Tommy John Kids: Baseball's Development Problem and a Few Sleepers for '08

Will NortonCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2008

The medical procedure known as “Tommy John” surgery has become just another common feature of the jargon surrounding today’s brand of professional baseball.

In my eyes, the frequency of this surgery—and our newfound familiarity with the term—is the product of short-sighted errors made throughout the development process of young pitchers.

So many young kids are urged to develop violent, explosive breaking balls at a very young age. Instead of focusing on mechanics, technique, first-pitch strikes, and the deadliness of a deceptive change-up, young pitchers facing improved competition are urged to develop their breaking stuff.

Faulty mechanics and fatigue tend to set in as pitch counts rise—factors that make throwing breaking balls even more strenuous on joints and tendons. Many kids over-compensate instead of anchoring their delivery with a strong lower frame

For those lucky enough to progress up in the professional ranks, premature development of breaking stuff can be a mistake that follows them forever.

By the time they are 20 years old and playing in college, the minors, or the pros (and still maturing physically, I might add), they have significantly damaged their physical development and have caused irreparable damage to their prized arms.  

What follows sounds all too familiar: torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, strained elbow tendon...

Tommy John.

I bring up this procedure and its ill-conceived precursors both because I find it troubling that so many young kids develop such serious arm injuries early in their careers, and because we have a number of Tommy John-ers returning to the hill this year with mixed expectations.

In 2006 B.J Ryan absolutely dominated opposing batters en route to 38 saves and a paltry 1.37 ERA.

One year later he saved zero games, pitched a total of four innings, and was scheduled for Tommy John surgery.

Similarly in ’06, Francisco Liriano came out of the pen midseason for the Twins and immediately drew comparisons to a young Johan Santana. Liriano dazzled on the bump, notching 12 wins in just 16 starts while striking out 144 batters in 121 innings pitched.

At the end of the season, however, it was revealed that all those exploding sliders had taken a toll on young Liriano's elbow. Tommy John was needed to reconstruct his elbow, and his 2007 was lost.

Ryan and Liriano both have immense upside when healthy and they highlight some intriguing rebound candidates coming into the 2008 season.

Here’s a look at four players who were banged up ’07 but could be great in ’08.


Pedro Martinez, SP, New York Mets

Pedro isn’t going to gas it up at 98 mph anymore, and his overall stuff is unquestionably less explosive than it once was. But don’t lose all faith in the Gheri Curl just yet.

Last year was, essentially, a test run for Pedro, following complete reconstructive surgery on his right rotator cuff.

He went through a drawn-out rehabilitation process, a tight pitch count when he returned, and a whole lot of skepticism from the Mets' upper management regarding the health of his shoulder.

All that said, and Pedro still managed over 1K/INN and put together an impressive string of starts to end the year. He has also looked impressive and sharp this spring.

And never forget this important intangible tidbit: no one operates on the rubber with more pride than Pedro.

A big bounce back year is in the cards.


Francisco Liriano, SP, Minnesota Twins

While there is little doubt that Liriano might take a while getting back to his pre-Tommy John self, there should be little doubt regarding what this kid can do when healthy.

He is a prototypical front of the rotation lefty, and could carry a young Twins' staff to the playoffs this year.

How the Twins handle Liriano’s pitch count and the left-handers command will be key things to watch in spring. I would imagine young Francisco will cut down on the amount of sliders he throws for the entire ’08 campaign.

That was his best, most dynamic pitch during his breakout year, so don’t expect the gaudy strikeout numbers we grew accustomed to in 2006.


Randy Johnson, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks

Okay, let me make this clear. The Big Unit probably isn’t going to make more than 20-25 starts, at very most, this season.

He will at some point go down with injury. And when he does, the chances of him coming back are, well, as tenuous as they’ve always been.

That said, this 44-year-old southpaw showed last year that he can still be his dominant old self. The 10-strikeout games were back, the dominant one-hitters were back, the old Unit was back.

You can’t expect 200 innings out of Johnson at this age, but if he can give the D-Backs even 140 innings of 3.00 ERA ball, that will go a long way in solidifying Arizona as beasts of the NL West.


B.J. Ryan, RP, Toronto Blue Jays

We all know how dominant and filthy Ryan can be when healthy. He operates with that devastating herky-jerky motion, and has pure stuff as powerful and deceptive as it comes.

It’s scary to think how good that Toronto bullpen could have been with a healthy Ryan in 2007.

Now that he has returned—and all reports so far have been positive—the Jays can slot Jeremy Accardo into the eighth inning setup role and extend their top bullpen arms into the middle innings.

This depth added to an already formidable Toronto pitching staff could mean great things for the Jays in ’08.


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