Washington Nationals wunderkind Stephen Strasburg is the type of pitcher that can instantly transform a franchise, as evidenced by the incredible start to his career in 2010. The unbelievable hype was lived up to, as Strasburg clearly demonstrated he can pitch at the major league level. Plus, the fans wanted to see what this kid could do, and they turned out in droves. What an impact he had in a short 2010—from stats to economic impact—Strasburg has the “it” factor.
But things took a turn in the opposite direction nearing the end of the 2010 season. He had some elbow soreness, went on the DL, and never really recovered. Finally it was diagnosed that he had a torn ulnar collateral ligament, and had to have it surgically repaired. This procedure is known as Tommy John surgery, named after the pitcher who first had it done on his arm. The surgery was developed and pioneered by the legendary Dr. Frank Jobe.
Here’s a great picture of the procedure:
In a nutshell, the ligament that helps to stabilize the throwing elbow becomes damaged beyond repair, and unless that pitcher decides to retire, the ligament must be reconstructed using another tendon or ligament. The procedure was a huge success for Tommy John, allowing him to have a second career and almost making the Hall of Fame. Since that surgery in 1974, thousands upon thousands of pitchers have been given a new lease on their pitching life.
While this could be the topic of another post, the big question out there is “WHY does this ligament need reconstruction for so many pitchers?” A number of theories and research attempt to answer this question, and there are some definitive reasons why. But there really isn’t ONE reason for everyone…
In Strasburg’s case, it could be said that maybe he threw too much in high school or college. Or maybe his mechanics that made him so dazzling also wore down his arm faster. Like I said, there’s no one real reason and that’s a great topic for another article.
So where is Strasburg now at the beginning of 2011? He had the surgery in September, and based on most accepted rehab protocols for this operation, he should be cleared to resume throwing very soon. Keep in mind that “resume throwing” does not equal “resume pitching.” He will do a few months of light toss, gradually building up his arm strength over 3-4 months before doing any pitching work. This long process is why a pitcher recovering from Tommy John is expected to miss a full season. A fast recovery from this is 9 months.
Could Strasburg pitch again in 2011? It is possible to see him in full action near the end of 2011, but a lot of things need to go perfectly in order for this to happen. He can’t have any setbacks, and can’t sustain another injury (like a shoulder tweak which is common after an elbow injury if the mechanics are not watched properly).
Do the Nationals play it safe and hold him out until 2012? Let’s wait and see how the season pans out, because the scenario exists, albeit unlikely, for the Nationals to be in the thick of things in August and September and the temptation will arise to get him out there.
BJ, I know you said it's a great topic for another article, but I was hoping you could talk a little about the process of bringing a star prospect pitcher up from the minors and whether you think the Nationals rushed his development by making him such an integral part of the rotation so quickly. While Strasburg appeared to be major-league ready, it seems a bit excessive that the Nationals allowed him to pitch 5+ innings in his first 9 starts.
Tough question to answer but one that deserves to be asked. There is no doubt that Strasburg was ready to face major-league hitters; he had the stuff, the maturity and the "it" factor (whatever that is). The thing to wonder is if his mechanics and his arm were ready to stand up to the physical demands. Don't focus as much on the innings---look at his pitch counts: 94,95,85,95,92,96,95,99,97 over his first 9 starts. Was this too much? It's real easy to sit back and say YES, now knowing what has happened since then. Honestly, I am of the opinion that due to his college workload, his mechanics, and the demands of MLB pitching that he was going to blow out sooner or later. It just happened sooner. Hindsight would dictate that he not gone so deep in pitch counts.
Lesson for young pitchers? Monitor pitch counts, especially as fatigue sets in. Research indicates that every pitch over 50-60 pitches is equal to 1.5-2 pitches as far as the fatigue it causes (as in 15 pitches over 60 = 75 by normal count. Add in fatigue factor and the 75 becomes 83 pitches).