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

Mark Robinette, the other OSU pitcher who had Tommy John surgery, injured his elbow the summer after his sophomore year.

“I’ve always taken care of my arm. I’ve iced it and done all the exercises. I was never abused by coaches,” Robinette said. “One day I’m just playing catch and it happened. To be honest it’s kind of inevitable for some guys.”

TCU junior right-hander Preston Morrison, the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, has seen teenagers undergo elbow surgery but believes there are steps that can minimize a pitcher’s chances of tearing the UCL.

“One of the big things is kids need to take care of their arms,” Morrison said. “It’s sort of what I call pre-hab, a preventive approach. You have to be smart about it.

“You also can’t have coaches overuse kids, throw them more than 120 pitches, if that, and then take four days off. After the summer every year I’ve never thrown too many innings in the fall and then I take off six or seven weeks in the winter.”

Experts that follow the issue have said the 2014 elbow firestorm is a concern, but warn it might just be a bad year; how the story unfolds the next couple of years will determine whether it’s truly an epidemic.

This year’s list primarily consists of pitchers, but Minnesota Twins third base prospect Miguel Sano, one of the elite hitters in the minors, will miss the entire 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery during spring training.

TCU junior lefthander Brandon Finnegan, an All-Big 12 pitcher, believes part of it is random luck.

“It can sometimes be a freak deal even if you do all the stretching exercises you’re supposed to do,” Finnegan said. “One of the guys on the team that blew out his elbow is one of the biggest exercise conditioning addicts you’ll ever see.”

Elbow injuries have become an issue at the high school and college levels.

OU pitcher Adam Choplick had to redshirt as a freshman after having two Tommy John surgeries while still in high school.

During his 25 years as a Division I head coach or assistant, Smith in person had witnessed just one pitcher who suffered a season-ending elbow injury while on the mound. This year the Bears have had three — two elbow injuries and a shoulder.

“They play so much baseball there’s no time to train. Eventually the body will break down,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s any way to mandate this. Every kid, parent and coach has to use some common sense when it comes to participation in any sport, not just baseball.”

Holliday said the Cowboys give pitchers November and December off before they resume throwing programs in January to prepare for a college season that begins in February.

“You have to look at this through the eyes of science,” Holliday said. “There are some really smart doctors, scientists and physical therapists who can study the science part of this.

“Every player must be monitored individually. One program won’t fit everyone. Age, body type and arm slot are all factors. Hopefully these scientists can up with logical conclusions that will help everyone have more information to make sound decisions.”


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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