Stephen Strasburg 'probably' needs Tommy John surgery, will miss 12 to 18 months
Rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg will "probably" miss at least one year and perhaps the entire 2011 baseball season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, General Manager Mike Rizzo said. After one of the most electrifying beginnings to a baseball career in memory and after validating the massive hype that trumpeted his arrival, Strasburg ends his season with an uncertain future. The Washington Nationals will hold their breath, optimistic Strasburg will conform with the odds and return to full health by 2012.
"It's a tough day for him and for all of us, for everyone who's a Nats fan," Team President Stan Kasten said. "But we saw Jordan [Zimmermann] come back last night. A year from today, Stephen will be joining him."
Strasburg will receive a second opinion from Dr. Lewis Yocum, the surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery on Jordan Zimmermann. But the Nationals are operating under the assumption Strasburg will need Tommy John surgery to repair a "significant" tear in his UCL, Rizzo said.
The Nationals began digesting the news Strasburg might need the major surgery Monday, after an MRI exam showed potential signs of the torn ligament. Their fears were realized Thursday afternoon, after eam doctor Wiemi Douoguih administered an arthrogram, an enhanced MRI exam in which dye is shot into the specified area.
The Nationals informed Strasburg yesterday, but he wanted to delay the announcement of his impending likely surgery so as not to spoil first overall pick Bryce Harper's introductory press conference. Rizzo spoke with Strasburg late last night.
"He turned from being upset to being really focused and ready to take on this new thing on his life," Rizzo said. "We've had successful ones in the past, and we feel this is going to be no different. Stephen is going to be a dedicated, focused individual."
Tommy John surgery requires a grueling, 12-to-18 month rehab, but the success rate for pitchers returning to full strength and capability is roughly 90 percent. While the surgery will rob Strasburg of most if not all of next season, the chances he will be able to continue his career as a flame-throwing strikeout artist are strong.
Nine pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery were selected for the 2010 All-Star Game: Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Arthur Rhodes, Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria, Hong-Chih Kuo, Rafael Soriano and Billy Wagner. Potential National League rookie of the Jamie Garcia also had the operation.
On Thursday night, Zimmermann returned from his recovery from Tommy John surgery and faced Carpenter, who endured the operation and rehab in 2007 and 2008 and finished second in National League Cy Young voting in 2009.
"Frustrated, disappointed," Kasten said. "It's easier for us today than it was Monday. I think for all of our fans and for his teammates, it will be easier in a couple days than it might be today."
The Nationals tried to proceed with caution in every way they could, limiting Strasburg's pitches and innings during his two-month stay in the minor leagues and when he arrived in the majors. Strasburg never threw more than seven innings or threw more than 99 pitches in any one start. Between the minors and majors, Strasburg threw 123 1/3 innings.
"It's frustrating, because this happens to people you think it shouldn't happen to," Rizzo said. "This player was developed and cared for the correct way. Things like this happen. Pitchers break down. Pitchers get hurt. We're satisfied with the way he was developed. I know [Strasburg's agent] Scott Boras was satisfied with the way he's been treated, and Stephen is also. We're good with that. Frustrated, yes. Second-guessing ourselves, no."
Strasburg finishes his first year in the majors with a 5-3 record, a 2.91 ERA, 17 walks and 92 strikeouts in 68 innings, giving him the highest strikeout rate per nine innings -- 12.2 -- of any starting pitcher in the majors.
The first sign Strasburg would need the major surgery on his elbow came Saturday in Philadelphia, in the middle of one of his best starts this season. He threw a 1-1 changeup in the fifth inning to Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown, then grimaced and reached for his elbow. He believed he could pitch through the sudden tightness he felt, but the Nationals yanked him the game. In the dugout, pitching coach Steve McCatty slammed shut the small metal door covering the bullpen phone.
Strasburg also experienced inflammation in his right shoulder, which caused the Nationals to scratch him front a start in late July and place him on the disabled list for the first time. Strasburg made only three more starts before pain shot through his one-in-a-million right arm again.
But Strasburg still succumbed to the same fate as Zimmermann, another young right-hander the Nationals project as a frontline starter. Zimmermann required Tommy John surgery last August after his elbow broke down in late July before he reached 100 major league innings. Zimmermann returned to the majors Thursday night, 399 days after he underwent surgery and almost exactly 13 months since his last major league appearance.
"This is tough news for a kid with his kind of nature and his kind of expectations that he puts on himself," Kasten said. "He's a high-achievement orientated person."