On August 14, 2019, Jameson Taillon joined a rather exclusive club, becoming the 40th pitcher to undergo a second Tommy John Surgery. That group has become a bit less exclusive since then, as two additional pitchers have joined its ranks – but it is nevertheless a small pool of players. As a result of this, it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw conclusions as to what a second TJS may mean for Taillon’s future from such a small sample size. And yet I’m going to attempt to do so anyway.
The first step in this process will be to eliminate those pitchers whose surgeries occurred before they reached the majors. After all, Taillon tossed parts of four big league seasons between his trips to the surgeon, and having that major league baseline for comparative purposes is important. And so we say goodbye to:
- Pete Fairbanks
- Jason Frasor
- Hong-Chih Kuo
Interestingly enough, all three of these pitchers were fairly successful. Fairbanks had a 2.70 ERA (158 ERA+) in 26.2 IP for the Rays last year, and looks to be a fixture in their bullpen; Frasor spent twelve years in the majors, pitching to a 3.49 ERA (125 ERA+) in 646.2 IP; and Kuo had a solid seven-year career, which included 60 IP of 1.20 ERA (324 ERA+) ball in 2010. All three were moved to the bullpen, which is certainly worth noting.
Next, we will remove those pitchers who did not return to the majors after their second surgery:
- Brian Anderson
- Matt Beech
- Todd Coffey
- Rubby De La Rosa
- Joey Devine
- Caleb Ferguson*
- Joel Hanrahan
- Jeremy Hefner
- Josh Johnson
- Jacob Lindgren
- Andrew McKirahan
- Jarrod Parker
- Colin Poche*
- Shawn Tolleson
- Mark Wohlers
- Blake Wood
- Tyler Yates
- Jeff Zimmerman
Ferguson and Poche both underwent surgery in 2020, so there isn’t much that we can learn from them. For the remaining sixteen pitchers, however, we can draw one of the following conclusions: (a) uh-oh, (b) it isn’t quite relevant, because Taillon is ready to go right now, or (c) a little bit of both.
That leaves one final round of cuts, to wit: the pitchers who did not pitch in the majors between their surgeries. This subset basically boils down to pitchers who had two surgeries in a relatively short period of time. And they are:
- Doug Brocail
- Tim Collins
- John Farrell
- Daniel Hudson
- Jose Rijo
My reasoning for these cuts is essentially that we are not able to draw upon data that demonstrates the respective impacts of both surgeries. Or, phrased differently, it’s impossible to know whether the pitcher’s performance changes – if any – stem from one or both surgeries. It may also mean that the first surgery was botched/ineffective, which is not the case with Taillon, and is therefore not informative.
There are two other cuts to make, with neither quite fitting the above designations. The first is Eric Gagne, who you may find referenced as a two-time TJS survivor. However, a bit of digging shows that the second surgery was actually to remove scar tissue and relieve pressure on the nerves in and around the joint. As far as I can tell, his UCL was not replaced. And the second is Jason Isringhausen, who actually had three Tommy John surgeries. I am not including him because he was already in his late 30s when the second and third injuries struck, and he only tossed 8 innings between those surgeries.
All of this parsing leaves us with a list of fourteen pitchers. In lieu of presenting them in a table, however, I believe that it makes more sense to view them in three separate categories. Please bear in mind that these categories are somewhat arbitrary and wholly subjective. However, the key to all of this, for me, is how the pitcher performed relative to his previous norms.
- Post-TJS #1: 711.2 IP, 101 ERA+, 4.49 FIP, 1.3 HR/9, 3.0 BB/9, 7.4 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 718.0 IP, 87 ERA+, 4.09 FIP, 1.2 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9, 7.7 K/9
Capuano was largely the same pitcher – and that’s certainly a good thing. The drop-off in ERA+ isn’t ideal, but it was balanced out by incremental improvements in defense-independent measures. It’s also worth noting that his average fastball velocity increased after his 2008 surgery:
- Post-TJS #1: 739.0 IP, 94 ERA+, 3.85 FIP, 0.8 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, 6.6 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 227.0 IP, 102 ERA+, 4.35 FIP, 1.5 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 8.8 K/9
Eovaldi’s home run and strikeout rates have skyrocketed, but that is essentially commensurate with the league-wide trends. As was the case with Capuano, Eovaldi has not only continued to be effective following his second date with the scalpel – he found a bit of velocity, too:
- Post-TJS #1: 232.0 IP, 126 ERA+, 3.21 FIP, 0.8 HR/9, 3.0 BB/9, 9.7 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 6.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2.20 FIP, 0.0 HR/9, 5.7 BB/9, 12.8 K/9
Okay – this one’s cheating. Nathan bounced between minor league deals after his second TJS, which he had at the age of 40, and decided to call it a career when he couldn’t latch on with a team. However, it wasn’t for a lack of effort or success, as he was filthy in his heavily abbreviated final season. And if a 41-year-old pitcher can come back and find success, however fleeting, that’s a good sign.
