Are the Mets to blame for their Tommy John surgeries?

Harvey injuryPart 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.

13 comments for “Are the Mets to blame for their Tommy John surgeries?

  1. Joe F
    March 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Wheeler was quoted as saying he knew TJS was only a matter of time. Too much variance with all of these players to draw any correlation.

  2. Scott Ferguson
    March 21, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    I think the team’s who have had fewer surgeries are actually lucky as opposed to the Mets and other teams being unlucky. I think the much higher usage when kids are maturing as teenagers and college students is more to blame. People talk about usage now with Wheeler but take a look at pitchers in the 60s and 70s. 250 plus innings was normal for the top two pitchers in the rotation. That’s a lot of mileage on an arm, but since most of it occurred as adults, the body obviously was able to handle the stress better.

    • March 23, 2015 at 12:41 am

      A couple of thoughts about your comments. Did pitchers back then throw with the inverted W? Since that is being claimed to be an issue today for a pitcher to be more prone to injury. Second, today as in the past Latin players play All year long. Whether it be in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela etc… Of the total amount of pitchers over the past 5 years who have had TJ surgery what percentage is Latin? I would imagine if they constitute 20% of all starters there should be a direct correlation of 20% with TJ surgery. I believe the number is much lower. Scott there has to be a reason. Luck has nothing to do with it. The Mets have nearly double the amount of TJ surgeries for pitchers than the Brewers.

  3. Matt Netter
    March 21, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    There was a recent study that was covered by the NY Times that demonstrated that the fastball is actually the pitch that puts the most stress on the elbow. In high school they worry about curveballs and in the minors they tell pitchers to stay away from the screwball. All along this assumption has been wrong. The flame throwers are most susceptible. Ron Darling and others put some blame on scout’s over reliance on the radar gun and radar guns being introduced as early as little league. Every young pitcher tries to throw it through a brick wall.

  4. Seaverbeliever
    March 21, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    The time has come to draft ’em and cut ’em. Sounds harsh but maybe, just give ’em all the TJS before they even get started. Get it out of the way and then develop these young arms.

    • Patrick Albanesius
      March 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      That’s a rather bad attitude to take toward the health of young men. These organizations are for the most part pitching-heavy in development. Last year Atlanta proved that rule again with their devastating pitching loses. The only thing organizations can do is to have as much pitching depth as possible, so that when guys do go down, naturally, others can help take over. Snipping someone’s ligament for the sake of a game is one step closer to ocular implants and what constitutes a fair versus unfair advantage. Like amputee blade runners have to deal with. Maybe you meant it as a joke, and if I’m taking this too personal, my apologies. I just know that if I was just drafted by a team that told me I’d need surgery on an elbow that feels no pain, I’d quit the sport.

  5. Steevy
    March 21, 2015 at 11:23 pm

    Replace their arms with bionic arms as soon as you draft them. 🙂

  6. March 21, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    When in doubt blame it on bad luck? Why Rob? Doesn’t make sense so just shrug your shoulders? Is that what the Mets do? Who is on the bottom of the list with the least amount of TJ surgeries? Then why not investigate why such a large discrepancy exist? If you don’t expand your figures with years as you did taking 10 years it means the Mets pitchers in the past five years are more apt to have TJ surgery. Why? I said in another post if pitching in pain in an elbow throughout the year is okay then there’s something wrong with this organization. Didn’t Sandy acknowledge that the team was aware and what did he do? The same as you Rob! Just shrugged his shoulders and said Oh well bad luck Was Fred afraid if Wheeler was shut down, the Met fans would stop coming to Citifield? I know it’s cynical but Fred and Jeff only care about maintaining control of the Mets. Attendance drops and the creditors don’t see the Mets as a safe investment. Good-bye Fred and Jeff.

    • March 22, 2015 at 7:57 am

      Hi, Pete. Thanks for reading!

      It’s not really a matter of just shrugging my shoulders. At this point, and based on the (lack) of evidence, there doesn’t seem to be clear indicators of abuse/mistakes by the organization as a whole. There are certainly isolated cases, like Mejia, where the team (more specifically the GM and manager on the hot seat) was clearly in the wrong and put the health and development of the pitcher at risk. Beyond that, and including Wheeler and Harvey, the team did seemingly everything they could to avoid this, including specialized development plans where they incremented their yearly workload in the minors.

      We can be mad at the Wilpons for so, so many things, but I don’t believe this is one of them. At least at this point. Hey, maybe in a couple of years there will be some explosive report outlining massive pitcher abuse in the Mets organization. Unless that happens, it really doesn’t seem like the team (from the outside) is doing anything inherently wrong here. I mean if that was the case we’d have to think about what the Rangers, Braves, A’s, and Dodgers are doing to destroy their pitchers as well.

      The bottom of the (10 year) list is Milwaukee with 13. Why have they had so few? Is it a matter of the organization simply not going the TJ route with their pitchers, or perhaps they don’t tend to acquire the types of pitchers that are at risk? Even with their low numbers, some of their best pitchers over the years (Sheets, Capuano) have needed the surgery too. This is something that seems to require more research, as you say.

  7. March 22, 2015 at 8:42 am

    Rob I agree. Too many variables to imply or infer anything that might be construed as immoral or evasive on the part of ownership. But Ron the difference is 50% less by Milwaukee. My main complaint is taking issue with Alderson confirming that Wheeler pitch All of last season with not soreness but pain in his elbow. What did Alderson say? Well at least he was able to pitch through it and make 32 starts? If the team knew that rest did not help with the pain then why continue to pitch Wheeler? Why did it take a third MRI this spring training to discover the tear when Wheeler was in pain throughout all of 2014? Something stinks in Queens.

  8. DED
    March 22, 2015 at 10:04 am

    When I was a youngster I subscribed to Sport Magazine, a great read that I doubt many of you remember. There was a particular article that impressed me, and has remained a point of reference ever since.

    The title was something like “The Limits of Sports Records,” and it discussed just how fast a human could theoretically run, how high he might jump and so on, giving what we know about the limits of the human frame. Regardless of how much muscle mass a person develops, there will come a point where the supporting structure will simply fail. The article went on to set limits for various athletic records.

    I think about this in connection to football injuries as players have become larger and faster — at some level of mass colliding with mass at increased speed, it won’t matter what kind of protective gear you wear — and with the increase of Tommy John surgery in baseball as well. Consider: in the 1960’s, Don Drysdale was considered a classic intimidator, largely because of his unusual height and his somewhat sidearm delivery. Drysdale was about 6′ 4″ tall; the Mets have maybe four guys as tall, three of whom are or will be Tommy John patients. And everybody, or nearly everybody throws hard nowadays.

    I think baseball is bumping into the limits of what the human frame can do without injury, as each generation grows bigger. I believe it is really that simple.

    • norme
      March 22, 2015 at 5:52 pm

      I loved the monthly Sport magazine. Glad I’m not the only one who remembers.

      Your point on physical limits is well taken, especially when such factors as extended baseball seasons for youngsters (traveling teams, fall ball, etc.) add to the wear and tear on their arms. Then there is the often cited use of radar guns and the emphasis on high velocity readings.

  9. Patrick Albanesius
    March 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Great article Rob!

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