(Image: Morry Gash/AP)
Even though the Brewers have been long out of contention, many of the games still have interesting storylines. During the third inning of yesterday’s game against Washington, Brian Anderson and Bill Schroeder made chitchat about Nationals starting pitcher Taylor Jordan, who has experienced a career turnaround in no small part due to Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in 2011.
Although they are not meant to be experts, their comments may reflect (or shape) how baseball fans think about this increasingly common surgical procedure. For one thing, Schroeder offhandedly said (this is an exact quote, I DVR’ed it and everything), “Guys usually come back better than they were before their injury. That’s the way it is, and that’s how advanced that surgery is these days.” He said it pretty casually, as if it was something he expected most people would agree with. (This June article about Jordan in the Washington Post also implies Tommy John surgery made him a better pitcher.)
I was under the impression the jury was still out on that question. In fact, a quick Google search comes up with a 2009 Scientific American article that recounted two studies that found no significant improvement in performance for pitchers that had undergone Tommy John surgery. Just a couple of weeks ago, the physician that invented the procedure, Dr. Frank Jobe, was honored at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Asked about the notion that Tommy John surgery might make someone a better pitcher, Dr. Jobe said, “That’s just not true.”
Hopefully someone will let Schroeder know he was perpetuating a myth, particularly since it has implications for the next part of his discussion with Anderson. Schroeder brought up the idea that more youth ballplayers are having Tommy Johns, in the belief it will improve their performance. Anderson then said, “Surgery should always be a last resort. To get on a soapbox for one second…if you don’t have the work ethic to strengthen the muscles around that elbow…you might get a temporary fix with surgery but you’re ultimately going to be right back in the same position.”
If the idea that Tommy John surgery makes pitchers better is a myth, what about this supposed trend of young players getting the surgery? Are high schoolers really getting surgery to make themselves pitch better? That sounds like the kind of thing people say as if it’s common knowledge, but might not be accurate.
In fact, there is evidence that more young pitchers are getting Tommy John surgery. This 2012 interview with renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews says that “Andrews used to do three or four Tommy John surgeries a year on high school athletes. Now he said it’s up to three to four times a week.” So it seems clear that more young players are getting Tommy Johns.
As for the reasons why, it may be a matter of work ethic – but not in the way Anderson seemed to suggest. Indeed, too much work ethic may be the culprit. Over the past few years, several reports have indicated that young pitchers try to work too hard by playing year-round, accelerating wear and tear on their pitching arms. Combined with suboptimal mechanics, overuse is probably the biggest cause Tommy John surgeries in younger players. If anything, their work ethic needs some healthy discouragement.
None of this is to judge Anderson and Schroeder too harshly. They’ve vastly enhanced the experience of Brewers fans over the years, and during a disappointing season, the work they do to keep us interested in the broadcast is commendable. And for all I know, the Tommy John topic came back up later and they revised their previous remarks (although I was watching the game, the sound wasn’t always on). But since their opinions carry a fair amount of weight with Brewers fans, it’s worth pointing out when they make honest mistakes.
As for Schroeder’s oft expressed conservative views on instant reply, I would suggest those can be judged much more harshly.