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Goodbye Tommy John, My Old Friend

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Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Dear reader, please join with me in knocking on wood before we continue. Toss some salt over your shoulder. Give a quick prayer to the Baseball Gods.

Now that you've done that, let's take a look at something that @euqubud brought to my attention yesterday:

Now, part of this is due to a technicality. Our good ol' friend Charlie Furbush hasn't appeared this year due to tightness in his shoulder, and he had TJ back when he was in the minors in 2008.

But! It's still meaningful that the M's have used zero pitchers with Tommy John. Though Tommy John surgeries aren't the absolute, thudding conclusion of a pitcher's career that they used to be, they're still a significant setback to one's career. For every Stephen Strasburg who seems to rebound from it, there's a Matt Harvey, slowly trying to find his way back.

Check out this graphic from Stephania Bell's excellent article from a year ago about the surgery and its success. The 147 pitchers included below are all MLB players who had the surgery from 1999-2011. No matter what statistic you look at - fastball velocity, innings pitched, ERA, WHIP, etc. - pitchers post-surgery are worse than they were before it.

And the M's haven't used a single guy who had TJ. Half the league, per this excellent Tommy John database kept by @MLBPlayerAnalys, has used at least five pitchers who've undergone TJ.

In fact, the last Mariner to get Tommy John surgery while in the majors was George Sherrill in May 2012. Sure, there have been a couple lower-level guys in the org who have undergone the procedure, but it hasn't happened often at the highest level.

There are a couple possible conclusions that could be made from this:

  1. The Mariners don't like prescribing Tommy John surgery and will avoid it at all costs.
  2. The Mariners don't like using pitchers who have had the surgery.
  3. Mariner doctors are especially wary of pitchers with arm troubles, meaning there are fewer of them on the team.
  4. The Mariners have gotten lucky.

#1 seems unlikely. We haven't heard any stories of players who are pursuing the Garrett Richards route of shutting down for a while and hoping to avoid TJ. That, given the fairly good overall success rate of the surgery, leads me to discount this one.

#2 and #3 are related. There isn't a total ban on these guys making the team, as can be evidenced by the tryout given to Randy Wolf a couple years ago or by the presence of Furbush on the roster. And Furbush had already had TJ when the team traded for him!

But there is certainly a high degree of skepticism around pitcher arm motions. Perhaps the most interesting case is one in the news recently:

Remember Carson? Last year's shutdown reliever worth 2.1 fWAR who struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced in '15? Yeah, he was pretty good. Then we traded him in the deal for Wade Miley. And just six months later, he's on the operating table.

This could be entirely coincidental. But I don't really think so. There were signs that Carson was potentially not 100% at the end of last year, with his velocity trending down from earlier in the season.

And then there's this.

Watching Smith's delivery, it really isn't that hard to predict he might have arm troubles - just look at how violent his release is.

Perhaps the Mariners suspected this could happen and wanted to sell high on his value before he got injured. I actually think this is likely - if one believes that Smith could easily suffer a major injury, then the trade looks like a much better one for the M's, though I think the price of free agent starting pitchers makes it a justifiable deal no matter Smith's injury history.

Either way, the fact remains that the Mariners gave up a young star pitcher just months before he went down for the season. They probably saw something they didn't like and went to work on trading him for something else.

Or, the final option from above, they just got lucky. We treasure watching guys like Felix whenever we can because we know how easy it is for everything to come crashing down. One pitch the wrong way, one small slip on the mound, and suddenly you too could be flying in to see Dr. James Andrews.

So I don't have a great answer for you as to why the M's avoid Tommy John. Maybe it's just sheer dumb luck. Maybe. But maybe it's also strong analysis of pitching mechanics, the kind of proprietary data and knowledge not often available to the public. Either way, it's something interesting to chew on.