Medlen’s Misfortune is Everyone’s Misfortune
As the 2012 season drew to a conclusion, Stephen Strasburg’s absence from the rotation of the Washington Nationals was one of the more hotly debated issues. Often those heaping abuse on the Nationals decision to bench their prized right-hander contrasted their decision with that of the Atlanta Braves where Kris Medlen was still taking the ball every fifth day. There have been those who have re-visited this controversy with what can only be called questionable taste.
What makes the elbow ligaments of one pitcher hold up for 300 innings and another give out after 150 has little definitive in the way of explanation. Is it genetics, the number of sliders thrown, the protocols of the team in bringing pitchers along slowly when they are young? No one really knows, but in truth both the Atlanta Braves AND the Washington Nationals were taking appropriate precautions with their pitchers in 2012 and no fan should take satisfaction whenever a pitcher is disabled for whatever the reason.
Medlen and Strasburg had surgery during the fall of 2010 and both pitchers were back in the majors in 2012. As Thom Loverro says in the Washington Times, it is just as wrong for anyone to criticize the Braves for their handling of Medlen as it was for those back in September 2012 to cry foul about Strasburg’s fate as dictated by Nationals GM Mike Rizzo.
At the time the two cases seemed somewhat different. The Braves said that they were suspicious of Medlen’s ability to pitch in the rotation early in the year and had not really needed him. They used him as a long reliever swing-man not as a rehab strategy so much as because they had five starters already. Yet when Kenshin Kawakami and Jair Jurrjens were both ineffective through the first half of the season, it made sense to insert Medlen into the rotation. He ended up pitching almost exactly the number of innings Strasburg did and both pitchers were effective the next season in 2013. End of story.
The shelf life for Tommy John surgery is said to be about five to seven years. If a pitcher needs it early in his career, say at age 25, then there is a good chance he will need it again later, sometime after age 30, though there is no certainty to this proposition either. The concern should be about the need to find ongoing methods of development for pitchers both before and after Tommy John surgery. The approach taken by the Nationals may yet prove effective to some degree, but anyone who is crowing about the success of Strasburg, should employ the Yiddish maxim of kaynahora–“may the evil eye look away” immediately thereafter because they are inviting a karma revisit.
Many theorists believe that the greater reliance by pitchers on the slider and other off-speed offerings like the forkball, place greater stress on the elbow joint. Should teams limit the number of such pitches once a hurler has shown a weakness and required surgery? No one has yet answered the questions and it means that the best young arms of a generation have been shelved far too many times. Personally I would love to beat the Braves brains in on the field, but I would prefer to do it when they have their best and brightest in the doing. It would provide far more satisfaction and it is better for the game regardless.
It is of course fair to state the disclaimer that I do not believe in the “Brave’s Way,” but it has nothing to do with their approach to their pitcher’s health which I believe is just as well-meaning as that of the Nationals. Should the franchise that has a statue of Hank Aaron outside the front gate be moving to ‘Mayretta’ because their Olympic Venue stadium, Turner Field, is in the ghetto? That is a different story entirely and one I will leave others to debate.
The bottom line is that the 2013 season is just weeks away and fans are being cheated out of the appearances that two of the finer young pitchers, Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, might have made. Fans will miss the match-ups those two fine young arms and Washington’s Strasburg and Zimmermann (both of whom have had Tommy John surgery) might have had. It would have been far better to put the issue to a test of fire. Hopefully the Braves’ finest will be back soon and the Nationals pitchers will be waiting for them as healthy as ever. That is my hope and that the games will begin soon. It cannot be good for anyone or any physical appendage to the human body to play baseball with six inches of snow on the ground. There can be no debate to that maxim, so let’s get the mercury climbing. And then let’s play some baseball.