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Yankees doctor sees possible spike in Tommy John injuries if baseball resumes

Yankees pitcher Luis Severino throws in the bullpen

Yankees pitcher Luis Severino throws in the bullpen during spring training in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 16, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Whenever Major League Baseball resumes in 2020 — if it resumes — there is the potential for a rash of serious injuries, particularly to pitchers.

Dr. Christopher Ahmad, in his 12th season as the Yankees’ team physician, believes that could be a problem.

“I have been performing Tommy John surgery for 20 years, and over the past few weeks, I have found myself asking the question: Will the return to baseball following coronavirus be associated with a surge of Tommy John injuries?” Ahmad recently wrote on Medium. “Answer — possibly yes.”

The reason for his belief is evidence gleaned over the years from spring training.

“Year after year, I have observed a consistent spike in Tommy John surgeries in the spring compared to other months/seasons,” Ahmad wrote. “The reasons behind the spikes are related to some combination of the sudden start of play, rapid competition intensity, lack of early-season physical conditioning, lower preparation coming from offseason, not yet fully optimized throwing mechanics and playing with elbow pain.”

The latter, Ahmad said, often is exacerbated by players’ reluctance to reveal discomfort.

“Many players after the long offseason waiting period are unwilling to disclose elbow pain or acknowledge their lack of preparation, fearing they will be shut down right away,” Ahmad said.

That reticence is present in the best of circumstances. The current one — the sport has been shut down since March 13 — is anything but that.

“The coronavirus pandemic may greatly compound and exaggerate the risk factors associated with the spring Tommy John surgery spike,” Ahmad wrote. “The enthusiasm to get back to baseball right now is simply enormous. Players and their families have been understandably craving baseball for months at this point and are growing impatient . . . That translates to maximum effort throwing.”

MLB is expected to present a formal proposal to the Players Association on Tuesday for the resumption of the season. Among the elements that have leaked out is plans for a spring training consisting of about three weeks (a time frame many in the sport have been speculating on since late March).

Players have been trying to stay in shape during the shutdown but are doing so in ways that don’t resemble typical offseasons.

In a normal offseason, players would have ample access to gyms, workout complexes and parks or fields in which to throw, hit and take fly balls or grounders. But many, if not all, of those places have not been available because of stay-at-home orders across the country, forcing players to take creative measures to maintain a workload.

The pitchers, who probably were 80% to 85% built up for the regular season when the sport shuttered, have been on throwing programs of varying degrees. Regardless, they almost certainly will have to be treated as if they’re starting from scratch whenever spring training is rebooted.

“The current conditioning of players is likely suboptimal as they have not been able to work out in a standard and diligent fashion during the lockdown,” Ahmad wrote. “The density of throwing may be increased in a scenario where games are scheduled with higher frequency, forcing players to face compromised rest periods. Even worse, some players will be returning from a prior elbow injury and will be vulnerable to reinjury.”

Ahmad used a somewhat blunt analogy in expressing the danger of not taking certain steps to mitigate the risk of significant injury (a consistent throwing program and the importance of being open about feeling any soreness are among those steps).

“Going fast with a return to baseball is like tailgating the car in front of you at high speed,” he wrote. “You simply don’t have time to respond when driving 76 mph with 2 feet separating you and the car ahead. A high-speed crash can ruin your car.”

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