On August 21, 2010, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg threw a pitch, felt something in his elbow, and within two weeks went under the knife.
One year and two days ago, his ulnar collateral ligament was replaced – Tommy John surgery. On Tuesday, he makes his return to the mound in the major leagues.
My immediate thoughts shift to Royals prospect John Lamb, who underwent the same procedure in June.
Statistically, the procedure is 95% effective. Extensive rehabilitation is required and throwing programs won’t start until 16 weeks after surgery. In Lamb’s case, he’s about a month short of that step.
Part of what helped Strasburg make an early return was an intense drive to get back to the big leagues after surgery.
That’s a point in Lamb’s favor, as well. He’s been down this road before, after a car accident broke his left elbow, he missed his final season of high school, but was selected by the Royals in the fifth round of the 2008 draft anyway. After the fracture healed and he rehabbed, he came back strong, holding his own as an 19-year-old in the rookie leagues before breaking out in 2010, jumping from Low A to High A and finishing the year in Double A as a 20-year old.
He opened the season ranked by many as the Royals top pitching prospect and was back in Northwest Arkansas. Baseball America’s #18 overall prospect, Lamb made eight starts for the Naturals, compiling a 3.09 ERA over 35 innings.
Lamb’s surgery was performed June 3 by Lewis Yocum, the same surgeon who performed the procedure on Strasburg. According to Lamb’s father, James, Yocum is also handling the rehab schedule for Lamb, though they haven’t spoken with the Strasburg camp about the process.
Every scouting report I’ve seen on Lamb points to his composure on and off the mound. With his previous injury, he’s battled back already, and under the guidance of Yocum, I see no reason why Lamb can’t fit into the same kind of rehab schedule.
Granted, no two injuries are ever exactly the same and no two surgeries are ever exactly the same. Each player is different. Lamb has yet to throw a ball and there are a number of setbacks that could jump up on the way back.
Assuming he makes a full recovery and his rehab allows a quick return, it may help him in the long run. Part of the rehabilitation process aims to take stress off of the elbow through improved core and shoulder strength. That could mean a slight uptick in velocity but could also enable Lamb to throw more innings down the road. And the more innings you get out of a good pitcher, the more value they bring to your team and organization.
So yes, there’s still a long and winding road ahead for Lamb (as there is for Strasburg). A June 2012 return would get Lamb back in action just before his 22nd birthday. That puts him on pace to hit the big leagues a bit later than expected, but his advance through the minors was accelerated after his strong 2010 already, so it may be a difference of months rather than a year or two.