Part of the fallout of the news of Zack Wheeler‘s impending Tommy John (TJ) surgery has been the commentary on the way in which the Mets managed his innings and (later reported) ailments last season. There have been plenty of Monday morning doctors, fueled by tidbits of information spun into speculation by the media, suggesting that the team handled his workload and pain improperly while ignoring warning signs that his elbow was a ticking time-bomb. Wheeler has denied this, as has his agent. Still, the perception remains that the Mets are at fault and sparked an interesting exchange on Twitter.
In response to an Adam Rubin “tweet”, a fan voiced their disgust for the way the Mets handled the whole affair. That charming message was subsequently responded to by, of all people, former pitcher and potential Hall of Famer Curt Schilling. Schilling came to the Mets’ defense by essentially stating that these things happen, no matter how much a team tries to prevent it (see Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, etc.).
One of the most interesting tidbits to come out of the exchange was the claim that the Mets, as a team, have had 25 TJ surgeries since 2005. That includes both major leaguers and minor leaguers and was allegedly the third highest since that time. That seemed a bit high, but was it true?
It turns out that it’s mostly true. That linked spreadsheet is maintained within the Disabled List Data section of the Baseball Heat Maps website and shows that the Mets have, in fact, had players undergo the surgery 25 times since (and including) 2005. Note that this includes the forthcoming Wheeler procedure as well. While that is the third highest in the National League, it’s actually fifth highest in all of baseball. Texas, Atlanta, Los Angeles (NL), and Oakland top the list in front of the Mets, for what it’s worth.
That seems like a high number for such a short time period. However, the surgery has become much more commonplace in the last decade or so and the number of procedures has skyrocketed across baseball. In case you hadn’t heard, it’s become a bit of a thing. It’s a serious issue with no real answers yet, though the causes are potentially coming into focus.
Just how common has it become? Consider this: the Mets as an organization have only had a total of 33 ever (again, including Wheeler). That means that 75% of the total procedures for Mets players have occurred in the last ten years. That’s not unique to the Mets, either. Of Texas’ 48 total procedures, 33 of them have occurred since 2005. For Atlanta it’s 32 out of 47. You get the point.
This info was briefly touched on at MetsBlog a few days ago where Matt Cerrone asked if the Mets were unlucky or if the cause for such a high number was the result of some broader organizational strategy. It’s a valid question, especially considering that the Mets and their fans seem to frequently be at the wrong end of the wrath of the baseball gods.
To add a bit of context, let’s take a look at the list of Mets players to have the surgery since 2005.
|Zack Wheeler||Adam O’Neill|
|Josh Edgin||Steven Matz|
|Jeremy Hefner||Jacob deGrom|
|Chris Flexen||John Holdzkom|
|Jeff Walters||Billy Wagner|
|Tyler Bashlor||Michael Olmsted|
|Bobby Parnell||Salvador Aguilar|
|Matt Harvey||Ambiorix Burgos|
|Luis Mateo||Ryota Igarashi|
|Mike Pelfrey||Victor Zambrano|
|Daniel Herrera||Juan Padilla|
|Jenrry Mejia||Philip Humber|
That’s quite a mix of players. There are players that required the surgery shortly after being drafted (deGrom, Matz, Flexen). There are players who spent most of their professional careers with other organizations (Wagner, Igarashi, Zambrano). Then there are players who spent their whole careers in the Mets organization (Harvey, Pelfrey, Parnell, Edgin, Mejia). Even with that last group of players you could point to pre-draft factors, like the crazy amount of innings Harvey pitched during points of his career at the University of North Carolina. Sure, the Mets completely bombed on Pelfrey’s development and Edgin is facing the Mets left-handers’ curse, but that list is so varied you could not honestly say there are clear indicators that the Mets as an organization are actively contributing to the rash of surgeries with their pitching philosophy.
So is it really bad luck that is the cause of the Mets string of TJ surgeries? Probably, at least a little bit. One of the evolving theories behind the rise of TJ surgeries baseball-wide links the cause back to heavy usage before players even sign their professional contracts. School-age players are playing baseball, and baseball only, essentially year round for the first time ever. These one-sport athletes have more mileage on their arms than ever before.
Should professional teams attempt to trace a potential draftee’s usage all the way back to elementary school before making the selection? Beyond taking those drastic steps, prior mileage leading to potential future TJ surgery is a crapshoot for these teams. Of course the Mets’ affection for young flamethrowers, those pitchers that may be at higher risk, could be contributing to their high number as well.
The fact remains that TJ surgery appears to be a part of the game that teams must now factor into their strategy as a possibility. The Mets actually seem to have done that, so the losses of Wheeler and Edgin this year won’t hurt as much as it may have hurt other teams with less pitching depth. The prevailing attitude around the game at this point is that TJ surgery is an inevitability. If that remains the case, pitching depth will be one of the greatest assets this Mets team will have going for it for the foreseeable future. So far so good, as bittersweet as it may be.