Elbow Surgery Epidemic Doesn’t Slow Down

Editor/Collegiate Baseball

LOS ANGELES — The study of Tommy John surgeries over the past 47 years in baseball is fascinating.

The first experimental surgery was performed by Dr. Frank Jobe on Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Tommy John in September of 1974.

During a 24-year-period from 1974-1998, there were never more than 10 Tommy John surgeries performed in pro baseball on a yearly basis.

Then a dramatic increase took place over the next eight years as Tommy John surgeries jumped to 58 in 2006.

From 2006-2015, another incredible spike took place as the numbers in pro baseball jumped to an all-time record 121 in 2015, according to data tracked by writer and analyst Jon Roegele.

Since 2014, pro baseball has had over 100 Tommy John surgeries five of the last six years.

The question begs to be answered.

What has changed that has caused such a massive increase in Tommy John surgeries across all of baseball in the past 30 years?

Strikeouts At All-Time High
The highest amount of strikeouts over the past 50 years of NCAA Division I baseball took place during the 2019 season.

The 2019 NCAA Division I Strikeouts Per 9 Innings for each team was a record 8.08.

It marks the first time in history the average has eclipsed 8.00

Each of the last five years have featured strikeout numbers that have gone over 7.00.

For the previous 45 years prior to 2015 (1970-2014), only twice did strikeout totals rise over 7.00, and that was in 1998 (7.07) and 1999 (7.12).

The strikeouts per 9 innings per game for each team the last five years include:

2015: 7.02
2016: 7.17
2017: 7.54
2018: 7.88
2019: 8.08

Butch Thompson, head coach at Auburn University, feels velocity is playing a big part in baseball today.

“If you look at Major League Baseball pitchers, the velocity has gone up the past 10 years. The average Major League fastball is now 93.1 mph. The velocity of pitchers has gone up almost a half mile per hour each of these years for the last decade, and that is truly amazing.

“I’m not talking about the top fastballs in the league. This is just the average.

“College baseball seems to be mirroring this velocity increase with pitchers throwing harder and harder over the past 10 years.

“Look at pitchers in the Pac-12, ACC or SEC. Half of pitching staffs in these leagues are throwing fastballs 90 mph or above. That was unheard of a decade ago.”

More Elbow Surgeries
Thompson feels higher velocity fastballs than ever before in pro and college baseball are causing more Tommy John surgeries to elbows than ever before.

“I am blessed. The team doctor here at Auburn is Dr. James Andrews, the world’s top orthopedic surgeon when it comes to Tommy John surgery.

“He has told me that it isn’t rocket science. Kids are bigger, faster and stronger. There are different people helping pitchers throw harder than they ever have thanks to Ron Wolforth and the Texas Baseball Ranch, Driveline and Alan Jaeger, just to name a few.

“It is interesting to note that many pitchers’ bodies, forearms and shoulders are in better shape than ever. A big part of arm health is creating great scaps and shoulder health. You can train all of this stuff. But you can’t train the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.

“It is untrainable. So despite everything around it being stronger and more stable than ever with our throwers, you can’t throw, work or train with a weighted ball — anything — to strengthen or improve that ligament.

“Dr. Andrews has told me that we can do all of this stuff for training. But understand that any time a ball is thrown over 90 mph with an already unnatural throwing motion, the ligament in the elbow (UCL) is not built to withstand over 90 mph.

“Every time you get above that threshold of 90 mph, the ligament is in more jeopardy time and time again. The other issue is that young pitchers 11-14 are playing travel ball more than ever. Their growth plates aren’t closed up yet. These kids are throwing harder earlier in life than ever before.

“We are seeing 15 year olds throwing 90 mph now. If it is dangerous for an older pitcher with their growth plates closed who throw 90 mph, imagine how dangerous it is throwing 90 mph pitches for a 15 year old because his body hasn’t come to full maturity yet.

“Some of this damage is happening to pitchers before they get to us in college.

“It’s Russian roulette when you get above 90 mph with pitches as far as that ulnar collateral ligament or you throw too much. We know more now about arm care than we ever have and we still are having numerous arm injuries.”

Collegiate Baseball has written many stories over the years from great pitching coaches who explained not only training programs but how to keep pitches healthy.

Several stories are in this issue which explain the programs and philosophies of master pitching instructors who rarely had injuries to their hurlers, including Don Rowe of the Milwaukee Brewers, Tom Dunton of Stanford along with Johnny Sain and Leo Mazzone of the Atlanta Braves.

All four were from the same era and shared a lot of the same philosophies.

What are pitchers doing today that pitchers in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s did not?

To read more of this in-depth article, purchase the May 15, 2020 edition of Collegiate Baseball or subscribe by CLICKING HERE. The pitching systems of Don Rowe, Tom Dunton as well as Johnny Sain and Leo Mazzone are explained in this edition which have kept thousands of pitchers healthy for many years.