Be prepared to hear a lot of people use Mark Prior in the same sentence as Stephen Strasburg in the days and months ahead. Please don’t listen to them. This would be a far worse scenario if we were talking about Strasburg’s shoulder. Thankfully, we aren’t.
Though today’s news is a very tough blow for the Nationals as a franchise, it doesn’t mean Strasburg’s career is over. Far from it. There are numerous examples of pitchers that have come back from Tommy John surgery to enjoy success in the major leagues. Here’s just a few of them.
Josh Johnson: Maybe the most significant example of a young pitcher thriving post-op, Johnson was 12-10 with a 3.50 ERA over his first 39 games (29 starts) in the majors before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August of 2007 at the age of 23. He’s been even better since his return in July of 2008, going 33-11 with a 2.98 ERA. Among starting pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched during that time, he ranks 10th in ERA and 11th in strikeouts and wins.
Chris Carpenter: Carpenter has endured numerous arm problems throughout the course of his career, but he has re-emerged as one of the best pitchers in the sport after missing most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons due to Tommy John surgery. Carpenter is 4th among major league starters with a 2.55 ERA since his return in July of 2008.
Ryan Dempster: Dempster is an interesting case. He was primarily a starting pitcher before requiring Tommy John surgery in August of 2003 at age 26. He was released by the Reds and then picked up by the Cubs, who used him almost exclusively as a reliever all the way until the start of the 2008 season. Since then, Dempster ranks 13th in MLB with 527 strikeouts in 585 2/3 innings.
A.J. Burnett: Some Yankees fans will scoff at this, but Burnett is a significant example of a pitcher who has found sustained success after TJ surgery. Burnett underwent the procedure in April of 2003 when he was with the Marlins at age 26. Since he returned in June of 2004, Burnett is 79-64 with a 3.95 ERA, averaging 8.5 K/9. He had some setbacks with his elbow and shoulder during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, but Burnett ranks seventh among starting pitchers in strikeouts since 2004.
Francisco Liriano: I’m going to throw this one out there as a little bit of a devil’s advocate. For the rosy pictures I’ve painted above, Liriano is an example of a pitcher who struggled to find his footing after Tommy John surgery. Liriano was regarded as one of the brightest young arms in the game when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 28 games (16 starts) as a 22-year-old rookie with the Twins in 2006. He went under the knife in November, missed the entire 2007 season and showed a lack of velocity in 14 starts with the Twins in 2008. Back as a full-time starting pitcher in 2009, Liriano struggled again, this time posting a 5.80 ERA in 29 outings (24 starts). It wasn’t until this season, nearly four years later, did Liriano begin to show the velocity that made him an emerging ace as a rookie. Through 25 starts, the now 26-year-old is 12-7 with a 3.41 ERA and ranks third in the American League with 171 strikeouts.
Though all the pitchers I mentioned above have found success in the major leagues again, they have all taken very different routes to get there. And at various points in their careers, to boot.
Here’s a few more recent notables: Tim Hudson, Billy Wagner, Brian Wilson, Hong-Chih Kuo (twice), Shaun Marcum, Joakim Soria, Carl Pavano, C.J. Wilson, Rafael Soriano, Jaime Garcia.
This doesn’t mean Strasburg will be a slam-dunk. Take a look here and you’ll see a list littered with names of could-have-been’s and never-were’s. The important thing is that like the pitchers I mentioned above, Strasburg already has elite skills to fall back on. The actual act of repairing or reconstructing the ligament isn’t going to make him a better pitcher, necessarily, but his rehab from the surgery is the key. The scary part for major league hitters is that he has the potential to come back from the surgery even stronger than he was before, if that is even possible.