With news coming down Tuesday that Noah Syndergaard is the latest MLB flamethrower that needs Tommy John surgery, it seems inevitable for any pitcher who throws above 95-mph will need the dreaded operation performed at some point in their career.
Tommy John is suggested when a pitcher has a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow making it very painful to throw the baseball. As of 2019, more than 500 pitchers have needed Tommy John and that number has only risen since Chris Sale, Luis Severino, and Syndergaard have all been added to that list in 2020. Which begs the question, why is Tommy John always a need for pitchers who throw hard?
If we examine pitcher velocities over the past few years, they have only gone up. We live in an era of baseball now where pitchers throw as hard as they possibly can no matter what. The fact of the matter is the arm simply can’t hold up. It doesn’t factor how big you are, or how strong you are, the human arm is not built to throw a 98-mph fastball and then on the next pitch, slow the arm up and drop a 90-mph slider, which is essential to Syndergaard’s arsenal.
One thing MLB scouts consistently look for in young arms is velocity. If a youngster throws hard, more often than not they will be drafted just on the MPH they throw, and the control will come later. But signing a flamethrower to a five-year deal, MLB teams must factor in Tommy John will consume at least one of those five years due to the yearlong recovery process.
Signing a long-term contract for a flamethrower who hasn’t gone through Tommy John yet is a smart baseball decision but a poor business decision. Take Severino for example, the Yankees signed him to a four-year, $40 million-dollar contract two years ago. Missing all of last year due to injury cost the Yankees the first $ 10 million of his contract and now Tommy John is costing another $10 million roughly adding a total of $20 million over two years wasted for Severino to ride the pine.
General managers have to take into account when signing pitchers who sit around 95-mph that Tommy John is most likely going to come up within the respectable years stated in the contract.
Though its likely flamethrowers are the ones who are susceptible to Tommy John, it doesn’t mean control pitchers are immune to it. Control pitchers don’t throw that hard but tend to locate better since they can’t get away with many pitches over the heart of the plate. Wear and tear on the elbow does happen with control pitchers as well, but some can get around not having Tommy John.
Look at Masahiro Tanaka for the Yankees. A control guy who relies on keeping the ball down in the zone and movement of pitches to get batters out. He has survived over the last six years with a partial torn UCL after being diagnosed with the injury back in 2014.
Tanaka has proven you can still win going 75-43 with a 3.75 ERA throughout that span of time. Of course, Tanaka rehabbed and built his strength up from the partially torn ligament, but he’s gone out and competed to win, even with a partial UCL tear. If Tanaka was a flamethrower there is no doubt, he would have missed a full year with the Yankees due to needing Tommy John.
The alternate route for control guys is rehab, like Tanaka did. By building the strength up in the elbow and becoming stronger, control pitchers have a way out of Tommy John. Unfortunately, flamethrowers can’t travel down the same path.
Throwing a baseball as hard as one possibly can is just as risky as it is tempting. MLB teams are always going to reward the flamethrowers but must not forget, it may come with an inevitable price.