Does Tommy John Surgery Give MLB Pitchers an Advantage?

Many pitchers get Tommy John surgery to repair arm injuries. The recovery often keeps the player out of action for the equivalent of a full season or longer. But the wait is usually worth it because the pitcher’s arm can be stronger when he returns. That is a good thing about the surgery, but some people think it’s cheating.

Some believe it’s unfair to allow MLB players to undergo the procedure while banning performance-enhancing drugs. Both do provide advantages. With the surgery occurring more often, does it give pitchers an advantage when they return to the action?

A history of Tommy John surgery

Yankees' Tommy John
Tommy John of the New York Yankees pitches in a game | David Madison/Getty Images

The procedure got its name because left-handed pitcher Tommy John was the first person to have the surgery. Dr. Frank Jobe performed the operation on the 31-year-old John in 1974.

Since John was a well-known player, the surgery was named after him. It’s easier to remember than the procedure’s medical name, ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction. Athletes consider the surgery when their UCL stretches, frays, or tears due to the repetitiveness of the throwing motion.

Is Tommy John surgery cheating?

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Because pitchers can get better after the surgery, some people liken it to PEDs and consider it to be a form of cheating. NPR explored the issue. It noted that pitchers historically had to battle pain and a race against time. But this isn’t so much the case with the high success rate of Tommy John surgery these days.

Because the operation allows players to better manage pain and recover from injuries — leading to longer careers — one could argue it has the same effects as PEDs, which the MLB banned. Both can also be dangerous because a patient always risks something going wrong when he goes under the knife.

NPR argues that surgery is perceived as being more legitimate than PEDs. The procedure is largely superficial so it doesn’t actually change the person. Steroids, on the other hand, can change the user. That leads people to believe athletes who use PEDs aren’t as good as those who are “clean.”

Conflicting research about the surgery’s usefulness

There is conflicting data about how useful Tommy John surgery is, as described by Sport Techie. One study from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center determined that pitchers win more games following the surgery.

A different study done by the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, over a similar time period, found that MLB pitchers do not regain their performance level after the surgery. The Rush study found improvements in hits allows and walks per inning pitched; the Ford study showed declining performances in those categories.

What does Tommy John think of the surgery?

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John is a household name because of the surgery, but even he is against it. He wrote a column for AARP discussing why the UCL reconstruction bothers him. It’s because affects children more than professional athletes in modern times.

More than half of all Tommy John surgeries are done on teens between 15 and 19 years old; one of seven of whom will never fully recover. So a medical procedure that was originally intended to be performed on professionals is now increasingly being done on kids.

Tommy John surgery during the pandemic

Sports Illustrated describes another controversy surrounding the procedure athletes having it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when people were encouraged to postpone elective surgeries, players like the Red Sox’s Chris Sale and the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard had the procedure.

While it was legal to perform the surgery, it may not have been the best thing morally. The affected players were using precious hospital resources at a time when hospitals needed to focus on coronavirus patients.