It’s time to talk about the 800-pound gorilla sitting around the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. Why are so many Braves pitchers suffering injuries that cause a need for Tommy John surgery? – in some cases, even multiple surgeries.
Just to clarify, for those who don’t know, Tommy John surgery is an elbow ligament graft procedure which was pioneered in 1974 by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe. It has since become a fairly common procedure, especially for baseball pitchers. But in the case of the Braves, it’s almost become too common.
To that point, as of 2013 no other MLB organization had as many players in the major and minor leagues as the Braves, and if you look at the graphic below, it’s not even close in many cases. [Source: beyondtheboxscore.com]
2014 in particular has really brought some attention to this stat, as the Braves pitching staff is being completely gutted by pitchers going down with elbow issues that will probably require the ligament graft, or pitchers that are currently recovering from surgery.
Even going back to 2013, the trend had become almost alarming. Both Jonny Venters and Brandon Beachy had to end their seasons prematurely to have TJ surgery, and Eric O’Flaherty was placed on the DL in May with a strained elbow and never returned for the season.
If you go back a little further, you start to put together a whos-who of Atlanta Braves pitchers, and every one of these guys had to go under the knife, usually of Dr. James Andrews.
Arodys Vizcaino, Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Michael Gonzalez, Mike Hampton, Odalis Perez, Paul Byrd, and Peter Moylan all had to be shut down to have the surgery while with the Braves’ major league club…and that’s just in the last 10 years. If you dip back a little further you can add names like John Smoltz and Kerry Ligtenberg to the lineup.
The question now has to be asked – why? Why are so many Braves pitchers going down? Is it a curse? Is there a training/coaching issue? Is it time to just admit that the age of power pitchers is quickly fading into the backdrop?
There may not be a definitive answer, but in the case of Atlanta, there needs to be someone held accountable for making changes. For an organization that has hung its hat on pitching for so long, it’s absolutely unacceptable for the chance for season-ending (or even career) injuries to be as high as it currently is.
Not being a clubhouse insider or physician gives limited scope of the problem to someone who sits behind a computer and TV screen for most of the day, but it seems that the Braves are just dismissing the fact that there is a problem, and that’s the bothersome part.
In the past decade, the prevalence towards intimidating batters by throwing smoke has seen a marked increase in debilitating injuries across the board in MLB, and the Braves have been at the head of the class in that department.
For years Braves fans watched Leo Mazzone coach his pitching staff to division titles, league championships and one World Series title. During that time, Braves starters were known for two things – winning, and durability. They could go deep into games and they could give a ton of innings through a season.
Yes, there were injuries, some of them severe–as in the case of Smoltz–but they were the exception, not the rule. Starting pitchers like Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and others, relied on location and movement, not on sheer power. They were coached to let the ball do as much of the work as their arm did, as were many of the Braves bullpen members.
When a team faced Atlanta, they weren’t likely to see 95+ mph fastballs unless they were facing John Smoltz or whoever the closer was that year.
Perhaps a move back to that type of pitcher and that type of coaching will curb the current trend, or maybe looking in to are more scientific approach, like some biomechanics research that shows how Tommy John surgery is really just a bandage on a much bigger problem for pitchers.
Right now the Braves have four pitchers recovering from various surgeries, and have two more–Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy–who will probably both have to have their second go with Tommy John surgery. If this growing problem isn’t addressed, Glavine and Maddux may have to come out of retirement.