Just a few days ago, I wrote an article about Jason Motte, the newest addition to the Cubs’ bullpen. They were able to sign the hard-throwing righty to a relatively small contract (one-year, $4.5M with a potential $2.5M in performance bonuses, per Ken Rosenthal), despite racking up 42 saves for the Cardinals in 2012, he had a mediocre 2014 after missing all of the season in between due to Tommy John (TJ) surgery.
Also known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, TJ is a surgical graft procedure in which the UCL in the elbow is replaced with a tendon harvested from somewhere else in the body (the forearm, below the knee, or even from a cadaver). It is so named because former Dodger pitcher Tommy John is the first baseball player to have undergone it.
In my piece on Motte, I pointed out the flaws in his post-surgical game and hoped that being paired with pitching coach Chris Bosio would precipitate a return to form. One reader’s comment, however, spurred me to dig a little deeper. While it’s true that everyone is different and no one recovers from TJ (or any surgery) in the same manner, I thought it might be helpful to look into some historical comparisons to the Cubs’ hirsute hurler.
The list of pitchers who have undergone Tommy John is almost as long as my…well, it’s long. And names are being added at a pretty alarming pace. Rather than make this an incredibly broad study though, I chose to focus only on the 10-year period from 2002-11. I understand the inherent danger in judging a small sample, but there’s no dearth of pitchers who’ve undergone Tommy John in that decade.
I looked at stats in the year prior to and then in both the first and second seasons back from TJ. In order to maintain as much relevance to the topic of Jason Motte’s performance due to being further removed from surgery, I tried to focus more on relief pitchers, though I did include some starters as well. Keep in mind that I wasn’t looking at specific numbers as much as I was seeking out similar patterns.
Below is snapshot of my research, small due to the nature of the publication but nevertheless indicative of my findings:
Going into this exercise, I was really hoping to find that the first year back from TJ was the worst of the three, mainly due to what I assumed would be rust of both the physical and psychological varieties. At the very least, I wanted to see some common patterns. But, as you can see from the examples above, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Thus, my definitive conclusion is that there is no definitive conclusion when it comes to how a pitcher will perform post-Tommy John.
It certainly stands to reason that myriad variables like age, arm slot, mechanics, pitch count and selection, even adherence to the rehab protocol and competence of the team’s training staff all impact the recovery and subsequent results of each individual pitcher. But it would be foolish for me to rely only on the limited scope of my own knowledge and research to make any real pronouncements.
After all, I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull’s ass, but I’d rather take the butcher’s word for it. To that end, I enlisted the help of Will Carroll (@injuryexpert on Twitter), lead writer for Bleacher Report’s Sports Medicine, host of Goff and Carroll on Sirius 93, and renowned authority on the topic at hand.
I wanted to get his thoughts on whether it was reasonable to expect big things from Jason Motte in 2015. And, while it’s not of particular importance in this case, the increasing frequency of TJ surgery is something I wanted to delve into a bit too.
Motte will turn 33 in June of the 2015 season, so age alone is reason to worry about about the efficacy of a guy who is known for his velocity. When we add in the injury, the potential for a bounceback seems even more bleak. I asked Carroll whether a player’s age impacts his ability to recover:
“It’s nearly impossible to separate normal aging from post-surgical effects in players who are established in the majors. There’s some very odd findings in the minors, but those don’t apply here. We’ve also seen some issues in high velocity relievers, but its a small enough sample size with enough variation that I don’t put a lot of stock in it yet.”
High velocity relievers, huh? Jason Motte certainly falls into that category. While there are many factors involved, I’ve been wondering whether there’s one culprit (velocity, pitch selection) or mechanism (arm slot, inverted W) that has lead to the rise in the UCL tears that necessitate TJ surgery.
“Timing über alles,” Carroll declared. “If timing is off, there’s more force put on the elbow. ‘Inverted W’ is a symptom, not a cause, as even Chris O’Leary has stated. Guys throwing harder is one noted effect, but Jamie Moyer blows that theory up. Fact is, until we get real-time measurements of valgus force, we won’t know much at all. That day is closer. (Motus Sleeve!)”
I know that you can easily click the link and see this for yourself, but I have heard Will talking about Motus in the past and I wanted to look into it a little more. According to their mission, Motus uses”pre-configured, mobile-friendly software for collecting, analyzing and comparing power, range of motion, workload and technique data for baseball…giving athletes of all ages and skill levels the ability to measure and improve performance with quantifiable metrics.”
And what’s more, using “proprietary technology to deliver baseline and comparative feedback and analytics to athletes and their trainers, Motus can be used to measure current performance and potential, spot injury risk, detect range of motion deficits and create a quantifiable baseline for return-to-play determination.”
It’s no secret that baseball is one of the most analyzed sports on earth, with new metrics popping up every day in an attempt to better quantify the game down to its most infinitesimal minutiae. Technology like that described above seems like a must for any ballclub, and it’s no surprise that the Cubs are among those teams listed as Motus clients (more on that concept in a bit).
We all know that practice makes perfect, necessity breeds ingenuity, and money talks. One would think that the frequency of Tommy John surgery, combined with the huge sums of money involved in professional baseball and the desire by both teams and players to return to the field, would mean new and better methods and better results over time.
But when asked whether that’s the case, Carroll responded: “Surprisingly no. It’s actually gone down a bit, but there’s a lot of noise in the data.”
Asked to remove the pretense of Jason Motte’s current team and speculate on his chances for a successful 2015 campaign, one in which he regains all or most of his 2012 form, Carroll said, “It’s possible and I’d assume the Cubs fairly valued the risk. At worst, he’s a live arm at the front of the pen and at best, he’s a dominant closer. The truth is always somewhere in between.”
But when you factor in the reality that he’s playing for the Cubs in 2015?
“Aha, there’s the thing. The Cubs haven’t been very good at this under the current medical staff. Not bad, but they’re not standouts either the way that the White Sox, Brewers or Rays have been. We’ll see if Maddon makes any changes or if he’ll go with the staff as-is. Same with pitching coaches and philosophy. How much is the manager, how much is pitching coach, how much is staff, how much is the pitcher? We don’t know and actually call this the ‘Mazzone Conundrum.*'”
There you have it, folks: stats and experts can provide all the factual and historical information in the world, but it’s no match for the irrational power of the Chicago Cubs. Okay, that’s not completely true. Well, the Cubs part is. The truth is that there’s really no way to know what Jason Motte can provide to this team next season.
The little nugget about the relative shortcomings of the Cubs’ medical staff is intriguing, particularly given the front office’s propensity for seeking out and exploiting market inefficiencies. This would seem a bit at odds with their willingness to take risks on post-injury reclamation projects like Scott Baker, Arodys Vizcaino, and now Jason Motte.
Then again, this deficiency might help to explain why those first two players never really panned out (my conjecture, not Will’s) in Chicago. It will certainly be interesting to see how things play out with Motte next season, though it will take more than one year from one player to know whether the medical staff under Maddon has become a stronger unit.
Jason Motte could be just another flash in the pan, but he’s also got an opportunity to help the Cubs both on the mound and in the training room. And in this day and age in which $4.5 million really isn’t an appreciably-large salary, the risk of poor performance is more than mitigated by the potential reward.
*As the pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves from 1990-2005, Leo Mazzone worked under Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox and worked with the likes of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux.