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The Bomber Blaze

Is Tommy John Surgery Becoming More Frequent In Baseball?

Devin Baker, Staff Writer

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Tommy John was a major league pitcher in the 1970’s, a two time All Star, who tore his ulnar collateral ligament or UCL. This injury significantly ruined John’s career, so the injury and surgery required to fix it began to be known as Tommy John. Baseball players do everything they can to take care of their shoulders and arms, whether that’s stretching, playing catch, using j-bands or lifting weights but preventing TJ hasn’t been as effective as it has in the past.

Tommy John is a year long injury because surgeons replace the torn UCL, a ligament in the elbow, with a tendon. UCLs are the most important ligament in your arm. It allows you to extend the arm and throw for a high velocity. Baseball players are tearing their UCL’s a lot more frequently today than in the past mainly because players are trying to throw harder at a younger age by using weighted balls and other velocity improving tools, but it’s not good for the arm and results in torn ulnar collateral ligaments.

Joe Mangameli is an assistant baseball coach at Eastern Connecticut State University. He stated,  “Tommy John is becoming more frequent because more and more high school and college players are playing baseball year long. Without the proper stretching and routine the arm just can’t handle it and this is the result of it. It is also frequent when players have bad throwing motions which cause pain to the elbow.” “None of my players at Eastern have received TJ surgery but in the summer I coach travel baseball and two high schoolers this summer tore their UCL’s and are rehabbing now.”

“TJ won’t ruin a player’s career. It will make you miss a full year of playing but it won’t ruin your career. In fact, if you rehab correctly which most people do then you will come back throwing harder because when they replace the UCL with another tendon your elbow is stronger and tighter allowing you to get more torch.”

TJ is a bad thing to receive but it does have a positive side to it if athletes rehab correctly. Pitchers who have had TJ surgery and rehabbed successfully can increase their velocity. Going from throwing 95mph to throwing 97mph doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is. Mangameli said, “Gaining two or three mph is real beneficial because you are making a hitter have to react a tenth or two tenths of a second faster which is clearly giving the pitcher the advantage especially if they are able to pound the zone with a curve.”

According to Mangameli, “Pitchers won’t tear their UCL’s just to receive TJ so they can throw harder because they are going to miss a full season and they might not come back fully healthy. So it’s not worth the risk of ruining the player’s career.”

MLB players who have received Tommy John surgery include Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, John Smoltz and Kris Medlen.  For Strasburg and Smoltz TJ surgery helped their careers because they rehabbed correctly, but for Harvey and Medlen their careers were significantly ruined because their arms couldn’t get back to where they were before the surgery.

Since 1978 an estimated 525 players in the major and minor league level receive TJ surgery. The number has peaked lately with 30 players receiving TJ in 2014 and 2015 along with 20 receiving TJ in 2016. Players, coaches and trainers need to find a way to limit the stress on UCLs otherwise the number of TJ surgeries are just going to continue to increase which is not good for the players or the game.

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Is Tommy John Surgery Becoming More Frequent In Baseball?