The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic remain far beyond anything we can predict at this point. We know that it’s delayed or outright canceled sports league seasons and it is very unclear when those leagues will be able to pick up and start anew.
Beyond that, we have no idea what the ripple effects will be from all of the extra time away from the game, the shifted schedules, and various other factors will have on athletes. Baseball is a game that demands extended periods of health and fitness from its players, and the ebb and flow of a season (and off-season) has a huge impact on their bodies. If baseball tries to start up a new season in the fall or rushes into regular season play without the usual spring training time period, what kind of impact will that have on baseball players? It’s hard to know unless perhaps you’re an expert.
For example, New York Yankees team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad recently penned a blog post regarding the possibility that we may see a surge in the need for Tommy John surgeries once Major League Baseball returns from the COVID-19 stoppage. According to Dr. Ahmad, who has been performing the surgery on baseball players for over 20 years, all of the factors he’s associated with the surgery need in the past will present when the league begins to play again.
Year after year I have observed a consistent spike in Tommy John surgeries in the spring compared to other months/seasons. The reasons behind the spikes are related to some combination of the sudden start of play, rapid competition intensity, lack of early season physical conditioning, lower preparation coming from offseason, not yet fully optimized throwing mechanics, and playing with elbow pain. Many players after the long offseason waiting period, are unwilling to disclose elbow pain or acknowledge their lack of preparation fearing they will be shut down right away.
Dr. Ahmad also notes that players are going to feel pressure to get back into shape fast and get their game back up to elite levels, all of which can lead to downplaying injuries and pushing their bodies too soon. Considering that most players probably haven’t been conditioning at peak levels during this extended off-season, it’s likely that we’re looking at a lot of injuries ahead, whenever that may occur.
In order to counteract this possibility, Ahmad suggests that players put their focus on strengthening and endurance regimens right now. He also suggests that pitchers put together effective throwing programs and take all injury symptoms very seriously.
Recently, Los Angeles Angels GM Billy Eppler told MLB Network Radio that the stoppage has caused problems for players who are already dealing with the rehab following Tommy John surgeries, such as Shohei Ohtani. Adding a surge of new players dealing with and recovering from the surgery would have a huge impact on player availability in the short-term and long-term, so it’s an issue MLB needs to seriously consider as part of their plan to bring back baseball…eventually.