The only things certain in life are death, taxes, and Tommy John surgery. If you’re a pitcher, anyway.
Last Friday night, the San Diego Padres had an offensive explosion against Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, shelling him for six runs and six hits (including two Jedd Gyorko home runs) over five-plus innings of work. That’s as many runs as Fernandez had given up over his previous four starts, and it raised his ERA from a microscopic 1.74 to a slightly-less-microscopic 2.44.
Fernandez, arguably the league’s best pitcher, was rocked by the league’s worst offensive club (to date) in an extreme pitcher’s park. Improbable, sure, but you could chalk it up to the oddities of the game; on a given night, anything can happen, and a great pitcher succumbing to a lackluster offense isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.
The more cynical Padres fans among you probably thought something was up, though. There’s no way these Padres, the same Padres who were shut down by Fernandez (and Yusmeiro Petit and Bronson Arroyo and Juan Nicasio and …) earlier in the season, could possibly look so good against one of the game’s best. Well, you were probably on to something, as reports broke on Monday that Fernandez was heading to the disabled list with an elbow strain. The news only got worse throughout the day, as it was later reported that the Marlins expect Fernandez to require season-ending elbow surgery, though nothing is official. (Update: The latest news is that Fernandez has a torn UCL and that TJ surgery is recommended.)
As Dave Cameron notes at FanGraphs, the baseball community is struggling with injury prevention for pitchers:
For now, though, we’re grasping at straws. We don’t know how to keep pitchers healthy, and we don’t know if the Marlins could have kept Fernandez healthy. It sucks that another great young arm has gone down, but this is just the reality of where we’re at with keeping elbows in tact. We don’t know how to do it, and we don’t know why Fernandez blew out when Porcello and others have not. Hopefully, some day, we’ll know. For now, we just accept our ignorance, and keep the finger pointing to a minimum.
The following image, from a post on Covering All Bases, shows the gradual rise in Tommy John surgeries over the years:
There are multiple factors that have likely led to the increase, but it’s startling that in the Pitch Count Era, elbow surgeries are on the rise. There have already been 33 this year, and we’re only in mid-May. Organizations are smarter than ever, equipped with PITCHf/x, Big Data, massive video libraries, and supercomputers, yet they’re still at the mercy of a tiny, unpredictable ligament in a pitcher’s throwing arm. And there’s growing concern that much of the damage is inflicted prior to draft day, as pitchers are often overworked growing up, whether in little league, high school, or college, and the harm is often compounded by shaky mechanics. Despite the best efforts of teams like the Nationals (Stephen Strasburg), Mets (Matt Harvey), and Marlins (Fernandez), Tommy John surgery was inevitable for each of their aces.
As Padres fans, we certainly haven’t been spared from the carnage. Since January, the Padres have lost Cory Luebke (again), Jace Chancellor, and Josh Johnson to TJ surgery, and last year they lost Jason Marquis, Casey Kelly, and (outfielder) Rymer Liriano. Here’s hoping Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Robbie Erlin, and top prospects like Matt Wisler and Max Fried can avoid a similar fate, or at least prolong it to some date in the distant future.
Back to Friday night: While we should probably heed Cameron’s advice regarding the placement of blame with Fernandez’s injury, it’s a bit hard not to question, at least, what the Marlins were thinking by leaving him out there into the sixth inning. And, frankly, it’s sort of in vogue to question the Marlins anyway, as their only organizational strengths* seem to be producing megastars (like Miguel Cabrera, Giancarlo Stanton, and Fernandez) and winning a World Series every 10 years or so.
*Admittedly, those are nice strengths to have.
Fernandez’s velocity didn’t gradually dip on Friday night, it abruptly plummeted to unforeseen levels. Somewhere late in the fourth inning or early in the fifth inning, Fernandez went wrong. Here’s a variation of a graph you’ve probably seen already, showing Fernandez’s four-seam fastball velocity per PITCHf/x (along with his previous start vs the Padres for reference):
You can see that on Friday night Fernandez was rolling right along into the fourth inning; his 23rd four-seam fastball registered at a game-high 98.6 MPH and his 25th came in at 98 MPH. That 25th heater was followed by four straight offspeed pitches, however, and when he fired his 26th fastball it came in at just 90 MPH. Fernandez’s next three heaters measured between 91.4 and 92.8 MPH. Even with the bases loaded and Jedd Gyorko at the plate, Fernandez, who was cruising in the mid-to-upper 90s earlier in the night, could only muster a 93.7 reading on the gun. Gyorko pulled it into the seats for a grand slam, ending Fernandez’s night and, in all likelihood, his season.
