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.

Mets place Zack Wheeler on the 10-day disabled list

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The Mets announced on Monday that starter Zack Wheeler has been placed on the 10-day disabled list with a stress reaction in his right arm. Pitcher Tyler Pill has been recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas.

Wheeler, 27, has a 5.21 ERA with an 81/40 K/BB ratio in 86 1/3 innings this season. He joins a long list of injured Mets, including rotation mates Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Tommy Milone, and Robert Gsellman. It’s not clear at the moment how long Wheeler will be out.

Pill, 27, has spent most of his season with Las Vegas, with which he has a 3.47 ERA over 13 starts. He has made three starts and two relief appearances in the majors this season as well.

Report: Royals acquire Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter, Trevor Cahill from Padres

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Robert Murray of FanRag Sports reports that the Royals are acquiring pitchers Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter, and Trevor Cahill from the Padres in exchange for Matt Strahm, Travis Wood, and Esteury Ruiz. Jon Heyman has confirmed the deal.

Maurer, 27, has saved 20 games for the Padres this year despite a 5.72 ERA. He carries with him a 38/8 K/BB ratio in 39 1/3 innings. The right-hander is arbitration-eligible going into the next two seasons and can become a free agent after the 2019 season.

Buchter, 30, owns a 3.05 ERA with a 47/18 K/BB ratio in 38 1/3 innings of relief work this season with the Padres. He’ll be under team control through 2021.

Cahill, 29, has posted a 3.69 ERA with a 72/24 K/BB ratio in 61 innings across 11 starts. He can become a free agent after the season.

Strahm, 25, put up a 5.45 ERA with a 37/22 K/BB ratio in 34 2/3 innings. He underwent season-ending knee surgery on July 7 and will miss the rest of the season.

Wood, 30, has a 6.91 ERA with a 29/20 K/BB ratio in 41 2/3 innings. Given his experience out of both the starting rotation and the bullpen, he can pitch in a swingman role. The lefty is under contract next year for $6.5 million. Wood has a mutual option for 2019 worth $8 million with a $1 million buyout.

Ruiz, 18, signed with the Royals as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in July 2015. This season, in rookie ball, he hit .419/.440/.779 in 91 plate appearances. Ruiz has played both second base and shortstop.