Dustin May’s Breakthrough Cut Short by Tommy John Surgery

Through the first four starts of his season, Dustin May looked as though he’d put it all together. The hard-throwing, high-kicking ginger mop top was getting the strikeouts to match his elite stuff, and putting together a performance that fit right in with the rest of the Dodgers’ top-notch rotation. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a long while before May gets to build upon his strong showing. After leaving Saturday’s start against the Brewers in obvious pain, he’ll undergo Tommy John surgery on May 11 and miss the remainder of the season, an injury that comes at a time when the Dodgers’ vaunted depth has already taken significant hits on both sides of the ball.

In the second inning of Saturday’s game, May threw a 2-2 pitch to Billy McKinney that was a couple of feet outside. The 23-year-old righty winced, signaled for the trainer, and then departed, with manager Dave Roberts describing him reporting “a shooting sensation” in his right elbow. An MRI revealed the UCL damage, and he’ll go under the knife of Dr. Neal ElAttrache next week.

As Jake Mailhot documented less than two weeks ago, by mixing his curve and 98-99 mph four-seam fastball into what was predominantly a sinker/cutter mix, May was missing far more bats this year than before with his light-up-the-radar-gun stuff. Updating the stats, where he had struck out 20.8% of batters in his 80.2 innings in 2019-20, he’d nearly doubled that to 37.6% in 23 innings this year — the NL’s fourth-highest rate among pitchers with at least 20 innings behind Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta. Meanwhile, May’s 31.2% strikeout-to-walk differential ranked third behind only Burnes and deGrom. Of the Dodgers’ other starters, only Clayton Kershaw has outdone both his 2.74 ERA and 3.24 FIP, while only Trevor Bauer has the better ERA, and Julio Urías and Walker Buehler the better FIPs. All told, he was hangin’ with the big boys and fitting right in.

Alas, all that is on pause until sometime in 2022, as May becomes the second young Dodger to miss the season due to Tommy John surgery; lefty reliever Caleb Ferguson, who went under the knife last September, was the first. It’s cold comfort to those two pitchers, but since 2015, Andrew Friedman’s first full season as the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, only two other pitchers off their major league roster have undergone TJ surgery, namely Brandon McCarthy (April 2015) and Grant Dayton (August 2017). According to the data in the Tommy John Surgery Database, they’re tied for the 10th-fewest TJ surgeries among pitchers in that span:

Taking into account the entire organization — excluding pitchers who underwent the surgery in high school or college, or before throwing a professional pitch (as was the case for Buehler, the team’s first-round pick in 2015) — the Dodgers are tied for the fourth-fewest total of TJ surgeries on pitchers in that span:

While the Dodgers have largely dodged TJ surgeries in recent years, they’re up to their shoulders in arm injuries right now, and the loss of May comes at a time when two of the other pitchers who competed with May for a rotation spot this spring, Tony Gonsolin and David Price, are on the Injured List and will remain there for at least a few more weeks. Gonsolin, who turns 27 on May 14, out-pitched May during the two righties’ brief time in the majors in 2019 and ’20, posting a 2.60 ERA and 3.02 FIP while striking out 24.5% of all hitters; he finished fourth in last year’s NL Rookie of the Year voting while May finished fifth. Initially slated to open this season in a bullpen role, he landed on the IL on April 4, before making a single appearance. He threw a 20-pitch bullpen session on April 30, and the goal is for him to rejoin the rotation.

“The plan is to build Tony up to be a starter, you’re talking five [innings] and 75 [pitches] as the floor,” said Roberts on Sunday. “Tony is the guy we’re trying to build up.”

Increasing Gonsolin’s pitch count will take at least a few weeks. He could see game action with one of the Dodgers’ minor league affiliates, which begin their seasons this week.

Price, who opted out last season amid the coronavirus pandemic, made seven appearances out of the bullpen for the Dodgers and showed his rust, pitching to a 5.59 ERA and 6.11 FIP while serving up three homers in 9.2 innings. He strained his right hamstring on April 25, landed on the IL, and is expected to miss significant time. As Roberts told reporters, “The four- to six-week timeline — I think we’ll be under that one.”

With three off days in an eight-day stretch from May 6-13, the Dodgers can go with a four-man rotation until May 18, but they’ll need a fifth starter to take at least a few turns until Gonsolin is ready. The most obvious choices from among those on the major league roster are righties Jimmy Nelson, Mitch White, and Dennis Santana. Nelson, a 31-year-old righty, pitched well enough to receive down-ballot consideration in the Cy Young voting as a Brewer in 2017, but shoulder and back injuries limited him to just 22 innings from 2018-20. A non-roster invitee this spring, he drew mention as a potential starter, but never pitched for more than two innings at a clip. He made the team as a reliever, and in 12 innings has pitched to a 3.75 ERA and 2.78 FIP while striking out 27.3% of hitters. He hasn’t thrown more than 43 pitches in an outing, however, and so would have to be built up on the fly. The drawback is that such a move would come at a time when he’s gaining Roberts’ trust in higher-leverage spots, a necessity given the injuries to relievers Brusdar Graterol (who’s on the 10-day IL due to forearm tightness, with MRI results pending) and Corey Knebel (who landed on the 60-day IL due to a strained latissimus dorsi).

