Nationals Rizzo Baseball

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.

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.