- Post-TJS #1: 315.1 IP, 181 ERA+, 2.90 FIP, 0.7 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 9.7 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 410.1 IP, 121 ERA+, 3.19 FIP, 0.8 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, 9.9 K/9
Soria is heading into his ninth season post-TJS number two, and he really hasn’t slowed down. Sure, his ERAs aren’t quite as shiny – but this stretch of his career began at age 29, and he’ll spend most of this season at the age of 37. He may not have returned as peak Soria, but few relievers have reached that level of success.
- Post-TJS #1: 91.0 IP, 101 ERA+, 3.51 FIP, 0.9 HR/9, 4.0 BB/9, 10.3 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 137.0 IP, 126 ERA+, 4.18 FIP, 0.9 HR/9, 6.2 BB/9, 10.4 K/9
I am stretching the definition of ‘bad’ by including Fox here, as he was able to pitch in parts of seven seasons after his second surgery, and was largely successful in doing so. That being said, he spent significant time on the injured list in six of those years, and was nothing short of cursed during his career, suffering fractures, sprains, and strains throughout his throwing arm. It seems likely that Fox never fully recovered from his second TJS, if not either of them, and his career was shortened as a result.
- Post-TJS #1: 312.0 IP, 119 ERA+, 4.18 FIP, 1.0 HR/9, 4.2 BB/9, 8.8 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 83.1 IP, 95 ERA+, 4.64 FIP, 1.6 HR/9, 3.3 BB/9, 9.6 K/9
As was the case with Nathan, Reyes’s second TJS came late in his career, on the heels of his age-35 season. And, as was the case with Fox, he was never really healthy for a prolonged period of time. So is it fair to stick him in the bad category? I think so. Reyes was coming off of the best season of his career when he had to undergo a second surgery, and he was never the same again.
- Post-TJS #1: 320.0 IP, 129 ERA+, 3.08 FIP, 0.5 HR/9, 4.0 BB/9, 9.6 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 62.0 IP, 94 ERA+, 3.79 FIP, 0.7 HR/9, 4.8 BB/9, 9.7 K/9
Wilson could have conceivably fit into any of these categories. His performance didn’t slip that much, considering he was always wildly inconsistent – which is good. But he was bad in his final season, and the combination of his performance and personality made him persona non grata heading into what would have been his age-33 season. And he never pitched again. What keeps it from being ugly is that I don’t think his final season was that bad relative to what we had seen before; what keeps it from being good is his post-surgery velocity disappearance:
- Post-TJS #1: 1149.2 IP, 96 ERA+, 4.46 FIP, 1.1 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9, 6.6 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 60.1 IP, 67 ERA+, 4.61 FIP, 1.3 HR/9, 3.1 BB/9, 7.0 K/9
At first blush, Wolf might seem better-suited for the last category. However, his defense-independent metrics were relatively stable, and that second line represents his ages 37 and 38 seasons spent on bad baseball teams with bad defenses. He also retired on his own terms after that second season. And, for whatever it’s worth, his velocity remained steadily uninspiring:
- Post-TJS #1: 30.0 IP, 84 ERA+, 4.08 FIP, 1.5 HR/9, 1.2 BB/9, 6.9 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 8.0 IP, 49 ERA+, 5.76 FIP, 1.1 HR/9, 6.8 BB/9, 5.6 K/9
Beachy was never really the same after the first surgery, and probably could have been squeezed into the final round of cuts. He was felled by elbow tendinitis, which is likely a byproduct of multiple surgeries, throwing a grand total of one inning between 2016 and 2017. Beachy has bounced between independent ball and minor league deals since 2018, and he’s still only 34 – but it seems likely that his time in the majors is finished.
