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Tuesday Rockpile: Tommy John Surgeries From Altitude

We are told altitude puts a unique strain on pitchers, leading to injury. It makes sense, but how much truth is there?

Doug Pensinger

The previous Rockies season has produced more philosophical and scientific hypotheses than any previous, excepting perhaps the maiden voyage of the humidor. As injuries racked up and veteran pitchers caved in to mental monsters, the front office-led narrative that Coors Field is a spiteful monster gained steam.

One month ago today, Dave Krieger interviewed John Smoltz. The eight-time All-Star mostly talked about the confidence problems Coors Field provides for developing young pitchers. However, he also talked about how he was forced to exhibit more effort on his pitches:

"What you end up doing, as I learned over time how to adjust, you end up throwing the ball harder, spinning it tighter, and you do things that are going to have a carryover effect to make you sore."

Matt Belisle said comparable things to Krieger in July. And really, neither proclamations are mind-blowing. They make plausible sense and align with longstanding ideas. They also lend credence to the theory that a pitcher pitching at altitude will get himself hurt more often.

The most famous injury for a pitcher is a torn ulnar collateral ligament, more commonly known for the surgery utilized to repair it - Tommy John. Jon Roegele has done the exhaustive work of compiling the history of Tommy John surgeries for each organization, major and minor leagues. In the Rockies' twenty-year history of pitching at altitude in Denver, only four pitchers on the MLB roster have had Tommy John. Roegele's initial list was missing Taylor Buchholz, and that omission makes it appear that the Rockies were tied for the fewest Tommy John players in MLB.

Player TJ Surgery Date Innings at Coors prior
Denny Neagle 7/30/2003 187.1
Denny Stark 1/1/2006, 1/1/07 129.2
Taylor Buchholz 6/1/2009 79.1
Jorge de la Rosa 6/3/2011 263.2

That is a pretty limited population. Colorado has had seven minor leaguers undergo the surgery, though three of those were position players (Holliday, Shealy, Sullivan).

This is hardly a complete study. Tommy John is not the only injury that disables a pitcher. Nor does the list does not include pitchers who carried their altitude-induced wear and tear to other organizations for Tommy John. The sample size here might not be significant enough. It does not measure the effect of soreness, bad mechanics or confidence issues that Coors Field places on its pitchers, all of which I believe exist.

But it certainly is interesting that one place one would expect elbow ligaments to break the most has in fact broken near the least.


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