MINNEAPOLIS — Sitting in the Minnesota Twins locker room Sunday surrounded by many of the most promising minor leaguers, Christian Binford remembered back five years ago, when he was a 10th grader pitching for the Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.
Up to the plate walked some stud on the other team who was good enough to attract 10-20 scouts.
“I’m going to try to one-up this guy,” Binford recalled thinking. “I had terrible mechanics. I was just trying to throw as hard as I could, and I didn’t know any better. I was having a great game up until that one pitch.”
That pitch altered his life.
“It popped. I could hear it,” he said. “I had no idea what the sound was at the time. I thought I just pulled a muscle. I took three days off and tried to throw, and I couldn’t make it to 90 feet. The ball just didn’t go anywhere. So I had an MRI, and it was completely torn.”
Just 16 at the time, Binford joined the list of Tommy John surgery alumni.
Elbow ligament-replacement surgery isn’t just for big leaguers these days. More than two dozen major leaguers have had the elbow ligament replacement operation in the last year, a group that includes Miami’s Jose Fernandez, the New York Mets’ Matt Harvey and Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore. New York Yankees star Masahiro Tanaka has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament and may need the procedure.
At least three players at the All-Star Futures game already had the surgery: Binford, a Double-A right-hander in the Kanas City Royals organization, was joined by Lucas Giolito, a Class A righty with the Washington Nationals who was the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft, and Steven Moya, a Double-A outfielder with the Detroit Tigers.
“Sad to say,” Giolito explained before the U.S. team’s 3-2 win, “it’s kind of become a kind of routine deal for pitchers — hopefully not all of them.”
Several top orthopedists met last week in Seattle to come up with a recommendations for how Major League Baseball should proceed, among them Dr. James Andrews, New York Yankees team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad, Los Angeles Dodgers head team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache and Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, an orthopedist based in Santa Monica, California, who was tasked by MLB to head the project. The doctors developed a series of bullet points and consensus statements that were forwarded to baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who plans an announcement later this month.
Giolito, who turns 20 on Monday, was 9-1 with a 1.00 ERA two years ago as a senior at Harvard Westlake in California, and was projected to be a high first-round draft pick before straining an elbow ligament.
Washington decided that even with the injury, Giolito had enough potential to justify using a first-round pick for him. When his elbow didn’t get better, Giolito had surgery performed by Dr. Lewis Yocum that Sept. 13.
Giolito attributes his injury to “a brutal combination of me throwing too hard with my body not developed enough”
Although he’s back to throwing 90 mph-plus, Giolito sees a need for change.
“I hope that it starts to open the eyes of amateur coaches, even travel ball coaches for 11-, 12-year-old kids,” Giolito said. “You see things like 10-year-old travel ball kids playing hundreds, thousands of innings a year, just nonstop baseball. I don’t think that’s good.”