Former Yankees' starter Tommy John talked to ESPN 980's Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro on The Sports Fix last week (check 2/10 archive for the audio), warning when the discussion turned to the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick's future that the only thing the Washington Nationals' recovering ace Stephen Strasburg had to worry about was allowing himself to recover. John, now 67, and twenty-two years removed from his last major league game, is thirty-seven years removed from the elbow reconstruction surgery that saved his career and now bears his name. Mr. John, who pitched, "one year, one day" after having the procedure performed on his elbow, said the one thing that could get in Strasburg's way is impatience. "The only thing that, to me, that Stephen Strasburg has to really worry about....? E-G-O."
There was no ego and only a slight sense of urgency on display yesterday when Strasburg met with the D.C. press corps after his first "catch" of the spring. The right-hander told reporters, as recorded by MLB.com's Bill Ladson in an article entitled, "Strasburg joins Nats at camp, plays catch", that he's on schedule in his recovery and patiently following the program that's been laid out for him by his doctors:
"'I'm not going to go out [and do anything] that is going to jeopardize how fast I'll be able to come back. Whatever the timetable is, I'm going to do what they tell me to do. I'm going to get better as fast as I possibly can.'"
Which is a safe approach, according to Mr. John, who thinks, however, that the goal shouldn't be to get back as soon as possible, but making sure Strasburg, "...never break(s) down until he retires from the game of baseball." In order to make that outcome more likely, the left-hander who pitched eighteen MLB seasons after his operation recommends that Strasburg change his delivery, once again mentioning the "inverted W" or as he calls it "the scarecrow position" which the former major leaguer believes is the cause of Strasburg's issues. Chicago White Sox' Pitching Coach Don Cooper offered the same unsolicited advice before Strasburg was injured, as SI.com's Tom Verducci reported last July in an article entitled, "Is Strasburg headed for trouble? One pitching expert thinks so."
"As he loads the baseball," Mr. Verducci wrote, " his elbows raise higher than his shoulders -- forming what pitching coaches call an inverted W -- and the back of his shoulders pinch toward one another in the "scap loading" portion of the delivery. Such a delivery, some pitching coaches believe, puts him at greater risk of shoulder fatigue."
Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore, in an article earlier this winter entitled, "Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg continues rehab from surgery", talked about a change in the 22-year-old right-hander's training which Strasburg made after realizing, "he possessed a deficiency common among young pitchers,":
"The muscles at the front of his right shoulder are exceptionally strong, but the muscles in the back, which help the arm decelerate during a pitch, are comparatively weak. When he was scratched from a start in late July, it was because he felt a tweak in those decelerating muscles."
There's been no mention of a change in Strasburg's delivery, however. The Post's Mr. Kilgore writes that though he'll be missing a year rehabbing from the elbow injury, it does, "[present] Strasburg an opportunity to strengthen his shoulder." Mr. John, however, (indirectly at least) rejected that approach in the ESPN 980 interview.
"And they say well, but if you get strong enough it will hold up," the one-time Indians, White Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Angels and A's starter says, "and if you get your shoulder stronger than your elbow then your elbow is gonna blow, but if your elbow is stronger than your shoulder, then your shoulder is gonna blow. So, why don't you just take your hand and move it a quarter of a turn and when you come back you make a circle, your arm's up on top and then all you've got to do is launch it toward home plate and you take one aspect of straining your shoulder out of the equation."
While everyone's offering advice from outside the organization, and doing so no doubt with the best of intentions, Strasburg can, now that he's in camp, look at Jordan Zimmermann as an example, so far, of the success the Nationals have had in rehabbing pitchers recovering from Tommy John. The right-hander, the Nats' top pitching prospect before the 2009 season who had the surgery in August of '09, made an appearance last night on 106.7 the FAN in DC's Overtime with Bill Rohland and Danny Rouhier in which he said his arm is fine. "The arm feels great," Zimmermann said, "I'm healthy as ever and I feel real strong."
Initially, upon beginning to throw again, Zimmermann said that the hardest part was, "last year when I got down here, kind of similar to what Strasburg's in right now. You're feeling good and you're throwing, but you gotta be limited with everything. You can't do half the drills that everyone else is doing, and things like that. I think that was the hardest part, and then also knowing, you know, I feel that I can go out and pitch in a game, but I really have six more months until I can actually do that."
When the injury to Strasburg's elbow was first diagnosed, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo sounded confident as he explained that the team had had great success with pitchers who had Tommy John surgery and, "...the success rate for people coming back and retaining their stuff is pretty good." Zimmermann told Mr.'s Rohland and Rouhier before the surgery, "my slider was my best pitch and my curve ball was just, okay I guess, but after surgery my slider just went away and I had a hard time throwing it and the curve ball then became [a] better pitch, and it was more of a 12-6, a true curve, and had some pretty good bite to it. But now that I started up again, the slider seems to be back and the curve ball seems to back, so I don't know, I guess that's a [best] case scenario."
The best case scenario, for those who still need more support as they wait for Strasburg's return, was laid out by another former major leaguer, Curt Schilling on ESPN's Baseball Tonight after he'd predicted that Strasburg would undergo Tommy John before the official announcement of the injury was made. "Unfortunately for the league," Mr. Schilling said, "guys tend to come back throwing harder after Tommy John than they did beforehand, which would be a scary thought."
• Further Reading:
"When the Washington Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg faces the Mets on Saturday afternoon, his 100-mile-an-hour fastballs and big-breaking curves will crash into the strike zone more through basic mechanics than magic."