Drew Smyly is a left-handed pitcher whose labrum in his left shoulder in torn. That sounds serious, and it seems crazy that Smyly would try to pitch through that. However, that is exactly what he is going to do. Moreover, the Tampa Bay Rays are actually optimistic that he could return this season. How does this situation make any sense? Are Smyly and the Rays acting within the realm of common sense?
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The first thing to note is that shoulder injuries are an entirely different ballgame than elbow injuries. Alex Cobb underwent Tommy John Surgery last Thursday, and the Rays are confident that he will be ready to pitch in the major leagues again in 14 or 15 months. The science of Tommy John Surgery has been virtually perfected, and most pitchers are able to return with about the same stuff than they had before. If Cobb delayed surgery with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, he would only be risking appearances in the second half of 2016 in exchange for a small chance of avoiding the surgery.
The situation is different here for Smyly because if he has the surgery, the expected recovery time will be longer and there is more variability involved. If a pitcher needs shoulder surgery then you don’t have a choice, but if there is any chance of avoiding a procedure, it makes sense to delay. If doctors told the Rays that Smyly’s expected recovery time from surgery was 16 or more months, that would knock him out for all of 2016 even if he had the surgery right now. If he undergoes the surgery in October, meanwhile, he will still be ready for 2017 like he would have been before.
It also isn’t as though this is a pie-in-the-sky chance of Smyly pitching again before surgery. Smyly’s shoulder injury was not as severe as Jeff Beliveau‘s, which did end up requiring surgery in short order. The Rays were not going to have Smyly rehab this injury no matter what–there was a line after which he would have undergone the procedure, but he didn’t cross it. Given its lesser severity, the Rays have a plan for Smyly that began with a cortisone shot and will continue with a period of rest and eventually rehab.
The reality is that Drew Smyly will eventually need labrum surgery, but the gamble that the Tampa Bay Rays are making right now by having him rehab isn’t really a gamble at all. The worst-case scenario is that he has surgery and comes back for 2017 as previous planned while the best-case scenario is him pitching in a few games and helping this Rays team down the stretch. If Smyly doesn’t pitch again for the Rays this season, they don’t deserve any blame because they will simply end up in the same place that they would have been had he undergone surgery immediately.