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Tommy John surgery isn't a death sentence for Strasburg

Aug 27, 2010, 12:55 PM EST

Be prepared to hear a lot of people use Mark Prior in the same sentence as Stephen Strasburg in the days and months ahead. Please don’t listen to them. This would be a far worse scenario if we were talking about Strasburg’s shoulder. Thankfully, we aren’t.

Though today’s news is a very tough blow for the Nationals as a franchise, it doesn’t mean Strasburg’s career is over. Far from it. There are numerous examples of pitchers that have come back from Tommy John surgery to enjoy success in the major leagues. Here’s just a few of them.

Josh Johnson: Maybe the most significant example of a young pitcher thriving post-op, Johnson was 12-10 with a 3.50 ERA over his first 39 games (29 starts) in the majors before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August of 2007 at the age of 23. He’s been even better since his return in July of 2008, going 33-11 with a 2.98 ERA. Among starting pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched during that time, he ranks 10th in ERA and 11th in strikeouts and wins.

Chris Carpenter: Carpenter has endured numerous arm problems throughout the course of his career, but he has re-emerged as one of the best pitchers in the sport after missing most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons due to Tommy John surgery. Carpenter is 4th among major league starters with a 2.55 ERA since his return in July of 2008.

Ryan Dempster: Dempster is an interesting case. He was primarily a starting pitcher before requiring Tommy John surgery in August of 2003 at age 26. He was released by the Reds and then picked up by the Cubs, who used him almost exclusively as a reliever all the way until the start of the 2008 season. Since then, Dempster ranks 13th in MLB with 527 strikeouts in 585 2/3 innings.

A.J. Burnett: Some Yankees fans will scoff at this, but Burnett is a significant example of a pitcher who has found sustained success after TJ surgery. Burnett underwent the procedure in April of 2003 when he was with the Marlins at age 26. Since he returned in June of 2004, Burnett is 79-64 with a 3.95 ERA, averaging 8.5 K/9. He had some setbacks with his elbow and shoulder during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, but Burnett ranks seventh among starting pitchers in strikeouts since 2004.

Francisco Liriano: I’m going to throw this one out there as a little bit of a devil’s advocate. For the rosy pictures I’ve painted above, Liriano is an example of a pitcher who struggled to find his footing after Tommy John surgery.  Liriano was regarded as one of the brightest young arms in the game when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 28 games (16 starts) as a 22-year-old rookie with the Twins in 2006. He went under the knife in November, missed the entire 2007 season and showed a lack of velocity in 14 starts with the Twins in 2008. Back as a full-time starting pitcher in 2009, Liriano struggled again, this time posting a 5.80 ERA in 29 outings (24 starts). It wasn’t until this season, nearly four years later, did Liriano begin to show the velocity that made him an emerging ace as a rookie. Through 25 starts, the now 26-year-old is 12-7 with a 3.41 ERA and ranks third in the American League with 171 strikeouts.

Though all the pitchers I mentioned above have found success in the major leagues again, they have all taken very different routes to get there. And at various points in their careers, to boot.

Here’s a few more recent notables: Tim Hudson, Billy Wagner, Brian Wilson, Hong-Chih Kuo (twice), Shaun Marcum, Joakim Soria, Carl Pavano, C.J. Wilson, Rafael Soriano, Jaime Garcia.

This doesn’t mean Strasburg will be a slam-dunk. Take a look here and you’ll see a list littered with names of could-have-been’s and never-were’s. The important thing is that like the pitchers I mentioned above, Strasburg already has elite skills to fall back on. The actual act of repairing or reconstructing the ligament isn’t going to make him a better pitcher, necessarily, but his rehab from the surgery is the key. The scary part for major league hitters is that he has the potential to come back from the surgery even stronger than he was before, if that is even possible. 

