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TJS And The Next New Moneyball Consideration

Tommy John tells his surgeon, "By Jobe, I think you've got it!"
Tommy John tells his surgeon, "By Jobe, I think you've got it!"
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As you know from the book Billy Beane wrote, "Moneyball" means taking as many pitches as possible hoping to draw a lot of walks. But seriously, folks, it means that teams with limited financial resources need to find creative -- often overlooked or undervalued -- ways of maximizing talent for the money available to spend.

Sometimes this means trading away more established, and costly, "stars" in exchange for lesser known, lesser paid players who can approximate the value. Other times it means coveting, or taking chances on, players with warts, question marks, or skills not fully appreciated by the market.

If you're looking for young, cost-controlled and superlative talent, who wouldn't want to have Jose Fernandez, or Matt Harvey, or Martin Perez, or Matt Moore? Trouble is, those great young pitchers are among the 124 current big leaguers who have succumbed to Tommy John surgery. #125 is likely to be Masahiro Tanaka, on whose elbow rests much of the hope for the 2014 New York Yankees who have invested $155M in him.

Here's the big problem with Tommy John surgery. Though the recovery rate is high, unless a pitcher is lucky both with timing of the injury and the speed of the recovery the surgery is going to disrupt parts of two seasons (and often an entire one of them). If you consider that a top pitcher might have 10 really good seasons in him, having two of them disrupted by TJS is a huge blow.

In Tanaka's case he is signed to a 7-year contract one of which has already been severely compromised. If he has TJS it won't be until August, which means all of next season is definitely shot. The 12-18 month recovery time for TJS is not to be taken lightly.

What pitches carry with them the highest risk for UCL damage to the elbow? The slider gets a lot of attention, and for good reason, as it requires a violent torque to produce a sharp break at a high velocity. However, the splitter is a major culprit as well. Take your index and middle finger and spread them out wide and you will immediately see why: You can feel the strain on the forearm all the way down to the elbow. The "pitch of the 2010s" is the cutter and there is some concern that the torque associated with a good cutter could be problematic, though perhaps not as much so as the slider or splitter.

What pitches carry with them the lowest risk factor? Probably the "low octane" fastball and the changeup, which is thrown, ideally, with the same motion, different grip. These are pitches that do not require violent torque or snap or a maximum effort delivery.

We are in an era where 2-season interruptions in health are cropping up like wildfire. How great it would be for an organization to develop quality pitchers whose incidence of injury was a lot lower than that of their peer group.

Enter Tommy Milone. Milone is no ace yet he is currently closing in on 30th all-time in Oakland A's history for wins. Partly this is because better pitchers have been shipped off to rack up more wins elsewhere but part of it is simply that Milone is durable: He is always ready, five days after he starts, to take the ball again. Some of Milone's value is that he's "pretty good" but a lot of his value is that he is as low risk for injury as they come.

This is not to say that the A's, or any other team, will begin using their 2nd round draft picks to secure pitchers who top out at 88 MPH and throw a great changeup, in favor of their electric stuff wielding, high ceiling peers. It is, however, to say that at the very moment the Marlins, Mets, Rangers and Yankees would rather have Milone handy than the superior pitchers they actually have -- but don't have.

Are teams beginning to view young pitchers with crackling sliders, devastating splitters, and high octane fastballs, with less luster as they ponder a whopping one-third of pitchers going under the knife, and into obscurity, for over a year? If not, should they be? Are teams beginning to view young pitchers with only moderate velocity, fastball command and changeup deception as having hidden value due to their increased odds of being durable over the length of their contract and/or career? If not, should they be?

Nothing is changing the pennant race landscape these days like injuries vs. health, depth vs. a lack thereof. Tommy John surgeries are not a reality, they're an epidemic. Why are we obsessively charting pitch counts but dismissively resting hopes on the elbows of pitchers allowed -- no, expected -- to repeatedly torque their elbows in ways the elbow simply isn't meant to be torqued?

Perhaps you don't win a game of attrition with ice or a weight room. You might, however, win it with a really good changeup.