In the latest bit of bad news for the New York Mets, it was announced on Monday that an MRI revealed that Matt Harvey, their young ace and Cy Young contender, had suffered a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, an injury that will most likely cost him the rest of the 2013 season. If the injury requires Tommy John surgery, which some reports indicate is a good possibility, his absence could extend well into next season.
He’s the second Mets starter this month to suffer an elbow injury after Jeremy Hefner, who will undergo Tommy John surgery himself. GM Sandy Alderson said that Harvey hadn’t reported any particular pain in the elbow, but had soreness and swelling and, regardless of what treatment his #1 pitcher will require, he will be shut down for the rest of the year. As painful a blow as it is to a fanbase that finally had something to cheer for, even in the midst of another losing season, it may not end up impacting New York’s rebuilding timetable all that much. This is a team that is still at least a year away from even beginning to think about contending, so if the worst happens and Harvey does get Tommy John, they will still have him back when they’re ready to start making an impact in 2015. It’s cold comfort, but still comforting, to a degree, nonetheless.
For Harvey personally, there may be reason for panic even if he does go under the knife for a surgery that has become as routine as any medical procedure in sports. Ligament damage has unfortunately become a fact of life for young, hard-throwing pitchers. Just look at the list of pitchers who, like Harvey, pitched at least 200 innings by the time they were 24 when sorted by strikeouts per nine innings, a statistic that typically favors the fastball-prone. While there are success stories like Stephen Strasburg (who has regressed slightly but is still a great pitcher), Francisco Liriano (enjoying a career year in Pittsburgh in 2013) and Jake Peavy (in the midst of his second straight great season), who have all had surgery for elbow and arm injuries, the top two are Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who both had Tommy John surgery at a young age and floundered at nearly every level since.
Many teams fail to realize that ligament damage in pitchers is sometimes not the result of a mechanical defect in the pitch delivery or overuse. The latter is not the case for Harvey; he was on an innings limit and had his pitch counts closely watched all season long. The fault, then, must lie with Harvey’s arm. Though there are not any obvious mechanical flaws, and he has been praised since he started his career for a delivery that is supposed to prevent undue stress on the arm. Some praised New York earlier in the year for not micromanaging Harvey (even though the innings limit was a likelihood from the beginning of the year), while others were fans of the maneuver.
Sometimes, ligament damage can just be the result of pure dumb luck. Tim Lincecum’s delivery was seen as a red flag for a potential arm injury, yet he has never required any medical attention for an arm issue, and doesn’t ice his arm down after starts. Someone like Strasburg, who was analyzed endlessly by the Nationals, still went down with ligament problems. Even in scenarios where the cause for a pitcher’s problems can be chalked up to practical factors, sometimes a pitcher’s injury, especially to the UCL, can be just a stroke of sheer bad luck. The Mets and their fans know of bad luck. This is just the latest blow in that trend, one that may have massive repercussions for the organization in the months ahead.