Given the number of pitchers who are entering 2013 coming off injuries to their throwing arms, we decided to craft a quick status update list on some of the more intriguing names as the season gets underway. Given that some of these players still have a ways to go in their recovery, consider the timeline fluid and subject to change. For the purposes of ascertaining where these players stand coming out of spring training however, this is our guide.
With elbow surgery becoming virtually commonplace in pitchers, we almost take for granted that they will return to their prior level of performance. But the complexity of the surgery and the variables which can impact recovery affect each athlete differently and should not be overlooked. For more detail on the process of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, commonly referred to as Tommy John (TJ) surgery, please see below.
CC Sabathia, LHP, New York Yankees: Surgery to address bone spur, Oct. 25, 2012. Sabathia reluctantly went on the DL last year with swelling in his elbow, then underwent offseason surgery to address the source of the problem; his return this spring has been just how he prefers it -- uneventful -- and he is expected to be ready Opening Day; while he is racking up the years and the pitching miles, his overall durability remains impressive.
Chad Billingsley, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers: elbow inflammation and sprained UCL in 2012. Underwent PRP injections in fall and threw eight bullpens in offseason without incident, saying his elbow felt "normal" entering the spring; this spring he has sustained a groin ailment and a bruised index finger; Billingsley is still hopeful to start the season on time or close to it, but the recent history of a partial UCL tear warrants caution.
Jaime Garcia, LHP, St. Louis Cardinals: rotator cuff tear (small), no surgery, injured June 2012. Garcia opted for rehab over surgery and so far it seems to be working out for him; his shoulder has not given him any trouble this spring and he is expected to be ready to start the season as a part of the Cards rotation. The concern is whether his shoulder will hold up to a full season of pitching demands.
C.J. Wilson, LHP, Los Angeles Angels: surgery to address bone spur, Oct. 23, 2012. Has had no issues with the elbow this spring, although his performance has not been up to par; the latter should improve and his overall durability record should be an encouraging sign going forward.
Colby Lewis, RHP, Texas Rangers: flexor tendon repair, July 27, 2012. Progress has been steady and, after throwing bullpen sessions this spring, he is hoping to progress to live batting practice in early April; so far he remains on track for a late May/early June return. If he continues to progress this well, there could be a nice second half of the season in store.
Michael Pineda, RHP, New York Yankees: labral repair, May 1, 2012. Began throwing from a mound in February and added some breaking pitches in March; he won't be ready to return until around the middle of the season but he seems to be committed to the rehab and to being in better shape in general (reportedly having dropped about 20 pounds by this spring); it remains to be seen whether he can rediscover his dominant style but he's young enough that there's a reason to believe he can.
Ted Lilly, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers: labral repair, Sep. 21, 2012. Lilly has been remarkably durable but all good things must come to an end; his shoulder issues required surgery and at age 37 it's hard to know just how he'll bounce back; his spring outings have been limited by flu complications and he'll likely start the season on the DL with a chance to continue to progress his arm; hard to count on when his status appears uncertain.
Scott Baker, RHP, Chicago Cubs: TJ surgery April 17, 2012. Made spring debut in mid-March but inflammation afterward resulted in a shutdown for at least a month; will have to gradually resume throwing and continue to build strength. No firm timetable but could miss first couple months of season.
John Danks, LHP, Chicago White Sox: shoulder surgery Aug. 6, 2012. The surgery was for debridement of biceps tendon and rotator cuff and to repair a small capsular tear. Danks threw bullpens and live batting practice sessions this spring without incident but, as is often the case, struggled in game outings, particularly with velocity. Will open the season on the DL and it's unclear just how long he'll stay there.
John Lackey, RHP, Boston Red Sox: TJ surgery Nov. 1, 2011. If there's an upside to tearing your ulnar collateral ligament late in the year it's that you benefit from the season schedule to gain extra recovery time; Lackey is now almost 17 months post-surgery so recovery is not an issue, but he'll still need to regain the feel of competitive throwing; results may be inconsistent initially but he should be able to get through a full season.
Cory Luebke, LHP, San Diego Padres: TJ surgery and flexor tendon repair, May 23, 2012. Experienced some pain in his reconstructed elbow this spring, forcing a temporary shutdown. This is not unusual but it reinforces the notion that these recoveries cannot be rushed; his timetable suggests a return around midseason but that could always fluctuate, as could his performance in the early stages.
Frank Francisco, RHP, New York Mets: surgery to address bone spur in right elbow, Dec. 18, 2012. Began throwing from a mound in March and has only recently begun throwing to live hitters; still with some soreness and is likely to open season on DL; could be ready by late April/early May.
Casey Janssen, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays: AC joint surgery Nov. 16, 2012. Progressed slowly this spring but has recently gained ground and appears ready for Opening Day; his overall workload has been light so will need to see how he responds in season, but the Jays have help if he needs an occasional day off.
Ryan Madson, RHP, Los Angeles Angels: TJ surgery, April 2012. Experienced some soreness this spring and had to be scaled back; will open the season on the DL but may not stay there long. Now that the arm is feeling better, he still needs to build some endurance and currently looks on track to return at some point in April.
Sergio Santos, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays: labral debridement surgery, July 24, 2012. Expected to be ready for Opening Day. Other than some minor triceps soreness this spring, has had a smooth progression back to the mound; Janssen is expected to function as the Jays' closer but Santos could get opportunities if Janssen is initially unable to tolerate a full workload.
Joakim Soria, RHP, Texas Rangers: TJ surgery April 2, 2012. This is Soria's second TJ surgery, making the road to recovery less certain, but so far the process has been smooth. He began throwing long toss in early October and from a mound in February, added breaking pitches in March and appears headed for a late May/early June return.
Tommy John Surgery: An updated primer
Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) Reconstruction was originally performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 and is now known by the name of Jobe's first subject, pitcher Tommy John. It has become such a part of the baseball vernacular that it's a common topic of discussion amongst even casual fans. That doesn't mean there isn't more to learn about optimizing the surgical techniques or the rehab process to help ensure success or, more importantly, how to ultimately prevent or even reduce the incidence of these injuries.
The basics: The UCL is not a simple ligament. It is comprised of three bands which blend together to reinforce the medial (inner) elbow joint and runs from the medial epicondyle of the humerus (a bony prominence on the arm bone) to the medial forearm bone (ulna). Not all tears are created equal. In fact, it is rarely the case where the ligament is completely blown out. A partial tear in a critical location however can make it virtually impossible to throw because of pain, loss of control, or both. This is one of the reasons an MRI does not tell the entire picture; clinical examination will substantiate any instability in the elbow and the athlete needs to have symptoms of a magnitude sufficient to warrant surgery. This is not a procedure one enters into lightly given the intensive recovery time. One of the reasons a trial of conservative therapy is typically the first option when there is a suspected UCL tear (beyond the obvious scenario where the athlete's injury was mild and he recovers enough to return to play), is to validate for all involved the need for surgical repair.
The procedure: Typically a tendon is harvested from the forearm (most common) to serve as the replacement ligament. The tendon of choice (palmaris longus) is not present in everyone (hence the reason removing it will not hinder the athlete's function) in which case the option becomes a hamstring tendon. The surgeon drills holes in the bone (tunnels) where the new "ligament" will be implanted. In a fancy method of looping the ligament through the tunnels and tying it together, along with repairing the remaining components of the original ligament for reinforcement, the reconstruction is performed. One tricky element involves the location of the ulnar nerve in the forearm. This nerve runs adjacent to the ligament and supplies the fourth and fifth fingers in the hand. In other words, if the nerve becomes compromised, the athlete could lose feeling and muscular function in that area. (Ulnar neuritis, inflammation of the nerve, is not an uncommon ailment amongst pitchers simply due to the stress on the nerve from pitching.) Surgeons take great care to protect the nerve during surgery and in some cases will actually transpose (move the location of) the nerve to another spot on the forearm. Even when care is taken, complications related to the nerve are a risk factor with this surgery.
The rehab: As is the case following any new surgical procedure, the post-surgical rehab was very cautious initially. Return timetables approximated 16 months. Over time as more athletes have undergone the procedure and more is known about the healing process, that timetable has shortened to a range of nine to 12 months. The rehab schedule remains fluid as any number of factors can influence the time to return to activity, including whether the athlete is a thrower or non-thrower. Early rehab focuses on regaining elbow motion along with strengthening exercises for body parts away from the elbow and cardiovascular conditioning. Strengthening around the elbow is eventually introduced along with upper extremity coordination activities to retrain the "feel" of the arm in space. One of the biggest benefits of the rehab process is the time away from throwing. Pitchers rarely take such extended down time unless forced to do so because of injury. The rehabilitation following UCL reconstruction allows time to address shoulder imbalances, core muscle weakness, leg strength and any other areas that require attention while throwing is off limits. At approximately four months the athlete can resume light tossing and ultimately moves to a progressive throwing program. The throwing program is modified based on how the athlete responds to each outing and it is not uncommon for the progression to fluctuate at various points in the process. Even after an athlete returns to competitive throwing, it often takes time to reestablish command and consistency. So while a return to competition may occur within a year or less, a return to form can certainly take another six to eight months.
The unknowns: It is unclear just how much an athlete should throw in his first season returning from this procedure. Look no further than the case of Stephen Strasburg in 2012 to find arguments on either side of the Nationals' decision to shut him down early. The fact is there is no definitive research at present to outline a specific number of pitches to target or other such criteria for the first year post-surgery. There is some consensus amongst the medical community that the reconstructed ligament is stronger in the second year following the procedure.
Return to prior level of function, especially at the professional level, is remarkably high. Life expectancy of the reconstructed ligament, however, is unknown and may depend on a number of factors including severity of the injury and whether any of the athlete's original ligament remained intact. In recent years there has been an increase in athletes undergoing a second UCL reconstruction but the numbers are still small making meaningful analysis challenging. Based on preliminary research, it appears the success rate (defined as return to prior level of function) following a second procedure is significantly lower. It also appears that pitchers returning to a relief role fare better than those attempting to return as starters.
The prospect of facing Tommy John surgery is not viewed as career-threatening as it once was but it is still a daunting process. Although many athletes return to their prior level of function, it is not an easy path. Non-pitchers can return at a slightly faster rate, although outfielders may require additional time to make the biggest throws (outfield to home without a cutoff). For pitchers, even after they return to action, there is a high degree of variability as to when they actually return to form. As many similarities as there are among surgical techniques and rehabilitation programs, there are just as many individual variables which make each athlete's recovery unique. Prior injury history, overall tissue health, specific biomechanical demands of the athlete, follow-through with rehab and the surgical procedure itself can all impact the pace and the degree of recovery. In the end, outcomes are largely favorable but nothing should be taken for granted.