Why Matt Harvey Will Likely Return from Tommy John Surgery as Good as Ever

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Why Matt Harvey Will Likely Return from Tommy John Surgery as Good as Ever

The Mets announced today that Matt Harvey, their young ace, will have Tommy John surgery to repair a sprained ligament in his elbow:

This is not unexpected, as I noted in this previous Bleacher Report article. This was not so much a decision made by Harvey and his doctors, but a reaction to an inevitability.

Harvey tried a course of rehabilitation in hopes that the incomplete tearing in his ligament would heal on his own. There were even discussions about whether Harvey could test his arm in competition by pitching in the Arizona Fall League. It is now clear that it didn't work.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen Strasburg hasn't missed a beat since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010.

Harvey will now miss most if not all of the 2014 season. The normal recovery period is nine to 12 months for most major league pitchers. With a success rate of over 90 percent, there is a great likelihood of Harvey returning for the 2015 and quickly rediscovering to his dominating ways. Stephen Strasburg is just the most recent example of a pitcher that successfully returned.

In fact, a study done as part of my Tommy John series this summer showed that one third of major league pitchers would not be pitching if not for the elbow surgery. Like most of them, Harvey should see a standard rehab period that could allow him back onto a mound by late in the 2014 season. Given the timing, it's unlikely, but possible, that the Mets would use him at the major league level, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see a couple starts at a lower level, perhaps at nearby Brooklyn (A). 

There is simply no right and wrong in this news. This was a medical decision, and there was no other choice.

Harvey and the Mets were right to take every chance to avoid a lost season. Harvey had to be allowed to come to the same conclusion, that there was nothing else that he could do to keep pitching effectively, aside from allowing a surgeon to replace his elbow ligament.

The return isn't automatic, however. The rehab is long and arduous. There are failures, such as when the ligament failed in rehab for Daniel Hudson of the Diamondbacks, an exceptionally rare circumstance. Other pitchers struggled in their returns, such as Joe Nathan or Francisco Liriano, though both returned to being effective after an extended period. 

One can only hope that the Mets and Harvey use this rehab as a learning experience. Once Harvey gets back to throwing off a mound, he should have a biomechanical evaluation to see whether his motion is problematic.

Otherwise, Harvey could be headed for a second surgery down the line, an outcome that is becoming far more common as doctors see younger and younger patients needing the surgery. (I'd also hope that the Mets might send their other young starters, such as Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, for this type of evaluation. There's some indication that the Mets are doing more on this front.)

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Dylan Bundy had Tommy John surgery in June of 2013.

Just as Orioles fans hope they'll get Dylan Bundy back as good as new, Mets fans now have to look to the future. If there's any comfort, it's that data shows that there's no loss of velocity or effectiveness in most pitchers returning from the operation. While the myth that pitchers throw harder after Tommy John has been busted, they do come back to previous levels. There's also no data that shows any sort of change in the pitches they can throw. 

It's a bit depressing to have any young pitcher lose a year to a surgery like this. It's even more troubling after the Mets did most things right. Harvey wasn't overworked. There were no medical issues. They were conscious of his workload. But the injury still happened, as it happens to far too many young pitchers. 

The next step for Harvey is to set a date. Once that happens, Mets fans can move to the next stage, circling a date on the calendar for their ace's return. He's coming back, just not in 2014.

 

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