Former Spring Hill player proves Tommy John controversy is alive and well in Tennessee

 

By Anthony Fiorella, Studio M staff //

Eighteen-year-old Brycen Thomas is a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University. At Spring Hill High School in Spring Hill, Tennessee, Thomas was a state Mr. Baseball finalist as well as a state champion as a senior.

Due to Tommy John surgery, the Columbia, Tennessee, native will have to wait until his sophomore campaign to be able to step on a college mound.

Photo by Michel Dangmann via Flickr

Tommy John surgery (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction) was first performed on former Major Leaguer Tommy John in 1974. After removing the UCL, it is often replaced by a tendon from another part of the body.

“When I first found out (the UCL) was torn, it sucked,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t expecting that, I didn’t think it happened. It’s a big road block, but you aren’t out forever.”

Although he also frequently plays first base, Thomas was a late-inning reliever in high school.

The conditioning aspect of the game for starting pitchers and relievers can be very different.

Starters are conditioned for the possibility of throwing a complete game, while late-inning relievers usually throw one inning, sometimes even less.

Thomas pitched 97 innings in 40 appearances from his sophomore through senior years, an average of nearly 2.5 innings an outing.

Many scouts and college coaches will tell families that if they want to keep up with everyone else, they need to be competing year round. However, playing baseball 365 days a year means more usage of the arm, increasing the chances of a UCL tear.

In a June 2015 study done by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, 56.8% of all Tommy John procedures performed each year are done on teenagers ages 15-19.

During his July 2015 Hall of Fame speech, former major league pitcher John Smoltz, who also had Tommy John, warned of the effects that year-round baseball has on children.

“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old,” Smoltz said. “Baseball’s not a year-round sport, you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.”

According to a 2016 Hardball Times article, an estimated 575 professional baseball players have had Tommy John surgery since the procedure was first performed on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John in 1974.

While this has been seen a multitude of times at the professional level, amateurs actually make up the majority of those who need Tommy John.

Dr. James Andrews is an orthopedic surgeon  at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and has performed Tommy John on multiple amateur and professional athletes, including John Smoltz.

Andrews recently acknowledged the alarming rise in the age of athletes that he has seen come through his door in recent years in a USA TODAY interview.

“(High school kids) outnumber the professionals,” Andrews said. “There was a tenfold increase in Tommy John at the high school level in my practice since 2000. I’m doing way more of these procedures then I want to.”

According to Andrews, although players who received the surgery have a “high rate of returning to play,” the best-case scenario for them likely means that they will return to the level of competition they were at pre-surgery.

According to a graph on world-renowned therapist Mike Reinold’s (former physician for the Boston Red Sox and founder of Champion Physical Therapy and Performance) website, the rise among Tommy John in youth has trended upward of up to 32 percent since 1995.

As both a young player and a parent of a young player, the number one question to ask is if the risk worth the reward.

The chances of a professional player returning to form after Tommy John, let alone an amateur, are not good. According to the findings of an American Journal of Sports Medicine study, Major League pitchers who had Tommy John between 1999-2011 saw an increase in their ERA (earned run average), BAA (batting average against), WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and a decrease in innings pitched, pitches thrown in the strike zone, percentage of fastballs thrown and average fastball velocity.

The reward? A chance to possibly play collegiate baseball and beyond. According to hsbaseball.net, there is a 5.6% chance that a high school pitcher will play collegiately and only .5% of them will play professionally.

Of those .5% in the 2016 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft (which accepts high school and college players) a total of 40 players that were drafted already had Tommy John surgery before they played professionally, including Tullahoma native Jordan Sheffield (Vanderbilt) and Knoxville native Kyle Serrano (Tennessee).      

The American Sports Medicine Institute has recommended a host of things to ensure a child’s arm stays healthy:

  • Ensure proper mechanics are being taught. Move from fastballs to offspeed stuff.
  • If a child complains of pain, cease throwing immediately and see a physician.
  • Watch and respond to signs of fatigue. If a child is tired, remove them from the mound and let him play elsewhere.

That being said, it all boils down to listening to the athlete and making sure that proper arm care is a priority should they pursue year-round baseball.

Although Thomas didn’t play any sports beside baseball in high school, he still said it would “not at all” affect the possibility of him tearing his UCL due to practicing and throwing in the off-season.

“It wasn’t really that another sport would’ve helped (prevent Tommy John), but it was more-so that I didn’t take good-enough care of my arm. Always make sure you do your arm-care bands. Running helps a little bit too, but always make sure you do your arm exercises after you pitch.”

Anthony Fiorella is a senior majoring in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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