Brewers now involved in MLB's elbow emergency

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, April 27, 2014

If James Andrews determines this week that Brewers pitching prospect Johnny Hellweg needs Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, the good doctor probably will tell Hellweg to step to the rear of the line.

In regard to Tommy John surgery this year, Andrews’ office in Birmingham, Ala., has resembled the deli counter at your local supermarket. Take a number and wait your turn.

In what has been called an epidemic among major-league pitchers, Atlanta’s Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, Arizona’s Pat Corbin, Oakland’s Jarrod Parker, the New York Yankees’ Ivan Nova and San Diego’s Josh Johnson, just to name a few, have had the elbow surgery named for former pitcher John, the first to undergo the procedure.

The surgery in which a damaged ligament is replaced by a transplanted tendon has become somewhat common with pitchers whose elbows failed to hold up under the strain of throwing a baseball so often, but there never has been a year like this when so many broke down early. Making the situation more alarming, Beachy, Medlen, Parker and Johnson are among those undergoing their second Tommy John procedure.

“I’ve asked (team medical director) Roger Caplinger to look at it and see what he finds,” said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. “I think the industry is looking at it to see how many innings and starts a guy has before he has the first one.

“Is there a time period before the second one? Should we be aware of a third one? There seems to be way more this year than ever. I don’t know what it is. I keep saying the more research and science we have on deliveries and whatever, the more injuries we have. It has to be something to do with the training.”

Because so many pitchers are getting the procedure early in their careers, Andrews is among those who believe they are throwing too many pitches during their high school and college careers. Andrews also thinks young pitchers are throwing breaking balls before their bones and muscles fully mature, putting too much stress on their arms and exposing them to early injuries.

The Brewers have been more fortunate than many clubs in avoiding Tommy John surgeries. Assistant general manager Gord Ash reported the organization has had six pitchers undergo that procedure over the last three years, the third-lowest number, all in the minor leagues.

Over that period, five clubs have not had any Tommy John surgeries at the big-league level. The highest numbers are three clubs with five and four clubs with four.

The 6-foot-9 Hellweg might have been destined for the surgery because of his inability to maintain sound pitching mechanics and repeat his delivery. He has been known for wildness, including his first foray into the major leagues in 2013 when he issued 26 walks in 30 2/3 innings while going 1-4 with a 6.75 earned run average.

Hellweg felt a “pop” in his last outing for Class AAA Nashville and was examined by Brewers physician William Raasch, who discovered a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Hellweg will see Andrews to confirm that diagnosis.

But even pitchers with seemingly sound deliveries are breaking down, prompting those in the game to scratch their heads.

“People are trying to find out what the reasoning is for all this,” said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. “It’s hard to explain. I don’t understand it. We try to monitor these guys more than we ever have and how many pitches they throw.

“There’s no chance you could ever go back to a four-man rotation. Guys were throwing 300-plus innings. How did they do that back then? Guys were throwing 300-plus innings.”

Roenicke thinks the proliferation of elbow injuries could be linked to the new “it” pitch—the “cut” fastball. Many pitchers have become more effective by throwing that pitch and some throw one “cutter” after another in games.

“My theory is the cutter is a great pitch and hard to hit, but I don’t know what it does to your arm,” Roenicke said.

Pushing right buttons

The amazing success of the Brewers’ bullpen is the result of two moves Melvin and his staff made and another they didn’t.

The two moves the team made that have been wildly successful were trading outfielder Norichika Aoki to Kansas City for left-hander Will Smith and signing veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez late in the offseason for a third hitch with the Brewers.

The move Melvin didn’t make was trading Tyler Thornburg to the New York Mets for first baseman Ike Davis, who was later dealt to Pittsburgh. Part 2 of that “non-move” was the decision to put Thornburg in the bullpen instead of sending him to Nashville to pitch in the rotation.

