Part of the tradition of baseball has always been its love affair with statistics, especially the ones that seek to predict what will happen on the field—the chance of getting a hit, the odds of making an error. But there’s one record-setting statistic that baseball isn’t celebrating—the increasing occurrence of arm surgeries among its young pitchers. With already 46 “Tommy John” elbow surgeries in Major League Baseball at the midpoint of the season, this year is on pace to exceed the number of elbow surgeries in 2012, the year with the current record. But no statistic has been able to determine why pitchers are getting injured at higher and higher rates. Frustratingly, for the teams with these high-value young throwers, scrutinizing numbers like pitch counts and innings pitched in an attempt to predict or limit risk seemingly hasn’t stemmed the rising tide of hurt players.
In the baseball world, no injury has captured more attention than the “Tommy John” surgery. Named for Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, the first player who underwent successful surgery for repair of a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), the surgery restores the stability of the elbow.
Originally performed by orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe in 1974, the procedure involves removing a tendon from the thigh or forearm and grafting it into the elbow to reconstruct the damaged ligament. Tommy John’s name is now known more for his contribution to sports medicine than his long baseball career, even though he went on to win more than half of his 188 professional games following his comeback from what was previously a career-ending injury. Today, the surgery has become so successful it’s virtually become a rite of passage—one in seven Major League Baseball pitchers has had it.