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Rays Beat: Team hopes to avoid Tommy John epidemic

Published:   |   Updated: April 13, 2014 at 08:37 AM

CINCINNATI — The talk surrounding Rays left-hander Matt Moore and possible reconstructive elbow surgery is a bit unusual.

Not so much that a young pitcher is weighing the option of having what is known as Tommy John surgery against a lengthy rehabilitation program to heal his injured elbow, but that the pitcher in question pitches for the Rays.

And this is when pitching coach Jim Hickey reaches down and knocks his right hand on the nearest piece of wood.

Knock, knock, knock.

“We talk about good fortune all the time and how we consider ourselves fortunate in terms of staying healthy,” Hickey said. “But you create your own fortune a lot of times.”

The Rays have placed a number of pitchers at the major-league level on the disabled list over the years, but most of the injuries have been shoulder tightness or impingements or tendinitis in the elbow or shoulder.

Jeremy Hellickson is rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. He is expected to return in early June.

J.P. Howell missed the 2011 season after having shoulder surgery. Jeff Niemann missed last season for the same reason.

Hickey listed a few reasons that work in the Rays’ favor: the relatively young age of the members on the rotation, the work ethic that began with James Shields and the attention given to the pitchers by head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield, assistant athletic trainer Paul Harker and their staff and strength and conditioning coach Kevin Barr.

“Plus, the pitchers are motivated in terms of physical conditioning, and not just big strong bodies but strong shoulders and elbows and joints and things like that,” Hickey said. “They take that stuff seriously. Regardless of what happens in the ballgame, five minutes after leaving the bench they’re upstairs (in the training room) doing their thing.”

The system isn’t fool proof, of course. Moore has been receiving the same attention as everyone on the team and he still developed a small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.

“Like Helly,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “the bone chips, what are you going to do? That happens. And even with Matty. Those kind of injuries are predisposed to being injured. Who knows what the biology looked like from the moment we signed him.”

Moore could become the 13th big-league pitcher since spring training to have Tommy John surgery should he choose that option.

There is a run on Tommy John surgeries in the major leagues. USA Today recently published figures provided by Stan Conte, vice president of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers, on the frequency of Tommy John surgeries among major-league pitchers. There was an average of 16 such surgeries per year between 2000 and 2011. That number soared to 36 in 2012. There were 19 Tommy John surgeries last season.

No one is sure why, though one theory is overuse at the youth level.

Maddon said he is not a fan of travel baseball, which forces young pitchers to pitch year-round in highly competitive settings.

“I think it’s insane,” Maddon said. “I think too many parents are trying to have their kids become professionals at an early age to fulfill their lifelong dreams and not necessarily the kid’s and I think that’s where maybe it’s starting to all break down. ... It’s been part of the fabric of baseball for many, many years. I think the recent epidemic, to me, might be tied to what they do before they even get here, professionally.”

Since the Rays are drafting their pitchers from the same pool as the other teams, they must be doing something right. Fortune is a part of it, sure, but all of it?

“I can’t speak for all the other programs, but I do know these guys dot every I and cross every T and the history speaks for itself, as well,” Hickey said. “I know we’ve lost a lot fewer man days than most organizations do. I don’t really know what we do differently, to tell you the truth.”

Knock, knock, knock.

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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