White, a 26-year-old righty who was the team’s second-round pick in 2016, has all of 7.1 major league innings of experience, including 4.1 this year, during which he has yet to allow a run. Worked as a starter in the minors, he’s battled injuries, and while he’s flashed plus with three pitches (fastball, cutter/slider, and curve), mechanical issues and iffy command have lowered his stock; he’s fallen from 16th on the Dodgers’ prospect list to 41st in two years’ time. He’s thrown as many as 35 pitches this year, and two of his three outings have been multiple-inning ones, but he’d have to be built up to a starter’s workload.

The 25-year-old Santana has worked as a starter in the minors, but all 25 of his major league appearances spread out over the last four seasons have been out of the bullpen. He’s scuffled, pitching to a 6.21 ERA and 5.15 FIP over that span. Though advertised as “a high-spin, low-slot sinkerballer who doesn’t throw all that hard but has great command of his secondary stuff,” to quote Eric Longenhagen’s post-prospect report, he’s walked 11% of batters overall and 14.3% this year. As he’s maxed out at 23 pitches this year, he’d have to be built up as well.

Though not on the major league roster right now, 23-year-old Edwin Uceta made his major league debut with a two-inning start on Friday against the Brewers before being optioned back to the alternate site, where he spent last season after reaching Double-A Tulsa in 2019. The 6-foot, 160-pound Uceta entered the year 35th on the Dodgers’ prospect list, with Longenhagen offering a promising report as a potential fourth or fifth starter: “He’s athletic, his delivery is well-balanced, he hides the ball well, commands his fastball to both corners, can both bury his breaking ball and throw it for strikes, and in his best outings, his changeup also has bat-missing fade.”

Beyond the major league roster, the ideal choice to replace May would be Josiah Gray, a 23-year-old righty whom the team acquired from the Reds in the December 2018 Yasiel Puig trade, and who currently rates as the team’s top prospect. A converted infielder who stands just 6-foot-1, he possesses an explosive 92-96 mph fastball as well as potential plus pitches in his slider and changeup, but he has yet to pitch above Double-A. The Dodgers clearly want to give him some minor league seasoning before bringing him up, which would take a 40-man roster move. “You know, we’re just not there yet,” said Roberts on Monday. “Obviously, he’s our top prospect and we think very well of Josiah. So we’re just not quite there yet.”

May’s injury comes at a time when the Dodgers — who after winning it all last year were again projected to be the majors’ best team — have lost 10 out of 14 after bolting from the gate with a 13-2 record. They’ve been hit hard by the losses of Cody Bellinger and hot-hitting rookie utilityman Zach McKinstry, and Mookie Betts has been in and out of the lineup due to minor injuries. From April 17 to May 1, the team hit just .180/.302/.303 while scoring 3.29 runs per game, and for all of the good work of the starters, who rank first in the majors in WAR (4.3), second in ERA (2.71) and third in FIP (3.10), they lost three games in extra-innings during that slide as their thinned-out bullpen was exposed. The loss of May is their most significant blow to date, but for as down on their luck as the Dodgers might feel right now, this team was built to withstand such setbacks. They’ll figure it out.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

It’s always been scary for me watching guys so young consistently sitting in the 98+ MPH range, and May’s mechanics and arm action always made me cringe a bit even if I’m assuming they were perfectly “healthy” (it’s the Dodgers, doubt they let sloppy deliveries slip by).

Really sucks to watch a guy who was figuring it all out break. I have no info and I’m no expert on the matter, but I have a hard time believing that it’s a coincidence that velocity and reliever usage is at all time highs and elbow blowouts have followed suit. Hopefully May returns stronger than ever.

2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

i remember some stat i saw documenting how many young guys throwing 98+ end up having TJ and being blown away by it. It’s hard to tell a young kid to be happy sitting 95, but i can’t help but think some of them would instantly become aces if they did this and focused on hitting spots. Seeing kopech and hicks come back and insist on hitting 102 is painful to see!

2 years ago

It feels to me like (and I know every pitcher’s body is different) all these young guys are pitching every inning like 8th and 9th inning peak Verlander: just flat out max effort on almost every single pitch. I see so much 99+ with the bases empty in the first few innings.

Prime JV used to max out at 102, which is probably right around where May, Sixto, Pearson, Kopech, and others can get to, but he spent the first few innings of his starts in cruise control around 92-94 , well under his maximum peak velo, which he only came close to in late innings or when he truly needed it to get out of jams. It just feels to me like the gap between these young guys’ average velo and max velo is a lot smaller than it should be. Again, I have no detailed info to prove it, just an opinion.

I’m not saying it’s easy to pace yourself like Verlander used to, because even he was an anomaly back then for how extreme he was with it, but I think there’s much more of a max effort philosophy with every pitcher now, starter or reliever, which is why they all tend to lose velo late in starts (hello, Blake Snell) and elbow blowouts are everywhere.

Funnily enough, I think this could actually be improved upon by shrinking bullpen size and forcing pitchers to toss more innings. I firmly believe that if starters knew they were expected to throw 110-120 pitches per start instead of 85-95 and expected to go 7 innings minimum instead of 5 or 6 at most, their average velo would go down and they would instinctively start saving their best bullets for when they needed them.

2 years ago

A.J. Puk was doing this, and was looking great, but then had a bicep strain, so the jury is still out