Amid all the media recommendations, outsider assessments, social media MDs (without the training or education) and predictions of doom and gloom, the New York Yankees are handling the Masahiro Tanaka injury situation perfectly by keeping it simple: he’ll pitch as long as he can pitch and then when he can’t pitch, he’ll have surgery.
In the real world – one in which everyone isn’t an expert on everything and has a forum to express that expertise – they really have no other choice. The spate of Tommy John surgeries and its supposed success rate makes it seem as if it’s little more than a minor procedure from which every pitcher will recover fully and be back as good as new. Of course, that’s not the case.
The surgery itself isn’t a guarantee as this piece in today’s New York Times discusses. At the top end of the spectrum and often mentioned as a comparison and prayer for Tanaka’s future is St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright, who pitched for five years with a ligament tear before needing to have the surgery done. Many pitchers have returned from the surgery better than ever. Some, like Ryan Madson, haven’t. The newest trend is pitchers like Kris Medlen and Jonny Venters needing to have the surgery twice. Old-schoolers point out the paranoia that is prevalent in today’s game with such terminology as “prehab,” innings limits, protective devices and the tactics that are used to keep pitchers on the field and is failing to do so while playing up the idea that the likes of Nolan Ryan, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer would rack up 280 to 350 innings without getting injured. That ignores the number of pitchers who flamed out, went undiagnosed and kept pitching through pain to keep their jobs. “He blew out his arm” is not a medical diagnosis, but that’s what was said before there was the capacity to repair these injuries.
Given the frequency of Tommy John surgeries that are necessary with Tim Collins having had it and Yu Darvish needing it, there’s a rampant debate as to why this is happening. There’s no answer due to a lack of information, an absence of consensus and dueling agendas.
Well, there might be an answer, but like the possible presence of a deity or life among the stars, we don’t know it. It might depend on the individual or there could be a smoking gun that’s yet to be found. Theories can be presented and other theories can debunk them. Is it mechanics? Is it weight training? Is it that pitchers are throwing as hard as they can for as long as they can when, in the past, most didn’t do that? Is it the new medical technology that’s more apt to discover the injury rather than giving an all-encompassing and inexact Rx of “rest” from the diagnosis of “sore arm?”
Who really knows?
With his dour attitude, sleep-inducing monotone and self-indulgent corporate terminology, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman might sound like a droning dullard. But when slashing through his verbose statements and world weary tone when discussing Tanaka, he’s absolutely right in the basic statement of not being worried about Tanaka; that he can’t control what happens, so it is what it is. There’s nothing that can be done about it. This is not a case of the Yankees picking and choosing various unproven techniques of development that failed with their young pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes and citing studies, biomechanical experts, historical abstracts and reams of data to prove its efficacy and why it should have worked. It’s a medical diagnosis that Tanaka does not need the surgery right now. Several opinions from respected medical professionals have been garnered. So what’s the dispute?
The demand of “just get the surgery” from some morally destitute website, a rag’s “expert baseball” columnist, or dimwit on Twitter doesn’t supersede an experienced doctor saying he doesn’t need it now. It’s not Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy in which the surgery and attention is the rush for the caregivers with no want or need for it to be performed. It’s not a surgically disfigured rich and famous person who’s addicted to plastic surgery, is told he or she looks “great” by sycophants and has a doctor doing the procedures for: A) the money; and B) because they know the patient will just go to another doctor to get the surgery done anyway with the “at least I can watch my patient” as the ingrained excuse for enabling them. It’s real life, the Yankees’ investment and Tanaka’s career.
Part of the Yankees’ attitude, at least from those who have an idea about baseball, is a cold-blooded realization that if they lose Tanaka, they’re going to finish under .500. Unless he’s something close to the dominating pitcher he was last year and the redundant parity in the American League East keeps the win total to capture the division in the mid-80s, the Yankees are nothing more than an also-ran even with him. While the delusional nature of the spoiled Yankees fan might believe that there’s a magical aspect to the organization, there’s no magic. There’s no miracle.
So it comes back to Tanaka. The Yankees tack with Tanaka is decidedly and unintentionally old-school. Before Tommy John surgery was possible, a pitcher whose elbow ligament was torn would do what Tanaka did, take time off, try to recover and come back to pitch. When he couldn’t pitch anymore, he was done. That was it. That’s what the Yankees have accepted now. They’ll monitor him and protect him when and where they can. It’s doubtful you’ll see Tanaka pitch even one complete game this year, but with the Yankees’ one major strength being the bullpen, there won’t be any reason for him to pitch any complete games. Let him pitch until he can’t pitch. Then he’ll have the surgery. It’s simple. It’s clear. It’s decisive. And it’s right.