Red Sox: History suggests Carson Smith faces an uphill battle

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 08: Carson Smith
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 08: Carson Smith /

Carson Smith is looking to revert to form in 2018 following Tommy John surgery. But relievers have an ugly history with this procedure.

It has been two years since the Boston Red Sox traded Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro to the Mariners for Roenis Elias and Carson Smith. At the time there was considerable excitement for Smith throughout Red Sox nation. He was coming off an age 25 season in which he posted a 2.31 ERA with 11.83 strikeouts to 2.83 walks per nine over 70 innings. Smith was going to slot in behind Craig Kimbrel and give the Red Sox bullpen the best one-two punch in baseball.

Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan. Carson Smith underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2016 and has pitched just 6.2 big league innings since.

2018 offers new hope for the 6’6” righty. This will hopefully be his first full season in Boston and expectations are cautiously optimistic; in discussions like these analysts are quick to point out that Tommy John surgery is not the monster it once was. Research has shown that the vast majority of pitchers return to the MLB and most perform at a similar level.

One thing I’ve personally noticed, however, is that this bullet point has mostly cited pitchers as a whole. I decided to dig deeper into how relief pitchers perform after TJ surgery and the results aren’t as pretty.

My research started with a simple set of parameters. The goal of this piece is to analyze how these players’ performance differed post-surgery; thus it is only reasonable that we have a good idea of who these pitchers were before surgery. Towards that end, all pitchers considered threw at least one hundred innings in relief within the three years prior to TJ surgery. If the surgery happened during the season, only the three seasons prior were considered. I also wanted to account for the fact that this procedure has become safer in recent times; for this reason, I only looked at surgeries that occurred after the 2011 season.

With the help of Jon Roegele’s Tommy John surgery database, I was able to quickly narrow this search to the 30 players who fit these criteria. Below is a table with each of these players’ average bWAR in the same three seasons considered above, the average bWAR in the following seasons (up to three), and whether or not that pitcher threw 50 innings in any of the three seasons following their return.

If a player returned from TJ during a season after May 31st that season was removed from the last two stats and the bar shifted over to the next season. If the pitcher never threw ten innings in a season again they received an N/A for average WAR post surgery as such a sample seems fairly insignificant. Here’s what I found.

PlayerAvg bWAR priorAvg bWAR after50 innings in a season post-op?
Joakim Soria2.20.8Yes
Greg Holland1.91.4Yes
Eric O’Flaherty1.9-0.9No
Rafael Betancourt1.8-0.6No
Joel Hanrahan1.7N/ANo
Neftali Feliz1.70.4Yes
Brian Wilson1.7-0.6No
Joe Nathan1.6N/ANo
Jonny Venters1.6N/ANo
Ryan Madson1.61.8Yes
Adam Ottavino1.50.3Yes
Jason Motte1.40.0No
Sean Burnett1.3N/ANo
Todd Coffey1.1N/ANo
David Hernandez1.00.9Yes
Juan Oviedo0.80.2No
Matt Reynolds0.7-0.2No
Bobby Parnell0.7-0.3No
Joe Beimel0.50.6No
Blake Wood0.4-0.1Yes
David Herndon0.3N/ANo
Tim Collins0.3N/ANo
Aaron Crow0.3N/ANo
Frank Herrmann0.3-0.7No
Brandon Cumpton0.1N/ANo
George Sherrill-0.2N/ANo
Trevor Bell-0.3N/ANo
Fernando Rodriguez-0.30.3Yes
Sergio Santos-0.4-0.1No
Brandon Workman-0.60.4No

So the results were… not great. From a longevity perspective, the data wasn’t as inspiring as hoped. Only eight of these 30 pitchers threw 50 innings in a season over their first three post-operation campaigns; ten of them never even threw ten innings in a season over the same stretch. And their performance was no better. Prior to TJ surgery, 19 out of 30 of these relievers were worth half a win or more per season. Post-operation, that number dropped to five.

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It’s fair to point out that reliever attrition is exceptionally high for near replacement level relievers anyway. Maybe many of those pitchers found their way out of baseball due to natural selection instead of Tommy John. Maybe elite relievers faired better.

To test this, I selected from the previous group every pitcher who posted a 2.0 bWAR or above in a single season within the three years prior to TJ surgery. Carson Smith was worth 2.3 bWAR in 2015 so this seemed like a fair bar to get similar quality pitchers. I then tacked on the highest bWAR for each reliever in the three seasons before and after with the same restrictions for the years chosen as above. Here’s what we are left with.

PlayerHighest bWAR priorHighest bWAR afteravg bWAR prioravg bWAR after50 innings in a season after?
Joakim Soria3.
Eric O’Flaherty3.30.41.9-0.9No
Joe Nathan3.20.41.6N/ANo
Greg Holland3.
Brian Wilson3.00.61.7-0.6No
Jonny Venters3.001.6N/ANo
Rafael Betancourt2.6-0.61.8-0.6No
Joel Hanrahan2.5-0.51.7N/ANo
Neftali Feliz2.
Adam Ottavino2.
Ryan Madson2.

The results weren’t much better. Of the fifteen players who met these criteria, no players achieved another season with 2.0 bWAR. In fact, only four of these players ever posted a season worth half of that amount. The only pitchers who can claim to have been as good as they were before surgery are Ryan Madson and Greg Holland. It’s worth noting, however, that Madson missed three seasons after his surgery and Holland has only been back for one season. We have yet to see an elite reliever come back within the typical time frame for TJ and revert to form for multiple years.

What does this mean for Carson Smith? It might not mean anything. Every pitcher is different and no two career arcs are identical. There’s even some reason for optimism stemming from his return to the mound late this past season; Smith through his pitches with almost identical velocities as he did prior to his injury and he was highly successful for 6.2 innings.

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But that’s not a very large sample. Looking for meaning in 6.2 innings might not prove fruitful. The Red Sox could really use Carson Smith to slot into the eighth inning. Maybe Carson Smith will buck these trends. History tells us, however, a lot about the fight relievers face after Tommy John surgery: it’s not just an uphill battle; it’s a fight up the face of a mountain.