. For Tommy John is of course better known for the surgery that bears his name than for any game he ever pitched.

In the latter part of the 1974 season, John had a 13-3 record and was leading the Dodgers to their first National League pennant since the glory days of Koufax and Drysdale when he experienced a pain in his left elbow so severe that he could no longer pitch. At the time the diagnosis, that the ulnar collateral ligament had snapped, was a death sentence to pitchers. But John refused to simply retire.

Two years earlier, he had met orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe when John needed bone chips removed from his elbow. Following that successful surgery, the two stayed in contact and became friends after Jobe later operated on John’s wife. So the injured pitcher asked his surgeon friend to examine the damaged elbow. It was then that Jobe, who had done tendon grafts on children diagnosed with polio early in his medical career, hit upon the idea of completely replacing the damaged ligament. In John’s case, Jobe used a tendon from his right forearm.

As with any new medical procedure, at the time the term “radical” was widely used. Jobe himself believed John had perhaps one chance in a hundred of ever pitching again. But John trusted his friend, and knew that even one chance was better than none. John sat out the entire 1975 season, but returned in 1976 and continued to pitch in the majors for nearly a decade and a half. A majority of his lifetime wins, 164, came after the surgery. He also posted a higher winning percentage after having the procedure that now bears his name.

As medical procedures in general have advanced and as Tommy John surgery has become more commonplace, that one chance in a hundred has grown to a full recovery rate of 85 to 92 percent, depending on the study. The rosters for last season’s All-Star Game included ten pitchers who had the tell-tale scar on the inside of their pitching elbows.

Perhaps next season, perhaps in many future seasons, Stephen Strasburg will add to the list of All-Stars who have Tommy John to thank for their continuing careers. Whether or not that happens, the one thing that is certain is that despite having never been a closer and despite being retired for more than two decades, Tommy John keeps racking up the saves.

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Responses

  1. As usual, you once again hit a homerun with this article.
    Always look forward to reading your work,
    Bill


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