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In 2014, Dr. James Andrews called it an “epidemic.”
The world-renowned sports medicine doctor was referring to the current state of Tommy John surgeries, an injury that has plagued Major League Baseball over the past decade. Last week, Dr. Glenn S. Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) and a colleague of Andrews, reiterated Andrews’s sentiments to CNN Money. Unfortunately, it is a problem without an immediate solution.
According to fangraphs.com, the number of Tommy John surgeries before July 12 in 2016 was 12. Last year, that number hit 20, and in 2012 it reached a high of 26.
At the 2016 All-Star break in mid-July, 161 Big League pitchers had undergone Tommy John reconstruction surgery at some point in their career. That figure equates to 26.2% of all MLB pitchers who had thrown at least one pitch during the current season.
Fleisig, Andrews and ASMI have been at the forefront of Tommy John surgery before the Internet, social media and the general media gravitated toward the story.
Over the last 30 years, ASMI has worked with Motion Analysis Corporation, an industry leader in capturing 3D motion. Through biomechanical analysis, motion-capture sensors and slow-motion cameras, Fleisig and his scientific team can study the effects of certain throwing motions on a player’s elbow and why their pitching could lead to eventual injury. With its pitchers, ASMI typically captures data every 6–12 months in order to properly track how each player is digesting the information and incorporating it into their game.
Around 2000, Fleisig said that ASMI—which tailors its work to more research and scientific studies versus individual player analysis—would focus much more of its attention on injury prevention than rehabilitation. He estimates that 75% of the players they work with are preventative cases.
“What are the right and wrong ways to pitch?” Fleisig said. “Is a curveball more stressful than a fastball? Do lefties throw different than righties? All of these things we spend our time studying the questions of interest and then getting the answers out there through scientific articles and scientific conferences. Most of the time we’re finding the answers.”
Through its research, ASMI recently found a supporter in former MLB pitcher Roy Halladay. At the tail end of his career in the early 2010s, the two-time Cy Young Award winner—with the help of the Philadelphia Phillies—visited ASMI to see how he could prolong his retirement.
“Towards the end of my career, it became very important to know, ‘O.K., where am I at? Is there something I can improve to take the pressure off my arm, what’s it going to be?’” Halladay told CNN Money. “That’s a key for any pitcher, it’s arm health. It’s your livelihood.”
He is not the only Big Leaguer to head to Birmingham, Ala., to consult with ASMI, though. New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia visited Fleisig in the summer 2012 as he dealt with shoulder issues. Three-time All-Star and 2002 American League Cy Young Award winner, Barry Zito, worked with ASMI in the early 2000s as well.
The 39-year-old Halladay has now started taking his two sons to ASMI, with the hopes that the nonprofit organization can help them prevent needing Tommy John Surgery.
“Anybody who is involved in youth sports should take it upon themselves to promote the game and do the best of their ability to let Major League Baseball have those kids and have them healthy,” Halladay said.