When you hear next of a pitcher taken out of action because of “shoulder fatigue,” your red flags should be waving as violently as if in a stiff wind. The odds are sadly good that it means thoracic outlet syndrome. For a pitcher, the odds are more sadly good that it means career badly compromised and, before very long, over.
And for a pitcher like Matt Harvey, who once looked as though he had a splendid chance of owning baseball, TOS means two seasons since in which he looked like anything but the Dark Knight he once was and still longs very badly to be. Despite his body telling him that it gave up that sword long enough ago.
At least one published report to my knowledge has cited the late Tyler Skaggs telling Harvey not to forget who he was: “You’re still the Dark Knight.” For a 30-year-old pitcher with a body trying to override his mind’s clinging to his past, it was just what Harvey wanted to hear and the last thing he needed to hear.
What Harvey needed most to hear and heed was that he might have rehabilitated his personality away from the New York demimonde to which he once gravitated like the proverbial moth to the flame, but he now had to align his remade self to pitching stuff that wasn’t a Dark Knight’s but could still get major league hitters out, if only he quit trying to pitch like 2013 because his 2019 body couldn’t do that.
And he also needed to hear and heed that his post-TOS surgery body stood a sadly excellent chance of not doing it unless he re-trained it to do it.
It’s entirely possible that either no one told Harvey, or Harvey couldn’t bear to hear, that the pitching prognosis for those undergoing TOS surgery, as he underwent in 2016, is a badly mixed one. But the pitching-challenged Angels, who need innings and lots of them from their starters, finally decided they don’t have time to see whether Harvey can continue re-training his body, his arm, and his pitching mind.
After he surrendered six runs (five earned) in six innings against the Astros during the week, the Angels surrendered, designating Harvey for assignment Friday. They took the flyer based on Harvey looking as though he had something new and developing positively during his spell with the Reds last year, but the Angels could no longer watch Harvey struggle in vain despite the occasional flash of what could be.
In human terms, it’s only too understandable that Harvey couldn’t accept he was no longer the Dark Knight. One minute, he’ll say, “Just have to kind of be smarter out there about what I can and can’t do right now.” But the next, he’ll say, “I tried to throw a 98 mph fastball on the outside corner.” That fastball hit 92 instead. And it was hit over the fence.
Joe and Jane Fan don’t always comprehend the war inside the mind of a baseball player who’d been to the mountaintop several times over—as Harvey was in 65 starts between 2012-2015, as a Met, with a 2.53 ERA over those starts—and has to learn that he may never again be anything like that dominator if he has a major league career left at all.
But if Harvey’s going to defy odds and remain any kind of major league pitcher, he’ll have to find a team in better position than the Angels to give him the chance. He may still have enough stuff to get major league hitters out, but he couldn’t stop taking the mound with the mindset that belonged to a pitcher he can’t be anymore and his command went missing and possibly kidnapped.
Coming off Tommy John surgery is one thing, and Harvey now admits he pushed himself too far, too fast after his recovery and return from that. But coming off TOS surgery—a far more invasive procedure, in which the shoulder is cut through to remove a rib—is something else.
As often as not it begins with “shoulder fatigue.” (Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler, formerly a trade candidate, was shut down with shoulder fatigue when the Mets hoped he’d start against the Twins as a likely trade-deadline showcase.) And, as often as not, it just might mean pitching career over.
If it was bad enough that Harvey pushed himself prematurely returning from Tommy John surgery, doing it in his return from TOS surgery may have been an exercise in futility. He isn’t the first pitcher to whom the condition and corrective surgery spells an end. Not even close. But he’s one of the saddest.
When Jay Jaffe (The Cooperstown Casebook) analysed TOS surgeries and aftermaths last year, after the Twins’ Phil Hughes (post-TOS surgery) was designated for assignment last year, he discovered 29 pitchers having suffered the condition and undergone the surgery with decidedly differing results.
Dodgers pitcher Bill Singer underwent the procedure in 1966 and enjoyed a long enough and solid enough career to follow. Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, a far superior talent, complained of shoulder fatigue in 1980, suffered his infamous stroke, underwent TOS surgery as part of his recovery, but never pitched major league baseball again. And boy, but didn’t he look like he was hitting the Hall of Fame track at last before he was taken down.
Among the 27 who were entered into a table examining their innings before and after the surgery, Jaffe found only five whose ERAs relative to their leagues dipped after the surgery: Aaron Cook, Matt Harrison (who underwent two TOSes, through both shoulders), Clayton Richard, Mike Foltynewicz, and Josh Beckett.
Beckett’s case may have been a little flukish: buffeted with assorted other injuries in the last few years of his career as it was, that righthander and former two-time World Series winner underwent TOS surgery in July 2013 after trying to rehab without it unsuccessfully. Returning in 2014, his velocity remained solid but his command went AWOL. Twenty 2014 starts and a hip injury later, Beckett retired.
Chris Carpenter was another top-of-the-line pitcher whose career went into the dumpster following TOS surgery. Like Beckett, he tried rehabbing without surgery. Until he couldn’t. His September 2012 return was thought miraculous, working seventeen innings that month and thirteen and two-thirds that postseason, but he looked nothing like the pitcher he formerly was. 2013: DL out of spring training, persistent discomfort in two minor league rehab starts, shut down for the season. Career over.
Kenny Rogers was one of the luckier ones. He underwent TOS surgery in 2001, at age 36 and with 2,049.1 innings on his arm. After TOS surgery: he pitched 1253.1 innings, and his ERAs relative to his league remained respectable enough. Not to mention that magnificent performance in the 2006 World Series. Jaffe says Rogers and Aaron Cook (256.1 innings pre-TOS; 1,150 innings post-TOS) are outliers: the median innings before TOS for the pitchers in question was 595 and after, 134.
Harvey before his TOS: 519.2. Harvey since: 306. He was under the median before the surgery and more than double it afterward, but that may be the end of the major league line for him. May. And, among the entire group of post-TOS pitchers Jaffe analysed last year, Harvey has the highest drop in effectiveness even accounting for the improvement he showed in Cincinnati in 2018.
And it’s wise to keep in mind how other injuries might have married to TOS when it comes to reviewing TOS pitchers’ performances pre- and post-TOS. Harvey, Carpenter, Nate Adcock, Carter Capps, Alex Cobb, Jaime Garcia, Luke Hochevar, Shaun Marcum, Vince Velasquez, and Drew VerHagen all underwent Tommy John surgery well before their TOS issues.
Only an extremely small number of the TOS pitchers experienced anything close to the highs Harvey once experienced. The rule, rather than the exception, is pitchers going from such highs to the kind of terrifying lows that now bring Harvey to the crossroads once again.
Call it a flaw in the contemporary baseball mindset if you must, but too many pitchers today still think that unless they’re blowing hitters apart it isn’t pitching. That’s what Dark Knights do. And when they’re not Dark Knights anymore, too many of them refuse to resign themselves. Even while they’re getting killed to death.
Harvey isn’t even close to the only athlete who couldn’t accept that his body went to the enemy side once too often. But is it worth putting up with the uninformed bleating, snarling, and insults from Joe and Jane Fan and a few hundred thousand talking heads to continue denying that your body demands a new way to approach your craft?