- Post-TJS #1: 732.2 IP, 96 ERA+, 4.18 FIP, 1.0 HR/9, 3.8 BB/9, 8.0 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 111.0 IP, 97 ERA+, 3.63 FIP, 0.9 HR/9, 4.9 BB/9, 10.5 K/9
It may not be fair to include Dreifort here, as he reportedly had at least twenty surgeries after turning pro. And most, if not all, of those surgeries are linked to a degenerative condition that attacked his joints and connective tissues. That almost certainly made him more susceptible to the sort of injury that would require Tommy John Surgery – so this may well be an apples and oranges situation. Nevertheless, Dreifort was forced to move to the bullpen and then into retirement after his second TJS.
- Post-TJS #1: 337.1 IP, 157 ERA+, 3.03 FIP, 0.6 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9, 7.4 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 86.2 IP, 76 ERA+, 4.43 FIP, 0.8 HR/9, 4.4 BB/9, 6.4 K/9
Medlen was one of the most intriguing pitchers in baseball in 2012, bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation and putting up stellar numbers. He was entering his age-28 season when he visited Dr. James Andrews, and he was never the same pitcher again. Interestingly enough, Medlen’s velocity remained steady – but his control never returned, and he wasn’t able to pick up whiffs even as strikeouts trended upwards.
- Post-TJS #1: 229.2 IP, 175 ERA+, 3.00 FIP, 0.4 HR/9, 4.3 BB/9, 10.1 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 42.1 IP, 81 ERA+, 4.61 FIP, 0.9 HR/9, 5.5 BB/9, 8.3 K/9
Why did I include Venters here, but not Isringhausen? Simple: Venters’ second and third TJS came in the theoretical prime of his career, and he didn’t pitch in between. And the ups and downs that he has faced and the adversity that he overcame to get back to the majors in 2018 is something that must be noted.
- Post-TJS #1: 1199.0 IP, 87 ERA+, 4.27 FIP, 0.9 HR/9, 4.2 BB/9, 7.5 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 21.2 IP, 77 ERA+, 5.88 FIP, 1.2 HR/9, 5.8 BB/9, 5.4 K/9
Yes, Volquez was 35 when he returned from surgery number two. And, yes, Volquez has made a career of being inconsistent. However, his elbow has caused him to hit the injured list again since the second surgery, his tenuous control evaporated, and he hasn’t struck anyone out…and that is nothing short of ugly.
- Post-TJS #1: 683.1 IP, 98 ERA+, 4.83 FIP, 0.9 HR/9, 5.0 BB/9, 6.8 K/9
- Post-TJS #2: 23.0 IP, 46 ERA+, 8.76 FIP, 2.3 HR/9, 8.6 BB/9, 6.3 K/9
Yikes. Zambrano was done at the age of 32, and his attempted comebacks abroad resulted in an ERA approaching 5 in 300+ IP from 2008 through 2013.
What does it all mean?
There are a few conclusions that can be drawn from the above, and those largely depend on the tint of one’s glasses. Let’s do these in rapid-fire fashion:
- There are a lot of pitchers that were either literally or effectively done after their second Tommy John Surgery. This does not seem to apply to Taillon, as he is reportedly healthy and ready to go.
- The majority of these pitchers – good, bad, and ugly – were in their mid-30s when they had their second surgery. Taillon had his at 27, and will spend all of this season at age-29.
- Velocity returning doesn’t appear to be much of an issue. I only highlighted a few players to emphasize a point, but Wilson is the only pitcher that experienced a noteworthy slip in velocity.
- Starters have a worse track record than relievers. There’s no real way to spin that otherwise.
- The cuts that I made before diving in can’t be fully ignored – sixteen pitchers never made it back.
All that being said, there are really no clear-cut lessons to draw from this exercise. I realize that it took me far too many words to reach this point, but there really is no one size fits all postscript to a second Tommy John Surgery. Yes, the majority of the pitchers either didn’t make it back or were effectively done afterward – but Taillon is better and younger than the majority of those pitchers, and has also had more time than usual to recuperate.
In short, this date belies a true conclusory statement. And that’s okay – because Taillon is a Yankee, and I couldn’t be happier about it.