Red Sox not immune to Tommy John issue


Mar 18, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher B. Workman (67) throws a pitch during the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Moore. Corbin. Medlen. Beachy. On a crisp Friday night in March, my fantasy baseball fortunes were bright: a roster stocked with young arms and tremendous upside. So what if two of my selections had past experience with Tommy John surgery? It’s a fact of life in baseball today. Besides, both had returned just as good as ever, and were poised to lead my talented, deep squad to the league championship.

I watched helplessly as the talent and depth evaporated over the next month. The Ghost of Tommy John’s Elbow came calling for Medlen. Then Beachy. A couple weeks later, Corbin succumbed. And finally, after making a couple of starts, Moore was shelved in April.

Shortly after Moore’s demise punched my ticket for the league basement, I read a revealing article by Tom Verducci detailing the rise of Tommy John surgeries among young American pitchers. For all of the organizational fuss about managing the workload of prospects on their ascent through the minors to the Show, Verducci noted the damage was done before the players were even drafted.

The problem? Something I often complain about among friends: not letting kids be kids. “The greatest threat facing pitching in the major leagues is the American system of treating teenage pitchers, with its emphasis on velocity, travel tournaments and showcases,” writes Verducci.

It’s an age of specialization. If a kid can throw hard, he’s being pushed to throw as hard as he can year round. His arm is no longer just a Golden Ticket for himself and his family; it rings the cash register for other adults associated with the lucrative system of youth baseball. The result of constant high levels of stress on undeveloped arms: one in three surgeries performed by Dr. James Andrews involves a youth or high school pitcher.

How do we know this is an American problem? Verducci notes that despite 24.2% of major league players coming from Latin America, only one pitcher of the 20 (at the time he wrote the article) to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2014 — Detroit’s Bruce Rondon — was from outside the United States.

And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Verducci cites 18 of 26 picks drafted between 2003 and 2008 that failed, for whatever reason, to pan out for the teams that drafted them. Multiple examples were hard-throwing studs that got hurt. In the last five years, the average major league fastball velocity has gone from 90.9 to 92 mph. They’re throwing harder and getting injured more. So now, we have a scenario where high school pitchers drafted between 2010 and 2012 are five times more likely to get Tommy John than pitchers drafted in the previous five years. That’s out of control.

So much of the Red Sox future is stored in the cupboard full of talented young arms: Baseball America rates Henry Owens (#2), Allen Webster (#4), Brandon Workman (#8), Matt Barnes (#9), and Trey Ball (#10) among the top ten prospects in the organization. Plus there’s Anthony Ranaudo, a guy who sits just outside of that group and had an elbow injury in college. Other than being property of the Boston Red Sox, what do these pitchers have in common?

They’re all American. I don’t mean like Kurt Angle. They all came up through an exploitative system that puts their arms at risk. Sadly, some of them have doctor’s appointments in their futures. I said it earlier: Tommy John is a fact of life in today’s game. But bouncing back isn’t.

I’m not saying the Red Sox farm system will be decimated by pitcher injuries. Some of these guys aren’t hard throwers. And being a hard thrower doesn’t mean you’re ticketed to go under the knife. But prospects are tricky. There’s a myriad of reasons why they don’t pan out. The spectre of arm surgery resulting from endemic mismanagement doesn’t help.

Just something to think about, particularly when evaluating the Jon Lester extension.