College baseball: A look at the recent rise in Tommy John surgeries

OSU, which is hosting an NCAA Regional this weekend, has two players who underwent the operation. Conor Costello, from Edmond Santa Fe, hurt his elbow a few years ago in fall baseball at Navarro Junior College before he transferred to OSU.
by Michael Baldwin Published: May 31, 2014
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photo - Oklahoma State's Conor Costello, left and Mark Robinette displays their scars from Tommy John surgery at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Monday May 20, 2014. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma State's Conor Costello, left and Mark Robinette displays their scars from Tommy John surgery at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Monday May 20, 2014. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman

A rash of Tommy John elbow surgeries in the majors has raised concern all the way down to Little League baseball.

Coaches last week at the Big 12 Tournament at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark agreed the key issues are players are bigger and stronger and elite players participate at a highly competitive level nearly year-round in warm-weather climates.

“Previous generations threw footballs and shot basketballs to give the arm some time to rest,” said Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday, the Big 12 Coach of the Year. “I agree with the school of thought baseball played year-round is dangerous.”

Tommy John surgery is named after the former major league pitcher who revived his career after having the surgery. The procedure usually sidelines players 12 months after doctors take a tendon from elsewhere in the body to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.

OSU, which is hosting an NCAA Regional this weekend, has two players who underwent the operation. Conor Costello, from Edmond Santa Fe, hurt his elbow a few years ago in fall baseball at Navarro Junior College before he transferred to OSU.

“Going through it is a struggle but I was kind of happy I got it done and it didn’t happen later in my career,” Costello said. “My mechanics (weren’t) where they should have been. I was pulling my slider. There are a lot of factors involved.”

In a generation where athletes tend to focus on only one sport, pitchers suffering elbow injuries at an alarming rate has forced everyone to take a hard look at how kids approach the sport.

Many of the nation’s top prospects play on travel teams. Summer leagues often extend into August with high-profile tournaments where pitchers try to impress pro scouts and college coaches.

“I grew up in Maryland,” said 11-year TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle. “I’ve always said it’s a blessing and a curse to play in a warm-weather climate. It’s a blessing to play a lot of baseball. It’s also a curse to play a lot of baseball.

“One thing I’m hearing is it’s playing a lot of games at a highly competitive level. Playing at that level helps a player improve but sometimes maybe it’s better just to play catch (on flat ground) instead of a constant competitive environment off a mound.”

The alarm sounded when elbow injuries reached an all-time high this season in the majors. It’s such an epidemic that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced he’s “worried.”

Texas’ right-hander Martin Perez was the 19th major league pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery since spring training.

It’s significant that 16 of the 19 who have undergone elbow surgery this year are all relatively young and all from places with warm-weather climates — California, Florida, Texas or Latin America.

“If I played in this generation I probably would have never played football because there’s so much baseball available,” said veteran Baylor coach Steve Smith. “Playing that much baseball is what makes them good, but it’s also a perfect storm that can lead to injuries.”

Another variable is today’s pitchers are bigger, stronger and throw harder.

“The baseball is coming out of their hand like we’ve never seen before,” Holliday said. “They throw sliders 90 mph in the majors. That used to be the average fastball. If you throw pitches at such a velocity the soft tissue can’t withstand it over the course of time.”

Elbow injuries have been more frequent in recent years. Four of baseball’s top pitchers — Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), Matt Harvey (Mets), Jose Fernandez (Marlins) and Dylan Bundy (Orioles) — have undergone Tommy John operations in recent years.

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by Michael Baldwin
Reporter
Mike Baldwin has been a sports reporter for The Oklahoman since 1982. Mike graduated from Okmulgee High School in 1974 and attended Oklahoma Christian University, graduating with a journalism degree in 1978. Mike's first job was sports editor...
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