Nationals’ philosophy regarding Tommy John surgery recovery appears to be successful strategy

Stephen Strasburg. Jordan Zimmermann. Sammy Solis. Lucas Giolito. Taylor Jordan.

The list goes on and on of Nationals pitchers that have undergone Tommy John surgery and returned.

Even a position player, Matt Skole had to undergo the procedure after a freak injury to his elbow at first base early last season.

It is a surgery that is much more commonplace in today’s baseball world. No one wants to have to go through the procedure or have the injury occur in the first place.

But the Nationals’ plan of attack in dealing with Tommy John surgery, and the measured, careful and steady pace with which the Nationals deal with the recovery, have helped these pitchers regain their pre-surgery form. Sometimes they come away even stronger.

Of course, there is criticism that comes with the strategy the Nationals implement regarding recovery from Tommy John, most specifically the innings limits they place on pitchers the season directly after the procedure takes place.

It happened to their most famous right-hander, Strasburg, as the team surged to its first division title in 2012. Fans and media clamored for general manager Mike Rizzo to extend the hurler past the preseason mandated 160 innings. They did not and shut Strasburg down in early September.

Some had hoped by ignoring the mandate might have helped the Nationals put together a starting staff for their divisional series with St. Louis that could have challenged the Cardinals more than they did in the playoff series loss.

But in the big picture, the innings limit and the careful pitch counts, ramping up the pitchers from three to four and then five innings in successive starts, for example, has been a formula that has been successful in rebuilding these pitchers following Tommy John.

Jason Parks, the national prospect/player development writer for Baseball Prospectus, says the plan the Nationals use for Tommy John surgery rehabilitation has been a success.

“It certainly seems that way,” Parks said. “It is like one of those sayings: Do you want to be the team that is good with Tommy John (recoveries) or would you rather be the team that just doesn’t have to deal with them in the first place?”

Parks says you don’t hear of very many, if any, Nationals pitchers who recover from Tommy John and then fade away. That speaks to the recovery strategy the Nationals have used for almost the past decade.

“I think it is quite interesting that they have had a high recovery rate,” Parks said. “I think it speaks to their medical staff, I think it speaks to their developmental staff, and in an overall picture I think it speaks to the fact that you are not running player development at level per level per level. This is systemic.

“There is a top-down approach and I really like that, philosophically speaking, when it comes to player development. You are not getting one direction in A-ball, and another one in high-A and another one in Double-A, and it is too many cooks in the kitchen. The mandates that come from the top down really have an effect.

“I like the way that they structure their player development. I hear nothing but good things about their player development staff.”

The Nationals did not reinvent the wheel in their Tommy John recovery timetables, but the measured pace of return for each pitcher appears to be a system that works, providing critical pitching depth for many seasons in a row and insuring a better return on their investment.

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