Post Tommy John Impact on Baseball Handicapping

Tommy John surgery, the procedure in which a damaged ligament in a pitcher’s elbow is replaced by a tendon from elsewhere in the the body, is incredibly common these days in baseball, and becoming more so every day. When it was first performed on Tommy John in 1974 he was given about a one percent chance of full recovery. He played until 1989 and won 164 more games. Now full recovery occurs in about 90 percent of cases. Players who face the surgery now face about a year of recovery time, but we are at the point where their recovery is fully expected. It’s bad news, but it’s not tragic. In fact, we have seen a lot of pitchers come back stronger after the surgery, and go on to a long, productive career.

As the surgery becomes more common bettors are faced with the challenge of determining how to deal with pitchers after they return from their surgery. In their first few starts there is a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty can lead to serious value, but it can also lead to challenges and danger if you aren’t careful when you are choosing your baseball picks. Here are five factors to consider when trying to figure it out:

Has he dealt with a major rehab before? – Coming back from a serious injury or surgery is a very tough thing to do. Players need to work very hard through an often painful rehab process. They also need to deal with the frustration of their absence from the game and the inevitable setbacks they will face. It’s never easy, but players who have been through it before are more effectively positioned to come back strong from such a major rehab like this than if this is their first problem. It doesn’t have to be a setback of similar scope that they have come back from – just a reasonably significant injury that kept them out of the lineup for more than a few starts.

How have similar pitchers fared? – There have been so many pitchers who have gone through the surgery now that we can easily find similar pitchers to compare our pitcher to. Are they young pitchers or older guys? Are they power pitchers or finesse guys? Are they fit guys or do they carry a lot of extra weight? Have they had past problems, or is this their first major setback? Have they had a lot of past success, or have they not yet established themselves?  The more of a sense you can get of how similar pitchers have returned the more confident you can be in your expectations for this pitcher.

What role is he returning in? – Is he coming back as a starter, or is he being eased in through the bullpen? Is he an ace returning as an ace, or is he moving down the rotation to start? Is he returning into a high pressure situation, or is his team not in the center of a serious race? You can get a sense of how confident the team is in the pitcher by what they choose, and how much pressure he will face to return to form as quickly as he can.

Has the public missed him? – There are high profile guys who get the surgery, and guys that no one beyond the most hardcore of fans have ever heard of. When a high profile guy gets the surgery then his progress will be closely monitored by the media, and his return will be met with serious anticipation and excitement from the betting public. They may or may not be optimistic depending upon the circumstance, but they are certainly going to pay attention. For a more obscure guy, though, the public will barely notice the return, and are likely to view it as a negative if they do pay any attention.

How did he start his seasons in the past? – A guy will return to the majors after a lot of conditioning work and a few starts at a lower level to get his rhythm back. That’s essentially what happens at the start of every season, too – after an off-season conditioning program the pitcher faces spring training competition before throwing for real. You can get an approximate sense of how a guy returning from surgery might fare, then, based on how he has started seasons in the past. If he has traditionally started slowly and rounded into form after a few starts then you might expect him to do the same coming back after surgery. If he has been very tough early on, though, then he is more likely to be similarly tough after surgery.

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