Pitchers Coming Back from Torn Labrums

Pitchers Coming Back from Torn Labrums

On Wednesday, the Yankees revealed that Michael Pineda had suffered a torn labrum, a devastating turn of events both for the 23-year-old righty and for the team that acquired him from the Mariners for top prospect Jesus Montero back in January. Pineda will miss the entire season and part of 2013, thinning the Yankees' surplus of starting pitching—and underscoring the fact that you can never have too much—while raising the question of whether they will ever get much value out of him.

Far from charging that they had received damaged goods from the Mariners, the Yankees believe that Pineda suffered the tear at the end of a rehab outing last weekend, when he left after 15 pitches, complaining of lingering pain in the back of his shoulder. Pineda struggled to ramp up his velocity throughout the spring, a problem the team blamed on his lax conditioning over the winter, and one all too reminiscent of Phil Hughes' saga last spring. As general manager Brian Cashman noted, the team did a full physical on Pineda, including an MRI of his shoulder, at the time of the trade, and did another on March 31 that revealed nothing more than tendonitis. The tear was discovered only via a dye-contrast MRI, which is used to improve the visibility of such images. On Wednesday, Cashman conceded, "I think it's real fair to speculate that there was something there, laying dormant, that wasn't detectable during regular MRIs.”

While success rates for Tommy John surgery run in the 85-90 percent range among professional pitchers in terms of returning to full strength, they're still much lower for labrum surgeries. In fact, once upon a time, a torn labrum was close to a death sentence for a pitcher. Back in 2004, BP's injury expert, Will Carroll, penned a chilling article for Slate, "Labrum, It Nearly Killed Him," detailing the lack of success doctors have had in treating such injuries. Of the 36 pitchers Carroll studied who had undergone labrum surgery, just one—middle reliever Rocky Biddle—had returned to his previous level. "The leading minds in baseball medicine are flummoxed by the labrum," wrote Carroll. "Doctors can't agree on how to detect a tear, don't know the best way to fix one, and aren't sure why, almost without fail, a torn labrum will destroy a pitcher's career… [I]f pitchers with torn labrums were horses, they'd be destroyed."

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