  1. Chris Fiorentino - Aug 27, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    I don’t think it is wrong to compare Strasburg and Prior at this point because both were phenoms and both were injured after they were supposed to be the greatest things since sliced bread. Look, I know Prior had more of a “bad luck” history…shoot, the first time Prior went on the DL it was because he collided with somebody on the Braves…I forget who it was, but I think he missed a month or so. Then he had leg problems, and then he got hit with a line drive. It wasn’t until after all of these injuries that the shoulder became a problem. So yes, you can say that this injury isn’t the same as Prior’s injuries…but I don’t think it is unfair to think he may be just as unlucky as Prior.

  2. GIBoxer5 - Aug 27, 2010 at 1:26 PM

    The hell it’s not. Strasburg is done for!!

  3. BC - Aug 27, 2010 at 1:27 PM

    If he doesn’t change his mechanics it’ll be the death sentence.

  4. JBerardi - Aug 27, 2010 at 1:42 PM

    Right. It’s not the TJ surgery that worries me, it’s the underlying mechanics that caused it. I posted this in the other Strasburg thread, but it’s pretty buried there, so I’ll do it again:

    http://www.chrisoleary.com/projects/baseball/pitching/professionalpitcheranalyses/StephenStrasburg.html

  5. jimbeetle - Aug 27, 2010 at 2:39 PM

    I find it kind of funny you didn’t mention Tommy John himself. He has the surgery after 12 years in the majors, many players would have simply retired.
    After his comeback season of 10-10 in ’76, he went 20-7, 17-10, 21-9 and 22-9 before age started catching up with him at 38.

  6. D.J. Short - Aug 27, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    Right, I think that’s somewhat implied. What’s important to understand is that the procedure has an increasingly high success rate, not necessarily making pitchers better, but making them healthier and extending their careers.

  7. YANKEES1996 - Aug 27, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    I agree with BC, if someone does not take a hard look at his motion this may not be the only arm surgery in his future. I was talking to one of my sons high school coaches about Strasburg several months ago and I have found a couple of interesting things in what he said. First off, he stated that Strasburg should not have been let out of the minor leagues this year which I agree with, secondly, he said he could not believe that his motion was not looked at and scrutinized in the minor leagues. This coach also said that Strasburg should have been given a rigid arm strengthening regime to follow after his turn in the rotation. This may be hindsight now but this coach has some very good ideas about how to strengthen young arms and keep these guys away from major injury. I wonder how many people in the Nationals system just kept their mouths shut about their misgivings and fears just so the kid would be brought up and put fannies in the seats in the short term?

  8. Utley's hair - Aug 27, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    So you’re saying the Gnats planned this all along? Hmm…interesting. Conspiracy theory–run with it.

  9. ultimatecardinalwarrior - Aug 27, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    Don’t forget about Jaime Garcia. He pitched barely 39 innings last year because of TJ, and now he’s this years leading ROY candidate. Strasburg is probably an even better pitcher than Jaime in the long run.

  10. D.J. Short - Aug 27, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    Ah yes, he’s in my other notables. People do forget about him.

  11. Dahan - Aug 27, 2010 at 5:49 PM

    Liriano didn’t make his comeback until he learned to pitch with new mechanics. It took him awhile, as noted. Now, he’s maybe not quite as dominating as his rookie year, but that wasn’t doable over a career, as we’ve seen. However, today he’s still not a guy you look forward to batting against by any means. I think he’ll be even better next year.
    If you care about this young pitcher, hope that he gets the right coaching and that he listens to it.

  12. The Notorious KDV - Aug 28, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    Strasburg has a violent looking delivery and I think that’s contributed to his injury. Some guys throw hard but they don’t look like they’re throwing hard which is easier on the arm than someone who has such a violent looking delivery like Strasburg does. He does need to make some adjustments to his mechanics but even that may not be enough to prevent future injuries with the violent looking delivery that he has.
    The best thing for him long term may be to learn how to be successful throwing a little slower than what he does now. Instead of 97,98,99 all the time, he may want to throw 94,95,96. If he’s as good as everyone says that he is then he should be able to succeed without throwing as hard as he does now.

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