What’s the Reason for All the Tommy John Surgeries?

Tommy John Surgeries

More than 30 years ago, a pro scout saw a young baseball player pitching in a summer youth game, and the scout was impressed with what he saw. The lefthander had nice form and got the ball over the plate. He didn’t show blazing speed, but he got batters out.

The scout cornered the pitcher after the game and asked when he could see him pitch again. “Next year in the spring,” was the answer he got, “when the high school baseball season starts.” The young pitcher was also a hockey player, and he would put his baseball gear away for five months to play other sports. But he liked baseball and returned to pitching once it was baseball season.

He excelled and was eventually drafted by a pro team. He had his first official pitching lesson after he signed his first professional contract. His name was Tom Glavine. He pitched for 22 years in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, won 305 games and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.

Tom Glavine never had any arm trouble during his career. He made it to the Majors and had a great career even though baseball wasn’t an everyday obsession when he was a youngster.

It’s easy to imagine a lot of parents, coaches and scouts reading that story and saying, “It doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Indeed, it doesn’t. Just ask those young pitchers whose careers were over after their first Major League season.

Bad arms means bad news.

If you go to the Major League Baseball injury update, you can see a list of all the players who are currently out (June 2015) due to injury. About 35 of those names are pitchers who are out specifically because of a UCL injury. That’s an increase over last year, which also marked an increase in that injury.

UCL stands for ulnar collateral ligament…but very often today it’s also referred to as the “Tommy John ligament.” That’s because the operation needed to repair the tear in the ligament is called simply Tommy John surgery, named after the first pitcher to undergo the breakthrough surgery, in 1974.

Every baseball fan knows what that means. Arm trouble. Out for the season. Bad news for the pitcher and the team and your fantasy league choices.


Scratched from the roster.

Over the past 10 years, the number of Major Leaguers requiring Tommy John surgery has soared—to the point where some people refer to it as almost an epidemic.

What’s going on in Major League Baseball? Where do all these bad arms come from? What are pitchers, or their teams, doing differently, or wrong, from what was done before?

The answer to that question from the medical experts—from the doctors who perform all those Tommy John surgeries and learn about their patients—is this: Young pitchers are coming in to the Major Leagues as damaged goods. With each passing year, more young pitchers entering the league are Tommy John surgeries just waiting to happen.


Young pitchers are being overworked, from a very young age.

What’s the reason for that? Young pitchers, ages nine through high school and college age, are simply throwing too hard and too often—week after week, month after month, and year after year.

By throwing so hard so often, a pitcher causes constant strain and stress on his arm and ligament, slowly creating a tear. If he is somehow lucky enough to avoid the problem before he gets to college, the ligament will still likely give out at some point, under the strain of trying to throw at top velocity.

But statistics don’t lie. More young pitchers than ever before are having surgery on their elbows. And we’re not just talking about Major League rookies.


Tommy John surgery is becoming a predictable outcome.

If you have a son or daughter who is playing ball—and they have that dream of making it to college or beyond—then you probably know what the reasons are:

There is a tremendous amount of pressure put on young baseball players to play year-round baseball. The same goes with girls who play softball. They are encouraged to play throughout the year, on different teams and in different leagues, sometimes simultaneously.

The players put the pressure on themselves to perform at their highest level.

Different coaches put pressure on the best local players (and especially pitchers) to join their teams.

Parents put pressure on kids to stay ahead of the competition and make a name for themselves, so that college or pro scouts will take notice.

And baseball scouts put pressure on kids to throw as fast as they can, especially at special “showcase” events put together to evaluate talent.

That pressure leads to a different kind of stress—that on the elbows of young pitchers as they throw as much as they can with as much velocity as they can, to get strikeouts, wins and a coveted spot on a team roster. That stress does steadily wear on the UCL.

That’s why youngsters as young as 10 often start developing arm trouble. Yes, sometimes it’s mechanics—the form isn’t quite right—but typically it’s just throwing too much.

Following the doctors’ advice.

Dr. James R. Andrews is one of the leading authorities on sports injuries today, including UCL tears and the resulting Tommy John surgeries. He’s also an advocate for spreading the news to parents, grandparents, coaches and organized youth baseball—starting with Little League—about the factors that can contribute to arm problems.

What he advises everyone to do runs against what actually takes place around the country in baseball communities:

Avoid year-round baseball.

Young arms are being overworked, and a big factor is year-round baseball.

The doctor recommends at least two full months off every year from throwing-related sports, but he’d prefer if they had up to four months off. He points out that even professional ballplayers get that much time off each year.


Play on just one team at a time.

When pitchers jump leagues in the same season, it’s harder to keep tabs on wear and tear. Playing on two teams simultaneously simply adds to the strain and stress on the ligaments, especially if the player’s mechanics are a bit off—and not many coaches are trained well enough to know when that is.


Stay away from showcases.

The chance of coming away with an injury outweighs the possibility that a player will be discovered. These showcases don’t mean nearly as much as parents think they do, and they can produce serious injuries over a concentrated weekend period. It’s not uncommon for pitchers to attend a college camp or showcase without having pitched a game in real time for months.


Probability and statistics.

The chances of making a high school baseball team are slim to begin with for most young ballplayers. The chances of making it to a college team are slimmer yet. The same with getting drafted by a pro team right out of college.

So the question players, parents and coaches have to ask themselves is this: Is it really worth it to risk a serious arm injury for the thousands of pitchers who will never even make it very far?


Photo: http://www.wrcbtv.com/story/22764276/central-grad-gets-relief-from-dodgers-in-tommy-john-rehab