There are lots of questions floating around early this afternoon about Stephen Strasburg’s torn ulnar collateral ligament, which will likely require Tommy John surgery that will cause him to miss most of next year. So I’ll handle a few of them in an FAQ format, and you can ask any others by leaving them in the comments section. We’ll probably also do a live chat tonight during the game.
Q: What is Tommy John surgery, and how long will Strasburg be out?
A: Tommy John surgery is the popular name for reconstructive surgery to the ulnar collateral ligament; Dr. Frank Jobe pioneered the procedure on the Dodgers pitcher of the same name, and John went on to pitch another 13 seasons after the surgery. In the operation, the doctor takes a ligament either from the patient’s other arm or below his knee and weaves it through tunnels in the ulna (forearm bone) and humerus (upper arm bone). Strasburg is expected to be out 12 to 18 months, meaning he would either be ready next September or at the start of spring training in 2012.
Q: What is the success rate on Tommy John surgery?
A: The odds are generally estimated between 85 and and 90 percent, with many pitchers coming back to perform better than before they had the surgery.
Chris Carpenter, who pitched for the Cardinals last night, was the Cy Young Award runner-up last year after having the operation done in 2007. Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett also had the surgery done and received two multi-year free agent deals after the operation. The Braves’ Tim Hudson - a Cy Young candidate this year - has had it done, as has teammate Billy Wagner. Marlins pitcher Josh Johnson, one of the game’s top young hurlers, has also had it. And Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who had the operation last August, made his return to the majors for the team last night.
Essentially, there’s a high probability Strasburg will return and pitch as well, if not better, than he did before. It’s just going to be a long wait for him to return.
Q: Will he earn service time, and will he be paid his normal salary?
A: Strasburg will be on the 60-day disabled list, which means he’ll be off the 40-man roster. But he will still get his normal salary ($4.375 million) and will earn service time while he’s on the 60-day disabled list.
Q: So what does this mean for the Nationals in 2011?
A: That’s the biggest wrench in this whole thing. Strasburg’s loss means the Nationals will be without their No. 1 starter next season and will have to hope their young pitchers like Zimmermann and Yunesky Maya come through. I’ll examine this in greater detail in the next few days, but I spoke with Maury Brown, the president of the Business of Sports Network and bizofbaseball.com. His take on it was that it’s hard to see the Nationals making a splash in free agency this winter in light of the Strasburg news, since it makes it that much more likely they won’t be competitive in 2011 and it hasn’t been the team’s M.O. to add veterans for the sake of dressing up a second-division club. We’ll have to see how that plays out, but it adds another layer of intrigue to what will be a very, very interesting offseason for the Nationals.
Q: What can we expect from Strasburg in 2012?
A: When Strasburg does come back, he still won’t have thrown more than 123 1/3 innings in a professional season, so it seems hard to believe that the Nationals still won’t have him on some type of innings limit. I’d expect they’ll continue to increase his workload progressively, as they did this year.
Q: Strasburg was in good health when the Nationals drafted him. The team was careful with him. So what happened?
A: It’s hard to say exactly. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said this morning that doctors believe Strasburg’s tear was an acute injury; in other words, it happened on one particular pitch - possibly the changeup he threw to Domonic Brown before he came out of Saturday’s game. Rizzo also stood by the Nationals’ development of Strasburg, saying both Strasburg and his agent, Scott Boras, believed in the way the team was handling the pitcher. And it’s hard to imagine them being more cautious with him than they were. Basically, these things happen. There have been some questions about Strasburg’s mechanics, but those have been more about the stress on his shoulder than his elbow. Chalk it up to the stress of pitching - a process that one sports medicine professional after another has said is unnatural on the human arm - and Strasburg’s youth. It’s likely we’ll see him again.