The St. Louis Cardinals spring training is off to a rousing start.
We are two days into the St. Louis Cardinals spring. Alex Reyes will miss the entire 2017 season, and possibly more, due to Tommy John surgery. Lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist is reportedly experiencing shoulder soreness. Pitching prospect Corey Littrell was suspended fifty games for a failed drug test.
I, personally, am most concerned with the first of those events. Alex Reyes was going to play a factor in the St. Louis Cardinals rotation in 2017, either immediately or later down the stretch. Yet, while this blow hurts for the upcoming season, I’m more worried about the long-term impact.
Alex Reyes is under team control through 2022. This year was, primarily, going to be a huge step in his development into a future top-of-the-rotation starter. In 2018, he was supposed to take another leap, and by 2019 he’d be headlining the rotation with Carlos Martinez.
Instead, he won’t throw a pitch in 2017, and 2018 will be an experimental year if Reyes can return at all. Rather than getting his first full MLB season at 22 years old, he might get that chance at 24. Those are two potentially lost years that would have been critical to the top prospect’s development.
When I first heard the news on Tuesday, the first thing I did was look up the recovery statistics for pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery. That led me to Baseball America, where I read that Tommy John is “less of a sure thing” than I expected. Next, I found that only 50% of pitchers who get the surgery ever tally 250 innings after their return.
This was hardly the news I wanted to hear, and I responded by sharing the doom and gloom in this Twitter thread. After sleeping on it, however, I realized a couple important things about the studies I had read. I did some quick research, and laid the foundation for this post.
First, these articles did not isolate relievers from starters. Relievers would drag the average innings pitched down even when they’re healthy. Second, neither study controlled for the quality of the injured pitcher. A pitcher who is only projected to be a fifth guy in the rotation is more likely to fall out of the majors quickly, whether he had surgery or not.
With those things in mind, I set out to do my own research. Jon Roegele has a list of all players who have had Tommy John surgery, and I filtered to find the MLB starting pitchers who have gone under the knife for TJ. I then sorted by age, and selected a surgery date range of 2007 – 2013. This gives ample time for players to recover, return, and accumulate innings.
By my estimation, there were sixteen starting pitchers who were 25 years old or younger and had Tommy John surgery. Of those sixteen, all have made it back to the MLB at some point. Only three have accumulated less than 280 innings since their surgery: Matt Chico, Jesse Litsch, and Brandon Beachy.
Next, I checked to see how many of these pitchers reached various innings thresholds after their surgery. The results are fairly promising, especially considering thirteen of these sixteen pitchers are still active.
On average, these pitchers have accumulated more than 500 innings since their return. Three pitchers have handled more than 1,000 innings post-surgery, including Francisco Liriano, Jordan Zimmerman, and Edinson Volquez. Additionally, Jaime Garcia and Stephen Strasburg have the chance to eclipse that mark in 2017, was each has more than 850 post-surgery innings.
In fact, the number of pitchers who have reached this threshold is likely deflated, most of these sixteen pitchers are still active. Looking only at surgeries between 2007 and 2013 minimizes this problem, but does not mitigate it completely.
These pitchers have averaged more than 100 innings per season since recovering. That’s a solid number, especially considering the possible occurrence of other unrelated injuries.
Many studies previously have noted a return rate of 80% or lower, and that number looks worse when examining innings thresholds. However, these studies generally include relievers, and don’t factor in age or ability. The pitchers who fail to return are generally A.) older when they get the surgery, or B.) starting from a lower performance floor.
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Looking at the list of sixteen, there aren’t any names that signal a drastic change in ability after surgery. Josh Johnson had his best seasons after his surgery in 2007. Strasburg is still very good, and Liriano has been steady for eight years since his operation.
This pattern holds even when extending the age range to include all pitchers who underwent the surgery between 2007 and 2013. The list of pitchers who have had strong careers after surgery is a long one, and includes Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, John Lackey, and Adam Wainwright, in addition to the younger pitchers noted above.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. The injury derailed Ben Sheets career, and Daisuke Matsuzaka has struggled to return to form (although he showed significant decline for two seasons before his surgery). These serve as reminders that a return from Tommy John surgery is not a given.
Yet, St. Louis Cardinals fans should be optimistic about Alex Reyes prospects. Though health will always be a concern for the young pitcher going forward, others have proven the injury can be overcome.
The Alex Reyes injury is incredibly disappointing. But the St. Louis Cardinals still plan to compete in 2017, and still have the firepower to do so, barring further significant injuries. While his development will be delayed, there is plenty of reason for optimism regarding Alex Reyes long-term future. There’s a strong chance he could still live up to his ace potential.
Thanks for reading. Fingers crossed for the rest of Spring Training.