Why the Strasburg-Rizzo-Dr. Yocum controversy matters

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UPDATE: The he-said, he-said is over. Yocum has reversed himself. Call off the dogs.

5: 54 PM: As of now we have a he-said, he-said when it comes to Dr. Lewis Yocum and the Washington Nationals. Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras say that they consulted the man who performed Stephen Strasburg’s Tommy John surgery before arriving at the shutdown. Yocum says they didn’t, and that he hasn’t spoken to the Nationals since Strasburg’s surgery two years ago.

Who is telling the truth? I dunno. It’s quite possible that Yocum, who doesn’t have the same vested interest here, is forgetting random conversations or wasn’t clear about what Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times was asking him.  It’s also possible that the man who once compared Oliver Perez to Sandy Koufax is … not being completely accurate.  Only time will tell.

But I think it’s wrong to believe that this is all just a little media spat. I think there is a significance to this, because in large part Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras have used the credibility of Dr. Yocum — and medical studies Yocum says do not exist — to defend their decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg. If Rizzo and Boras are being less than honest here, it says something important about their candor with respect to this issue. And when one’s candor is in question, it calls into question their judgment as well.

The shutdown rationale cited by Mike Rizzo, Scott Boras, their media surrogates and many Nationals fans over the past few months clearly relies on Yocum and said medical studies. Look at this Thomas Boswell column from July 5. And when you do so, note that Boswell is widely considered to have very good sources in the Nats’ front office, and many assume he speaks directly to Rizzo on such matters:

Doctors and baseball’s best brains have studied the recovery of pitchers from Tommy John elbow surgery since 1974. That’s 38 years, folks. The data has been interrogated, tortured and water-boarded. Each decade, the total recovery rate has improved. It’s now 89 percent. Partly, it’s medical. But it’s also experiential. Baseball ultimately asks, “What works?”

And the methods that work best — not 100 percent, but very high — become best medical practice. That’s what the Nats are following.

Except Yocum — who performs Tommy John surgery for a living and is the Angels team doctor — says that there is no such consensus. He is aware of no studies, he told Bill Shaikin, which provide any statistical rationale which support the shutdown decision.

And it’s not just the data. Rizzo has relied, he says, on Yocum’s own advice and counsel.  In August, Boswell wrote another column on the matter. There, he talked about Mike Rizzo running into Stephen Strasburg’s father, who was questioning the shutdown decision.  Boswell gave voice to what Rizzo told Mr. Strasburg he was basing his decision on:

The answer takes a long time. It includes decades of statistics on rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery and how annual “innings load increases” have led to disastrous re-injury in the past.

It includes the view of the surgeon, Lewis Yocum, who’s performed all the operations on Nats pitchers in recent years. It is Yocum’s belief that pitchers who break down from premature returns from elbow surgery — sometimes ruining their shoulders, and their whole careers, rather then their new elbows — don’t usually do so during the first big stress year but rather the following season.

If Rizzo spoke to Yocum, Yocum’s comments today are inexplicable.  If Yocum is not lying, however, Rizzo never talked to him and thus could not truthfully tell Stephen Strasburg’s dad that Yocum thought this was a good idea.

Two days later the middle man was eliminated and Rizzo himself said he consulted with Yocum:

“We’re looking at the long term health of the franchise and for Stephen Strasburg,” said Rizzo. “We’ve got a plan, we’ve got a blueprint of how to do this. This isn’t Mike Rizzo’s plan, he didn’t go to Medical school but Dr. Lew Yocum did and Dr. James Andrews did. We’re taking their recommendations and putting them into place.”

Again, Yocum says he never talked to Rizzo. Is he, in light of Boras’ comments this afternoon, going to go back and think harder about whether he was consulted?  If so, what was incentive to say what he told Shaikin?

I have no idea how this is going to shake out. But no matter how it does, it is significant. Not with direct respect whether the shutdown is a good idea. Indeed, it may, ultimately, be a great idea no matter who talked to who. And if Strasburg never gets hurt again and has a fabulous career, give Mike Rizzo his kudos for his prudence.

But make no mistake: if Yocum is telling the truth, the shutdown was Mike Rizzo’s decision, not that of some overwhelming medical consensus, let alone the input of the operating physician. And, if Yocum is telling the truth, it means that Mike Rizzo has been misleading in defending his decision.

Maybe this isn’t significant to you. If I were a Nationals fan, however, I would consider it pretty significant.

Nationals Acquire Ryan Raburn From White Sox

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The Washington Nationals have acquired outfielder Ryan Raburn from the Chicago White Sox. Raburn had been playing at Triple-A Charlotte. He’ll be assigned to Triple-A Syracuse in the Nats organization. The Nationals will send cash or a player to be named later to the White Sox to complete the deal.

Raburn has yet to play in the majors this season. Last year he hit .220/.309/.404 with nine homers in 113 games for the Colorado Rockies. The year before that he hit an excellent .301/.393/.543 in part time play for the Indians. Over the course of his 11 year career the 36-year-old has hit .253/.317/.436, which breaks down to an OPS+ of exactly 100, which is league average. Primarily an outfielder, Raburn has played every position except shortstop and catcher in his career. He’s even pitched twice.

The Nats plans for him aren’t entirely clear, but depth it depth.

If the Tigers are sub-.500 at the end of June it’ll be fire sale time

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Jon Morosi reports that that the Detroit Tigers will make all veterans available via trade if they’re still under .500 by the end of June.

This was the position they entered the offseason with — everyone is available! — but they ended up gearing up for one more push with the core of veterans they currently employ. It was not a bad move, I don’t think. With the exception of the Indians, the AL Central is mostly down, or at least appeared to be over the winter, with the Royals in decline and the Twins and White Sox seemingly a few years away from contention. The Twins, however, have been fantastic and the Tigers have mostly underachieved.

So we’re back to this. Which veterans the Tigers can reasonably unload, however, is an open question. J.D. Martinez is in his walk year, so while tradable, he may not bring back a big return. Guys like Justin Upton, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera either have very large contracts or no-trade protection.

The end of June is still a while from now, of course, and while the Tigers are under .500, they’re only 4.5 games behind the Twins. But they had better turn it around or else it sounds like the front office is going to turn the page.