Tommy John and Repairing-vs-Prevention

Posted on March 27, 2012 | in Baseball, Ergonomics, Lean Wastes, Maintenance, Motion, Small Business, Sports | by

Let’s say you just purchased a very expensive machine for your process. On average, these machines have a productive life of about fifteen years but the one you buy has been running for about five years, with ten years left for your use. You put the machine as-is into your process and (by virtue of its hefty price tag) it runs at peak performance for a couple years, a significant upgrade to the previous state of the process. You’ve simply dropped the machine into the process without identifying any ways to truly meld it into the operation or find opportunities to improve it. You see improvement opportunities, but it currently runs like a champ – if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Well let’s also assume that this machine can be very costly to repair if it breaks down. Because of the intricacies of the components and the fact it was constructed far away, if the machine goes down it could be a year before it can be used again. It could come back good as new, or even better, after the repair but that year off means a replacement machine would have to be used in its place that might not be as efficient but is likely much less expensive. Your productivity would take a significant hit and that could also be very costly.

Now when the high-performing machine returns to service, how likely are you to just maintain the status quo with improvements (or lack thereof)? Will you find ways to prevent this machine from falling apart or crashing again, thereby keeping from crushing productivity for a subsequent episode? Wouldn’t you consider possibilities to better integrate the machine into the process?

Well that’s essentially what happens when a baseball pitcher goes down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow and undergoes “Tommy John” surgery. This procedure is named after the first pitcher receiving this then-experimental treatment, which consists of repairing the UCL with a graft of a tendon from another part of the body (in Tommy John’s case, his non-throwing wrist). With such an injury careers used to be finished, but due to this radical procedure it’s no longer a career death sentence as pitchers can come back nearly as good as new after a year of rehabilitation and rest.

While it’s a way to save pitchers’ careers, it’s also a very expensive procedure for many reasons. First, surgery isn’t cheap. Second, because Major League Baseball contracts are guaranteed, teams still have to pay the players if they’re on the roster when they have the injury and surgery and all through the rehab process.

(An example is Reds pitcher Ryan Madson. He just signed a free-agent contract this winter with the Cincinnati Reds for well over $6M for 2012, and then in spring training he injured his elbow and will undergo Tommy John surgery. The procedure means he won’t play at all during 2012 but the Reds must still pay his salary even though he won’t throw a single pitch for them.)

And third, it’s not as if those injured players take up spots that won’t get filled. They have to be replaced, most often by lesser-talented players that are making less money but are probably not as effective.

Well what if you could do a better job of preventing the likelihood of such an injury from occurring?

An ESPN.com article by Lindsay Berra (and with ESPN The Magazine) is suggesting just that – what if pitchers’ mechanics could be better analyzed and understood so that the opportunity for UCL tears or other such elbow injuries can be minimized? With pitchers being such expensive craftsmen these days and their performance being so critical to team on-field success, shouldn’t greater attention be paid to pitching motions to reduce opportunity for injury?

During rehab, John hooked up with his teammate, Mike Marshall. ‘The surgery worked for Tommy because I made him put his hand under the baseball,’ Marshall says. John acknowledges a change in grip. ‘If you move it to the side, the ball is pointing back when your hands break and you can come up nice and high,’ says John, who pitched another 14 years, won 164 games and retired at age 46.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Washington Nationals are learning it with Stephen Strasburg. The Reds are learning it with the loss of Ryan Madson.

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