By Ernie Palladino
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The dream, of course, is that Matt Harvey will come back to the dominance he showed before Tommy John surgery took his golden right arm out of the 2014 season.
The reality says he’s 50-50 to resume his reign of terror on National League hitters until he actually starts proving it.
He’s off to a good start, though. He is working in Port St. Lucie, more than a week before pitchers and catchers check in officially. His first of several bullpen sessions went well Tuesday, his throws off the mound showing both accuracy and pop.
He has yet to experience a setback in rehab.
As encouraging as all that is to Harvey and his supervisors, no one should get too comfortable with any of this. While advances in Tommy John surgery have saved countless careers in the years since Dr. Frank Jobe dug into the Dodger and Yankee pitcher’s left arm in 1974, it has never been a sure thing. And the idea that the procedure alone makes an arm stronger and more durable is outright fallacy.
No less than the renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews examined that very issue in a position paper on Tommy John surgery last July. Along with calling the trend toward the procedure an “epidemic” among young pitchers, he maintained that a pitcher’s post-operative improvement has more to do with rehab and physical training methods than the surgery itself.
“Indeed, some MLB pitchers show improvement in performance upon return from Tommy John surgery,” Andrews wrote. “However, such improvements are due to the surgeon fixing the problem followed by the pitcher working intensely with the physical therapist, athletic trainer, strength coach, and pitching coach.”
Harvey has done all that, especially since those who are depending on him squashed his plans to throw a couple of innings of real baseball at the end of last season. So he appears on track for good things.
For now, anyway. Dr. Andrews cautioned in his paper that there is no guarantee all will be well.
“Performance eventually decreases over time for MLB pitchers after Tommy John surgery,” Andrews wrote. “It is also important to realize that 10% to 20% of pitchers never make it back to their previous level after Tommy John surgery.”
Most pitchers would sign for those odds. But the numbers tell just bad enough a story to cause those linking a big comeback to a playoff return this year to consider some contingency plans.
Perhaps that was why Sandy Alderson was so intent on getting a huge payoff for Dillon Gee or Noah Syndergaard, who the GM later said he wouldn’t have dealt anyway. With Harvey in “Show Me” status, and certainly a gamble for re-injuring that elbow ligament, the Mets need to hang onto every morsel of rotational insurance.
The case of one of those starters offers encouragement, though. Jacob deGrom lost the 2011 season to the same surgery, and he turned into an improbable NL Rookie of the Year winner last season.
Tommy John successes are scattered all over MLB rosters. Still, Harvey showed a cautious realism when talking about his own situation earlier this week.
“Looking toward performance now is kind of an unrealistic thing to look at,” he told reporters shortly after he sauntered into the training complex. “I want to make it through spring training.”
It wasn’t long thereafter, however, that he did start looking into the regular season.
“My mindset’s the same,” he said. “I’m going to attack hitters like I always do. It’s not like I’ve missed pitching that long.”
Fifteen months, actually.
He feels good. The accuracy, something that usually comes around later in the recovery process, appears on point.
The Mets eagerly wait for the exhibition schedule to start. That’s when they’ll get a true idea of what they can expect out of their nominal ace.
Until then, they should have various contingencies in place. Hope for the best, but expect the worst.
As far as Tommy John surgery has come over the years, it continues to guarantee nothing.