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.

Pirates hire Ben Cherington as their new general manager

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have hired Ben Cherington as the team’s new general manager. They do so after the general manager meetings ended, but better late than never.

Cherington served as GM of the Boston Red Sox for four years, winning the World Series in 2013, but resigned during the 2015 season after Dave Dombrowski was named Boston’s new president of baseball operations. Which was a defacto demotionn for Cherington who, until then, had the final say in baseball decisions. Dombrowski, of course, was fired late in the season this year. Cherington went on to work for the Toronto Blue Jays as a vice president, but was seen as biding his time for another GM position. Now he has one.

Cherington takes over in Pittsburgh for executive vice president and general manager Neal Huntington, who was fired after a 12 years at the helm. Also fired was team president Frank Coonelly. Travis Williams replaced Coonelly recently. While the Pirates experienced a few years of contention under Huntington and Coonelly, they have slid out of contention in recent years as the club has traded away promising players for little return, all while cutting payroll. There’s a very big rebuilding job ahead of Cherington.

The first move he’ll have to make: hire a manager, as the team still hasn’t replaced Clint Hurdle since he was dismissed in the final weekend of the regular season.