March 21, 2014

Why Braves Pitchers Might Be More Prone to Tommy John Surgeries

In this SB Nation Beyond the Boxscore article from November 2012, we get that the Braves had more Tommy John surgeries, up to that point, than any franchise in the majors.  The data in the article accounts for the team the pitcher last pitched for before getting Tommy John surgery, so it’s possible that a pitcher was overworked by other franchises before coming to a different team and undergoing Tommy John surgery.  Also, their numbers include both major leaguers and minor leaguers.  But regardless of how you measure, the Braves franchise has dealt with a lot of Tommy John surgeries.

I have a couple of theories as to why Braves’ pitchers have suffered this fate more so than pitchers pitching for other franchises:

1) The Braves had to rely on injury-prone pitchers as Tommy John surgeries became more common

Tommy John surgeries became more common around the turn of the millennium, just as the Braves’ payroll budget started to decrease.  During the post-Maddux/Glavine/Turner Era, with a lower payroll budget, the Braves tried to find reliable pitchers on the cheap, pitchers with skills but also with flaws, like injury histories, body types that suggest future injury and flawed mechanics (we’ll get to that in my second theory).  The Braves can’t afford to acquire the true aces with easy, smooth deliveries and performance to match.  So they have to find the pitcher with the tools and skills, and that have shown that they can get hitters out, regardless of other red flags.

But many teams are faced with limited budgets and must take their chances with reliable players with flaws, like injury histories.  This is not completely unique to the Braves.  So this doesn’t completely explain why Tommy John surgery has been more common in Braves pitchers.  Perhaps there is something in what the Braves look for or ignore, in terms of pitching mechanics, combined with the fact that they’ve had a low payroll budget over the last 12 years or so, that is making their pitching staffs seem cursed.  Which brings us to my second theory:

2) The Braves, as a franchise, aren’t as heavily focused on pitching mechanics as they are skills, tools and results.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent article asking what is going on with the Braves’ pitching staff over the last 10 years:

“Arodys Vizcaino, Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Michael Gonzalez, Mike Hampton, Odalis Perez, Paul Byrd, and Peter Moylan all had to be shut down to have the surgery while with the Braves’ major league club…and that’s just in the last 10 years. If you dip back a little further you can add names like John Smoltz and Kerry Ligtenberg to the lineup.”

A lot of those guys seem to have uneasy deliveries in which they put a lot of strain on their arms.  Maybe that’s just confirmation bias. Certainly there are pitchers with seemingly easy deliveries that need Tommy John surgery.  And, on the flip side, certainly there are pitchers with funky deliveries that remain reasonably healthy.

But the Braves are known for taking chances on all kinds of players at the amateur level that have the skills and tools to be major leaguers, even if there is something unorthodox, even red-flag worthy, about them.  Brandon Beachy played mostly third base in college and didn’t have much experience as a pitcher.  They wanted Andrelton Simmons to pitch because they were impressed with his arm.  Kerry Ligtenberg had a unique delivery and was purchased by the Braves for $720 worth of baseball equipment.  Obviously Peter Moylan has an unusual delivery and the Twins released him in 1998 but he had skills to get right-handed hitters out and the Braves saw that in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.  At the professional level, they were able to get Mike Hampton on the cheap, with other teams paying large portions of his salary, largely because of his injury history.

In the post-Moneyball age, when teams like the A’s and Rays have gained notoriety for finding undervalued talent, the Braves have been as good as any team at finding hidden gems or getting talented players on the cheap.  In order to do this, there has to be something seemingly flawed about these players so that other teams pass them up.  Maybe when it comes to pitchers, many of the types of guys the Braves acquire actually are flawed in that they are more likely to break down.  Maybe what has kept the Braves’ pitching staff fairly successful, even in the post-Maddux, post-Glavine, post-Smoltz era, is the fact that they load up on these toolsy, skilled but possibly mechanically flawed pitchers.



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