Stephen Strasburg Injury: Will He Recover from Tommy John Surgery?

It’s a crying shame, no doubt about it. But we had to see it coming or at least not be surprised by it. After all, we’re familiar with the list: Mark Prior, Ben McDonald, Generation K, Mark Mulder…

So while the news that Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will likely need Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of this season and all of 2011 is terribly upsetting, it’s not shocking.

Of course, that’s the last thing the Nationals’ management wants to hear.

CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell provides great information on the economics of Strasburg. Rovell says that Strasburg’s starts brought in over 10,000 additional fans to Nationals Park, which translates to more than $320,000 (extra) in ticket sales per start. Strasburg made seven starts, so that’s about $2.3 million. Throw in concessions and parking and you arrive at an estimated $3 million.

The Nationals gave Strasburg the largest contract ever for a drafted player when they agreed to pay him $15.1 million over four years, half of which was paid as a signing bonus. All of that money is guaranteed.

Strasburg was on his way to recouping at least the bonus in 2010 alone. But the injury will ensure that he won’t give the Nats any return on their investment until 2012.

From the teams’ perspective, Strasburg’s injury is yet another example of why no pitcher deserves that kind of guaranteed money. So many of them get injured (and, believe it or not, some stay healthy and still don’t blossom into stars) that it’s hard to justify giving a pitcher such a big contract.

Strasburg during his MLB debut, easily the most-hyped of the last 20 years. (Credit: dbking)

Strasburg, though, is such a unique case. He was hyped up so much and was so good in his limited action that the buzz he generated translated into millions for his franchise. If Strasburg can in fact come back and pitch in 2012—more on that in a bit—and create the same type of excitement in Washington, DC (I hesitate to call them “Nationals fans”) that he did in his debut season, he could still prove to be worth the investment.

The Effects of Tommy John Surgery

In an ironic twist, Jordan Zimmermann started for the Washington Nationals the day before the team announced the extent of Strasburg’s injury. Nationals Strasburg fans feeling as if their world is over should look to Zimmermann, who had Tommy John surgery in August of 2009. His road to complete recovery took a full year, but no longer.

Given that Strasburg will have surgery even later in the year than Zimermann did, it’s reasonable to assume that even if he were ready to go by September 2011 he would not return to the Nationals’ rotation until Opening Day 2012. In other words, even with an unusually long recovery he should be able to meet his expected return date.

But will he be the same? We’ve all heard this before: No two surgeries are alike. But given his skills and competitiveness, there are some comparable pitchers to analyze.

If there’s truly nothing wrong with Strasburg’s shoulder and it’s simply his elbow that needs work, it’s fair to expect he’ll make a full recovery. Modern medicine is an incredible thing, and has recently done wonders for a long list of aces.

Player Date of Surgery Date of Return
Josh Johnson August 2007 July 2008
Chris Carpenter April 2007 July 2008
Tim Hudson    August 2008  September 2009
A.J. Burnett       April 2003       June 2004
Jaime Garcia  after 2008 season  September 2009
Ryan Dempster    August 2003  September 2004
Carl Pavano       May 2007       July 2008
Shaun Marcum  September 2008       July 2009

As this table shows, Strasburg should be ready to pitch next September, but unless the Nats are miraculously competing for a playoff spot, there’s absolutely no reason to let him pitch in the majors until 2012.

The pitchers on this list not only came back somewhere around 12 months after having Tommy John surgery, but returned to pre-injury form. Johnson, the Florida Marlins ace, is an incredible story. He was in the big leagues only 11 months after surgery and went 7-1 that season. He was a 15-game winner a season ago and currently sports a 2.36 ERA.

Hudson is having an even better season. His 2.24 ERA is third best in the league. In St. Louis, a pair of “Tommy Johners” are performing well. Carpenter, second in the Cy Young voting last season, has 14 wins and sub-3 ERA. Garcia, who pitched in the minors last year before earning a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation at the start of this season, is a favorite for the Rookie of the Year award.

Over in the American League, Pavano is having a nice comeback season with Minnesota (15 wins). Marcum, who like Garcia first returned to the minors before being named Toronto’s Opening Day starter in 2010, is also pitching well—he had a one-hitter earlier this month.

Skeptics will point to pitchers like Mike Hampton, B.J. Ryan, and Darren Dreifort, guys who never returned to pre-injury form after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But it seems that for most pitchers who had the surgery in the past 10 years, there is usually an explanation when it doesn’t work out. Hampton had several other injuries, as did Dreifort, who missed time for knee, hip, and shoulder problems. Ryan’s velocity never really returned, but he had such an unconventional throwing motion that it’s possible he had shoulder issues as well.

Consider this: nine pitchers selected to the 2010 All Star game—including standout closers Billy Wagner, Joakim Soria, and Brian Wilson—had Tommy John surgery at some point.

My guess: Strasburg comes back and is just as effective as before. Like Prior, Strasburg does have a lot of “arm action” in his delivery, so whether he re-injures his arm like Prior did several times (although he never had Tommy John surgery) is another story.

Note: I wasn’t going to mention Rob Dibble, but I couldn’t help myself. For those of you who don’t know, Dibble is a former major league pitcher who is now the color commentator for the Washington Nationals television network.

My friend Eric, who lives in DC, made me aware of Dibble’s shenanigans months ago. Forced to listen to him if he wants to watch baseball on TV, Eric described Dibble as a huge homer who constantly shouts ridiculous phrases. While watching online video highlights of a Mets-Nats game a few months ago, I was able to confirm this. More recently, I came across an article pointing out how Dibble argues with the home plate umpire despite replays showing the calls were clearly correct.

Dibble is one of many (but perhaps the most frustrating example) who gets paid to cover sports despite being severely unqualified. It obviously helps that Dibble was a big leaguer—a two-time All Star who had a blazing fastball and a nasty temper, but whose career was cut short because of arm injuries.

Dibble’s own career path makes his latest statement on Strasburg even more troubling. In response to Strasburg’s removal from last weekend’s game against the Phillies, Dibble, on his Sirius XM Radio show (this guy is employed by two organizations?!) said, “OK, you throw a pitch, it bothers your arm, and you immediately call out the manager and the trainer? Suck it up, kid. This is your profession. You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow.”

He wasn’t done. “Stop crying, go out there and pitch. Period.” There’s more, but you get the point. Dibble got hammered by the media for his comments even before it was announced that Strasburg would need surgery. Now that it’s clear—as if it wasn’t already—that Strasburg was not “crying” about nothing, Dibble looks like an even bigger fool, if that’s possible.

To their credit, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has removed Dibble from the broadcast booth since he made his ridiculous comments, and it was recently announced he wouldn’t be making the upcoming road trip either.

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