Lance Lynn returns from injury in 2017, how high should the Cardinals’ expectations be?

After signing a 3 year deal with the Cardinals in 2015, Lance Lynn only pitched one season on his new contract before succumbing to a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. What we saw from Lynn in 2015 was excellent, but it’s been a long rehab session and he’s entering his age 29 season.

He threw some rehab sessions in the minor leagues giving up 1 earned run over 6 2/3 inning pitched. I should remind you that in 2015, Lynn threw 175.1 IP with a 3.03 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and a 129 ERA+. Overall, those are solid numbers that would be welcome back to the Cardinals rotation.

Lynn is young enough that he should heal fine, but there are no guarantees, especially after coming back from such a major surgery. Let’s take a look at the history of Tommy John and see what the data tells us about Lance Lynn’s return. (Note: most of the data I’m getting is from this American Journal of Sports Medicine publication.)

The bad news

Let’s start with the bad news. First of all, Tommy John is a pretty major injury. The reason Tommy John was such a cutting edge surgery is because usually the only people that ever injure their ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) are baseball players. The UCL is meant to maintain the structure of the bones in the upper arm and the forearm. Baseball players, especially pitchers, cause so much undo stress to the ligament that it starts to stretch, and in some cases, break.

The UCL is in a joint that doesn’t get enough blood flow for it to heal on its own, so before Tommy John this was a career ending surgery. Just like any procedure, Tommy John surgery can have complications, including damage to the ulnar nerve or infection.

There are also some bad things about Lance Lynn’s demographic. For one, the surgery works best on younger players. Lynn is only 29, but the highest success rate comes for patients in the low 20’s because their bodies are just younger and heal faster. There’s also the risk of injuring the elbow again. The cautionary tale of Jarrod Parker comes to mind.

He was a flamethrower in the minor leagues before tearing his UCL in the majors. He has already had already had 3 Tommy John surgeries. There’s data that suggests that 25% of TJ patients have to undergo surgery for related shoulder/elbow injuries in the future.

 

The good news

Before you discard your brilliant 6 man rotation idea, it’s not all doom and gloom for Lance Lynn. Most of the literature I found supported the idea that Tommy John surgery was a success. As I mentioned earlier, continued throwing results in the UCL stretching, which actually causes pitchers numbers to dip right before the surgery. A significant number of players actually see their stats improve after Tommy John.

If we look at Lance Lynn, his numbers line up with this data as well. Lynn’s ERA was 2.53 for the first half of 2015 but 3.30 for the last half. It’s pretty clear that he was beginning to feel the effects of a strained UCL down the stretch. It was probably slowly tearing throughout the season. I’m willing to bet that when Lynn comes back, the Cardinals can expect an average of those two versions.

For all the fear and concern over Tommy John, in reality about 90 percent of players who undergo Tommy John play in the MLB for at least another year. Not only do they return, but they tend to stick around. The length of career after Tommy John reconstruction averages to about 4 years, and possibly even longer, as some of the patients were still in the league when the study was done.

All of this data bodes well for Lynn. He doesn’t have any previous history of chronic elbow problems and he’s not an absolute flamethrower, with his four seam fastball sitting low to mid 90s. Many people that throw harder or just as hard as Lynn have successfully returned from Tommy John.  Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore, and Yu Darvish are just some of the names that can attest to the success of the surgery.

Conclusion

Tommy John is a scary surgery, and definitely not one to be taken lightly (ask the Mets). However, with all the progress and data that’s been gathered about the procedure over the past couple of years, it’s safe to say that Lance Lynn can expect at least one more good season out of his elbow. There’s no guarantee he’ll reach the form he was at last year, but expectations definitely aren’t low for his 2017 season.