Better Return from Tommy John Surgery: Adam Wainwright or Stephen Strasburg

  • RBTS Staff

Since the first procedure in 1974, many Major League Baseball pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery. This is a long and difficult recovery for pitchers, as the ulnar collateral ligament needs complete reconstruction. The usual procedure is a surgical graft in which the elbow tendon is replaced with a tendon most often from the forearm, hamstring, hip, knee, or the foot of the patient. The typical recovery time is 12-18 months. Many pitchers, for better or worse, are not the same after this procedure.

For instance, in 2006, Francisco Liriano produced amazing numbers by having one of the best ERA in the AL, including one of the best sliders in the game. However, after noticing discomfort in his elbow, he underwent Tommy John surgery, and he has not pitched the same since. Liriano does not possess the same velocity he used to, which has directly affected his numbers. Other notable pitchers who have had this same procedure include, include John Smoltz, Pat Neshek, Ryan Madson, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, and Joakim Soria, who has had it twice.

Two of the most dominant pitchers in the league, Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg, both had Tommy John surgery in the past. Strasburg missed almost the entire 2011 season and Wainwright missed St. Louis Cardinals entire championship season last year when he required surgery in Spring Training. Now both pitchers have been back, and I am anxious to see who will produce better numbers in the 2012 season.

STEPHEN STRASBURG

Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg was the number one pick in the 2009 draft by the Washington Nationals, and ever since he stepped on the pitcher’s mound, he has lived up to the hype. Before being injured, Strasburg was throwing 98+ mph fastballs (sometimes even hitting 100 mph) and posting double-digit strikeout totals in each outing, including 14 strikeouts in his Major League debut on June 8, 2010 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. During his rookie season, he continued dominating on the mound with a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts.

Unfortunately, Strasburg’s season came to an end in August, 2010 when he found out he would need to have Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Late in the 2011 season, Strasburg returned what seemed to be his usual self throwing an upper-90 mph fastball, a change-up and curveball ranging from the low-80’s to mid-90’s. He doesn’t possess the best change-up, but his curveball can create a lot of movement by sinking six inches, leading to many swing and misses. He may only have three pitches (fastball, curveball, change-up), but with his velocity he can rely on his fastball and curveball to get wins for his team.

So far this year, Strasburg, who the Washington Nationals have slotted as their ace, has dominated in his first four starts, pitching 25 innings and collecting 25 strikeouts. It does not appear the Tommy John procedure has hurt his velocity or his confidence. He still throws an upper-90 fastball, which can also still hit 100mph. If he can continue to post the numbers he has throughout his career, I can easily see him being a NL Cy Young contender. I am predicting Strasburg will win 17+ games this year with an ERA around 3.00 and close to 180 strikeouts. Even though the season is young, I think Strasburg has made a strong recovery, and does not seem to show any type of decline in velocity since his surgery. Barring any setbacks, he will be the foundation of the Nationals pitching staff for many years, and it will be interesting to see how Washington will compete when they call up another first overall pick and “uber-prospect” Bryce Harper.

ADAM WAINWRIGHT

Wainwright

Since he entered the Cardinals pitching rotation in 2007, Adam Wainwright is one of the most consistent pitchers in Major League Baseball. He’s posted 10+ wins each year and an ERA 3.70 or under, including a 20-win season in 2010. From 2007-2011, Wainwright would throw his fastball 90-93mph, his change-up going 81-82mph, a solid curveball in the low-mid 70’s with a break of 9-10 inches, which is arguably one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball, and a mediocre slider.

There was a lot of promise for both he and the Cardinals entering the 2011 season, but his season was cut short in February 2011 when he underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow. I figured losing their ace would be a huge hurdle for the Cardinals to jump, but they overcame the injury and won the World Series against the Texas Rangers.

Since returning to the Cardinals pitching rotation in 2012, Wainwright has not been the dominant pitcher he used to be. In his first three starts of the season, he is 0-3 with an ERA of 9.88 in ONLY 13.2 innings pitched. His velocity has dropped significantly with his fastball not hitting 90 mph and his change-up now hitting around 85mph. As the season progresses, I think his numbers will improve and he should settle down and be one of the top pitchers in the National League. With Chris Carpenter out indefinitely with shoulder problems, if the Cardinals want to be a solid contender in the National League, Adam Wainwright will need to settle down and lead this pitching staff. They have the offense to be in every game, led by Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Lance Berkman, and Yadier Molina, but they need 6+ innings from their starters each game so their bullpen can be rest.

WHO WILL BE BETTER?

After looking at the numbers, in my opinion it is a no-brainer. Stephen Strasburg will have a better year than Adam Wainwright. After surgery, Strasburg has maintained his high-90mph fastball and batters are still finding it difficult to hit against him as he has gone late in each outing this year along with a decent amount of strikeouts. Every player has a different recovery time, and maybe age is a factor with Wainwright and Strasburg. The season is still young, and I think it is safe to say each of these pitchers will lead their respective pitching rotations in 2012. Both of these pitchers can produce many strikeouts and wins in 2012, but there have been many pitchers who have not been able to recover and be the same pitcher they were before Tommy John surgery. Time will tell if Adam Wainwright will return to his former self and be the dominant pitcher he between 2007-2010, but as if right now I believe Stephen Strasburg will be the better ace between the two.

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