Little more than a year ago at this time, Stephen Strasburg was the surest of sure things. He was a young fireballer mowing down Big Leaguers at will, including a scintillating Major League debut in June that featured 14 strikeouts in 7 innings of work. Then came some arm inflammation, then a stint on the DL, then some controversy, and then the unthinkable for a young pitcher: Tommy John Surgery.
The most prized young arm in all of baseball was going under the knife for surgery that would require up to a year of rehab. Although Tommy John Surgery is now something from which many pitchers recover with great results, it is still a major procedure that brings brings uncertainty about the future. It’s one thing for a pitcher to return to Major League form; it’s quite another for a once-in-a-generation picture to return to once-in-a-generation form.
Pitchers who have come back to survive, and in some cases thrive, after Tommy John Surgery include John Smoltz, Billy Wagner, AJ Burnett, Tim Hudson, and Jose Rijo. Tommy John himself pitched another 13 years in the Majors after having the surgery in 1974. But there are those who never make it all the way back, and that fear will linger with Nats fans for some time, perhaps even until Strasburg strings together a couple of healthy, full-strength years.
Uncertainty comes from the memory of the phenomenal early career of Kerry Wood, who struck out 20 batters in a game as a rookie in 1998 before injuries and surgeries, including Tommy John, made his career a series of aggravating fits and starts.
For Strasburg, early returns are good: 31 pitches in his first rehab start, 25 for strikes; five strikeouts in three innings. Each time out, he’ll move a little closer to certainty.