If the part of the internet dedicated to super nerdy, data driven baseball articles were a tangible place and you were to throw a rock in it, there is a decent chance that you’d peg an article that breaks down how pitchers recover from Tommy John surgery. While it seems like many of the authors start from a place of optimism hoping to prove how much advances in medicine and lots of practice for Dr. James Andrews has improve prognoses, not many end there.
This should be depressing as hell for Pirates fans who, after seeing the organization evade the procedure for a number of years thanks in part to strict pitch counts and fastball heavy game calling, have watched a number of top prospects and veterans have their ulnar ligament reconstructed. Charlie Morton went under the knife in 2012 while sixth man Brandon Cumpton had his in March. In the big bonus / expensive elbow category, the Pirates have seen Clay Holmes, one time top prospect Jameson Taillon and most recently Nick Kingham all require the procedure. For those keeping score at home, that’s $8,185,000 in signing bonuses on the shelf with their paths to the majors halted. Taillon has begun a full throwing program and has made a few appearances in extended spring training with his velocity more or less returning to pre – surgery levels according to reports. Holmes, whose elbow issues arose a month before Taillon’s, seems to be going a little more slowly.
If you need a pick me up, research does indicate that the vast majority of pitchers who have Tommy John surgery return and get much of their functionality back. According to a study by The American Journal of Sports Medicine, less than 3% of pitchers who undergo the surgery do not return to competitive baseball and many show improvements over their pre – op performance levels initially. What does concern, however, is that the success of these players is fleeting and that the elbow is a ticking time bomb. According to the same study pitchers who return to the majors stay for 3.9 more seasons give or take 2.84 years. That’s some loud variability and essentially means that a normal post Tommy John career lasts anywhere from one to seven years but the likelihood of it extending further is slim. That doesn’t mean as much for a guy like Charlie Morton who returned to the majors at 29 as he was injured during his prime. For prospects like Taillon or Kingham, who were developed to eat innings and have long careers, seven years doesn’t feel as great.
Another study by the Hardball Times shed light on how pitchers in different age cohorts recovered differently. Pitchers who had the surgery between 1997 and 2009 before the age of 23 tended to have longer life spans after they reach the majors, but they’re hardly exciting spans. The pitchers in that group made 93 appearances and pitched 221 innings on average. Keep in mind, these numbers are influenced by relief pitchers in the sample, but 93 appearances isn’t even two years worth of games for a solid bullpen arm. Even if you remove some of the influence of the relief pitchers only about 40% of all pitchers in that age group return and pitch more than 500 innings. While the prognosis for the prospects with Tommy John isn’t great, evidence suggests that youth results in some relative resiliency from the procedure.
There are exceptions to the rule but they’re very difficult to find. Kerry Wood went on to pitch another 1214 innings including two 200+ inning seasons as a starter. Of course, it’s worth noting that he was only a full time starter for the first five years following his surgery before becoming one of the stronger bullpen arms in baseball. John Smoltz pitched parts of nine seasons even though he underwent the procedure at 31. Stories like Chris Carpenter‘s are more common where he looked great and then hit a wall.
At risk of becoming just another Tommy John piece, let’s shift the focus to the Pirates, Taillon and their other early first round pick Gerrit Cole. Cole’s enjoying a breakout season in 2015 and flexing his muscle as a true ace while showing signs that the Justin Verlander comparisons made by talking heads when the Pirates drafted him weren’t outlandish. It took him over a year to settle in and start pitching to his potential and that’s relatively fast. It took Verlander even longer and pitchers that compare more closely to Taillon like AJ Burnett, and Josh Beckett took about a year and a half to three years to get their wits about them in the majors
If Taillon and the average post Tommy John pitcher have between two and seven years of shelf life in competitive baseball after their return and his learning curve once he reaches the majors is about one to three years, the Pirates can expect anywhere from zero and five years of the pitcher they drafted number two overall. Realistically, the window is probably somewhere in the middle.
Like the top end of The American Journal of Sports Medicine’s life expectancy for post Tommy John pitchers, major league teams have up to seven years of control for prospects they develop. Rightfully so, the Pirates have been very mindful of that control and have gone out of their way to avoid Super Two status where a player gets a salary bump to 20% of market value in a year where they should make about $500K. This number balloons as they progress through normal arbitration and it doesn’t just cost a team the extra money they spent in the first arbitration year. While Taillon’s not ready to return from injury right now, he should be by the end of July on a conservative timeline. At that point, the Pirates could keep him in AAA for the rest of the season and wait until next June to call him up to avoid Super Two. However the righty from Texas was getting very close to being major league ready before the injury and probably shouldn’t need much more time in the minors. Chances are Taillon won’t make it the full seven of control, at least not as a starting pitcher, and based on the nature of the injury and history, he’s a probable non – tender candidate before either his sixth or seventh year. Every pitcher has a finite number of pitches left, but after Tommy John surgery that number decreases. Why waste them in the minors and if the arbitration clock isn’t relevant, why worry about it?
The Pirates don’t normally overlook service time, but they would do well to ignore it in the case of Jameson Taillon. They should get him in the majors as soon as possible, maybe as a September call up or maybe as a bullpen option before that. Since there is a big league learning curve, he needs to begin amassing experience in the majors to maximize the amount of time he has at his best before he inevitably hits his Tommy John wall and his window to pitch at his peak value closes. At this point, the Pirates would be fortunate to owe Taillon an extra $3-4 million in arbitration year four because Taillon got there a year early. If history is an indicator, it’s not something they’ll likely have to worry about.