Entering the game Saturday against the Cubs, Rodriguez, Smith and Thornburg had combined for 37 appearances (35 2/3 innings) while allowing only one run (by Thornburg). Smith and Thornburg have been revelations because neither had backgrounds as high-leverage relievers.

“You can never predict numbers like that, but we thought it could be a good bullpen,” Melvin said. “It has helped having lefties like Smith and Zach Duke to match up late in games. We knew Thornburg had a big-league arm.”

Another astute pickup was the lefty Duke on a nonroster deal. Making the Brewers’ bullpen performance even more impressive, it has been basically a six-man relief corps. Rule 5 draft pick Wei-Chung Wang has pitched only two times because of Roenicke’s reluctance to use him in tight games, which seem to take place nightly.

A slower path

Gerrit Cole, the Pittsburgh pitcher who incited the brawl with the Brewers last Sunday by cursing at Carlos Gomez, was the first player taken in the 2011 draft, considered one of the best pitching drafts in years.

After the Pirates took Cole out of UCLA, Seattle chose Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen, Arizona tabbed another UCLA righty, Trevor Bauer, and Baltimore selected prep right-hander Dylan Bundy. All are considered among the top pitching prospects in the game, though Hultzen (shoulder) and Bundy (Tommy John) are recovering from surgeries. Bauer was traded to Cleveland in 2012 and is considered the Indians’ No. 1 pitching prospect.

The Brewers had two picks in the first round of that draft and chose Texas right-hander Taylor Jungmann at No. 12 and Georgia Tech lefty Jed Bradley at No. 15. Because they were advanced college pitchers coming out of strong programs, Jungmann and Bradley figured to be knocking on the big-league door by this season, but that has not happened.

Jungmann, 24, spun his wheels a bit last season at Class AA Huntsville (10-10, 4.33) and was reassigned there this year. Through four starts, he is 1-2 with a 4.71 ERA, with only four walks in 21 innings and 22 strikeouts.

Bradley’s main issue has been injuries, including a shoulder impingement that limited him to 16 starts in 2013 at Class A Brevard County. Back with that club this season, Bradley, 23, is off to a solid start with a 3-1 record and 3.80 ERA in four starts, with only two walks in 21 1/3 innings and 20 strikeouts.

“If we wouldn’t have taken them, somebody else would have,” Melvin said. “They were high on everybody’s draft lists.

“I don’t give up on them. I think they can still make it. I see it all the time. Guys take some time and then they’re up here.”

Hindsight is always 20-20 in the draft, but many teams, including the Brewers, would have done well to select right-hander Jose Fernandez, the 14th pick by Miami who quickly advanced out of high school to become the National League Rookie of the Year in 2013.

Another lower first-round pick that year off to a brilliant start in his big-league career is right-hander Sonny Gray, taken at No. 18 by Oakland out of Vanderbilt.

“We liked Fernandez,” Melvin said, “but we heard he was going to the University of Miami and would be tough to sign. With Gray, we looked at him more as a reliever.”

A lumber slumber

When you examine the box scores of games every morning in your sports pages, it’s stunning to see how many regular players are batting less than .200. Yes, it’s still early, but a lot of proven hitters have stumbled out of the gates this season.

Skeptics say pitchers have regained control of the game because of drug testing, but Melvin believes there are other factors at work.

“I think a lot of it is that scouting reports favor the pitchers,” Melvin said. “There is more advanced work being done on hitters with more detailed reports. There’s a lot more information out there today.

“The other thing is starting pitchers aren’t completing games anymore and you get more lefty-righty matchups out of the bullpen. Bullpens are deeper these days.”

There also is far more defensive shifting going on in the major leagues, a trend in which the Brewers were at the forefront several years ago. Some are skeptical of that being a factor in lower-scoring games, but Melvin isn’t so sure.

“I hear people say that it doesn’t make that much difference,” he said. “But when you play a second baseman in right field, he probably catches ground balls hit right to him if he’s playing in, but he can catch line drives and short flies that he wouldn’t get to otherwise.”

Tom Haudricourt covers the Brewers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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