The Reds announced last week that Homer Bailey has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Translation: he needs Tommy John surgery and will miss the remainder of the 2015 season.
By my count, Bailey will be the 11th Reds pitcher to undergo the procedure, which has become somewhat of an epidemic throughout baseball in recent years. For those interested in taking a stroll down Bad Memory Lane, the pitchers to undergo the procedure, in reverse chronological order, are: Trevor Bell (2014), Ryan Madson (2012), Edinson Volquez (2009), Bill Bray (2009), Eric Milton (2007), Ryan Dempster (2003), Pete Harnisch (2002), Scott Williamson (2001), Mark Wohlers (1999), and Jose Rijo (1995). Four non-pitchers had the procedure as well—Zack Cozart (2011), Norris Hopper (2008), Chris Denorfia (2007), and Ray Olmedo (2004).
Of those 10 pitchers, five never threw another inning in a Reds uniform following the operation. Harnisch, 35 at the time of his surgery, never threw another big-league pitch. Madson, who was inked to a one-year deal, never even pitched for the Reds at all.
Since making his MLB debut in 2007, the 29-year-old Bailey has started 168 games, throwing 1,010 innings. He has predominately relied on his fastball, and has thrown 100 pitches or more in a single game 91 times during his career. Add it all up and it’s more than 16,000 pitches, a whole lot of heat, and two elbow surgeries in nine months.
So what does this mean for Bailey’s future? After all, he is under contract through the 2019 season, with a mutual option for 2020. Looking for comparables among starting pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery in the past decade, a few names stood out.
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright missed the entire 2011 season due to the procedure. Like Bailey, Wainwright was 29 years old at the time. He had pitched 874 career innings prior to the surgery, but came back relatively strong. After posting a 2.42 ERA in 33 starts the year prior to the operation, Wainwright had a 3.94 ERA in 32 starts in the year following. In 34 starts in 2013, his ERA was 2.94. He finished with a career-best 2.38 ERA in 32 starts in 2014. (Wainwright will miss the remainder of the 2015 season with a torn Achilles tendon.)
Mike Pelfrey, 28 at the time of his surgery in 2012, had thrown 897 big-league innings prior to being shutdown. Pelfrey returned with the Minnesota Twins in 2013, but won just five times in 29 starts. His 5.19 ERA was his worst since becoming a rotation regular with the Mets in 2007. He was winless in five starts with a 7.99 ERA in 2014 before elbow troubles once again ended his season.
Not all pitchers are able to return to action the following season. Jake Westbrook was 30, and had thrown 1,070 career innings prior to his surgery at the beginning of the 2008 season. Westbrook missed the remainder of 2008, as well as all of 2009. He was, however, able to produce six relatively productive seasons following the operation.
Rijo, the star of the 1990 World Series, had his first of three different Tommy John surgeries at age 30 and missed the entirety of five seasons because of the injuries. He returned in 2001 and appeared in 13 games, before making 31 starts in 2002, his final season.
The comparisons stop, though, when Bailey’s contract is worked into the equation. After recording a career-best 3.49 ERA in 2013, Bailey was signed to his current six-year deal worth $105 million. Now, he joins Mike Hampton as the only $100-million pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Bailey is set to be paid $18 million in 2016, putting the Reds in a precarious situation. If general manager Walt Jocketty decides to go the way of a rebuild, that salary, which will rise to $23 million by 2019, will become a major liability.
And even if Bailey returns to form in 2016, it might be too late. This year, 2015, was seen by many as Cincinnati’s last chance before expiring contracts forced the team to self-implode. If the Reds fall out of contention to the point of a mid-season fire sale, Bailey’s injury may be seen in retrospect as the first domino.