In a recent study at The Hardball Times, Noah Woodward used PITCHf/x data to predict pitcher injuries, and he wrote the following:
Velocity (Kalk’s “most important” variable) was a significant predictor in these models, and this makes sense. As Kalk pointed out, changes in velocity are usually a clear sign that something isn’t right for a pitcher. When we hold fatigue constant, we see that velocity is still a very important indicator of short-term arm health.
If the velocity drop wasn’t concerning enough, it appears that Fernandez changed his approach, too. As mentioned, after the final 98 MPH fastball, Fernandez threw four offspeed pitches, and that was a trend he followed for the final two-plus innings of his start. The following table shows Fernandez’s pitch usage up to that final hard fastball vs. the remainder of his pitches, with his season averages for comparison.
|5/9/14 Start||2/4-seam FB %||Curveball %||Changeup %|
|Prior to injury*||60||31||8|
*I’m assuming the injury came on the final 98 MPH fastball, which could be totally wrong. But it was obviously somewhere around there.
After the decline in velocity, Fernandez threw just 32 pitches, so we’re obviously dealing with a small sample size here. It’s pretty clear, however, that after suffering the injury/decline in velocity, Fernandez was reluctant to throw the fastball, as he dramatically increased his offspeed pitch usage. Compared to earlier in the start and his season (and career) averages, the dip in fastball usage seems significant. It’s hard to say why Fernandez shelved his most called-upon pitch; perhaps it was causing more strain on his arm or maybe he thought, knowing he’d lost velocity, that he had a better chance of getting outs with curveballs and changeups.
The point is that there were a couple of red flags here, and you didn’t have to dig too deep to see them. It’s amazing that no Marlins players or coaches or training staff noticed that something had probably gone wrong, and gotten Fernandez out of there as soon as possible. It’s impossible to know if any further damage could have been prevented, but it was probably would have been prudent to find out.
In the end, as Cameron says, it’s still tough to blame the Marlins for this. Fernandez has only thrown over 110 pitches once in his career – May 4th against the Dodgers – and the majority of his starts haven’t even cracked 100. The Marlins have handled him about as well as you can handle a young starter (in the Pitch Count Era, at least), and while you could quibble about the big workloads against major league hitters at a young age, it’s clear that Fernandez was ready for the big leagues and would have otherwise been wasting precious bullets in the minor leagues.
We don’t know all that much about pitcher injuries. We don’t even know why Fernandez’s UCL suddenly stopped working properly on Friday night. Was it one pitch thrown with too much effort or with bad mechanics that did it in? Or was it the accumulation of thousands of pitches, each one chipping away at the UCL’s lifespan, each one bringing us ever closer to the inevitable? Maybe it was a start in high school that weakened the ligament or maybe Fernandez, like Strasburg and Harvey and Luebke perhaps, was simply doomed from the start, not blessed with an indestructible, James Shields-like elbow (sorry, James).
Who knows? The only thing certain about Tommy John surgery is that it sucks; for the player, for the team, and for the game. And with all due respect to the middle-of-the-road hurlers out there, it really sucks when it’s someone like Fernandez that goes down. In just over 200 major league innings, Fernandez had already vaulted himself into legitimate “Best Pitcher in the Game” arguments, battling with the Clayton Kershaws of the world for the throne. And as Zachary Levine notes, Fernandez is also extremely .gifable.
The good news is that Tommy John surgery is far from the end of the road. Plenty of pitchers come back as good or better than they were prior to surgery, and Fernandez’s age and natural ability should help in his recovery. Still, there’s always the very real chance that he comes back a less effective version of himself, or that the surgery simply … doesn’t work. For all parties involved, hopefully Fernandez makes a successful return. And while it may not feel like the noblest of victories, hopefully the Padres offense is kick-started by Friday night’s offensive outburst, proving that even the most dire circumstances can have positive side effects.