THE BLOG

Throw Chemistry at Baseball's Tommy John Epidemic

04/10/2015 05:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Like football, baseball has an ugly epidemic on its hands.

But unlike the dementia dilemma slowly sacking football, baseball's Achilles heel -- the soaring rate of Tommy John elbow surgeries -- can be moderated with common-sense measures.

Youth league officials and coaches must better enforce strict guidelines for pitching and throwing, while parents must employ logic by shutting down their children from touching a baseball for at least four months out of the year and not allowing them to pitch simultaneously for multiple teams.

Major League Baseball and USA Baseball -- the governing body for amateur baseball -- have established pitching guidelines and valuable resources for youth and high school players at the website Pitch Smart. But there remains an opportunity for MLB's new Commissioner Rob Manfred to take a holistic approach in investigating the circumstances that cause the need for Tommy John surgery.

Until the late 1990s, talented youth athletes typically enjoyed the luxury of playing multiple sports. The rash of Tommy John surgeries at the professional level is likely a repercussion of the wear and tear athletes have suffered due to the specialization of youth sports. Too many boys are playing way too much baseball.

2015-04-10-1428679503-333653-ypIII.jpg Credit: Tom Sorensen

According to mlbreports.com, only 53 Tommy John procedures were performed on Major League players before 2000, dating back to 1974 when Tommy John himself became the first to undergo the operation. But nearly 250 big league pitchers -- 30 in 2014 alone -- have had the surgery this millennial.

What's particularly disturbing about the trend is that the list of those who have recently gone under the knife is filled with young emerging stars, such as the New York Mets' Matt Harvey, who at 26 is back on the mound this month after Tommy John surgery in October 2013.

Miami Marlins hurler Jose Fernandez was just 21 when he had the surgery last year and Stephen Strasburg was a 22-year-old phenom with the Washington Nationals when he underwent the procedure in 2010. Many prospects are arriving at the big league level having already had the surgery.

Tommy John surgery: The year after. We explore why the hard part begins now. http://t.co/j1LFJlYuLi pic.twitter.com/c8iAPj2bjm

— USATODAYmlb (@USATODAYmlb) March 2, 2015

Tommy John surgery involves replacing the elbow ligament that connects the bone of the upper arm to a bone in the forearm with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. The need for the procedure -- known in medical practice as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (or UCL) -- comes after the ligament has stretched to the point that it can't hold the bones tightly enough during throws.

Noting unique differences between the make-up and the growth rate of muscles and ligaments, Lawrence Rocks, professor emeritus of chemistry at LIU Post, suggested to me this month that Manfred commission a study on the chemistry of the body as it relates to the ulnar collateral ligament.

"Skeletal muscles have one kind of protein composition, but tendons and ligaments are slightly different," Rocks, who co-authored The Energy Crisis in 1972 and taught 56 years at LIU Post in Brookville, N.Y., said to me. "The closer you get to the bone, the more carbohydrates play a role. This type of study would incorporate research into the different rates of growth and development of muscles and tendons."

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Lawrence Rocks

Rocks, whose son Burton is a baseball player agent and author, told me that the team owners, players and the sport of baseball would all benefit from having a better understanding about the chemistry of the tendons.

Investing thousands into such a study has the potential to save baseball owners millions. It also could keep thousands of pitchers -- particularly the younger players who get Tommy John surgery as teens and never pitch beyond high school -- out of the operating room.

Lawrence Rocks photo from LIU Post