Sean Burnett Tried to Break UCL, Is Trying Now to Blaze Trail

TAMPA, Fla. – Most pitchers try to avoid having Tommy John surgery at all. Sean Burnett wanted it a second time.

The former Pirates first-round pick went to see Dr. James Andrews again after he dealt with elbow pain early in 2013, nearly 10 years after the first surgery on his left elbow. Said Burnett to Ryan Lawrence of PhillyVoice:

“They went in to fix the flexor tendon and Dr. Andrews said it was the ligament. It wasn’t torn, but it was completely stretched out and looked pretty beat up. It was 10-years old (from the first surgery). He wasn’t going fix it, hoping that the surgery for the flexor issue would do something, but the first day I threw after four months I knew it was still a problem.”

Burnett knew his left UCL wasn’t right so he did something you hear few, if any, pitchers attempting to accomplish: he tried to tear it. He went back to the Legacy Golf Club room at which he was staying while rehabbing in Tempe, Arizona, stacked pillows up against his bed’s headboard, and started throwing baseballs with as much violence and velocity as he could into them. I asked Burnett about this bizarre strategy earlier this week.

“I needed to pop it until he would fix it, so I tried to pop it in the hotel room each night,” Burnett said. “It didn’t work but maybe it sped up the process a little bit.”

Did he disturb any neighbors?

“I don’t throw hard enough,” Burnett said. “I had enough pillows up there.”

In May of 2013, Burnett “finally” felt his ligament “pop” in an outing against Seattle.

Burnett is of interest for a few reasons as he tries to win what Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has described as a “wide open” competition for a left-handed bullpen arm. For starters, the 34-year-old had to have tremendous trust in the procedure to want to blow his arm out again. He knew he didn’t feel right and was on the wrong side of 30. Time was running out on his career in 2013. Burnett has also shown us the sort of desperate measures to which players will resort in order to extend a career — while also demonstrating the resiliency of the UCL.

But Burnett is perhaps of most interest because he’s another data point in what we can expect to be a growing population moving forward: pitchers who have had two Tommy John surgeries. The Tommy John epidemic at the professional and amateur levels has been well documented in recent years. What it means is we can expect the number of two-time Tommy John victims to also spike in the not-too-distance future. And while many pitchers return to productivity after a first surgery, productivity typically diminishes significantly after a second surgery.

From a Washington Post story based upon this 2014 study:

Even if they are able to return to the Major Leagues, the two-timers played 0.8 years less than similar pitchers (3.2 years vs. 4.0 years) and they threw only about half as many innings as they did before the second surgery.

More encouraging was a Baseball America study that found of the 43 pitchers to have had a second Tommy John surgery through 2014, according to Jon Roegele’s database, 26 returned to the majors.

Burnett is another pitcher to return, but can he succeed? Can Burnett earn a job this season and become one of the few arms to prove there’s life after a second surgery?

Burnett returned to pitch 5.2 innings for the Nationals last season. While it was a small sample, the velocity of his sinker (88.0 mph) was in line with the 2013 velocity he recorded with the Angels (88.1 mph).

Having had the surgery nearly 10 years a part, did Burnett find there was a significant change in the procedure and rehab process?

“It’s the same exact process,” Burnett said. “The first one I waited four months after the surgery to throw, the second one I waited six months. I got 10 good years out of my first one, so I can’t complain about that. I just listened to whatever Dr. [James] Andrews said. I stayed up at his complex for the first three months. Whatever they told me, I did. It feels great now. They were probably a lot more aggressive the second time than the first. I was hanging off a bar from my finger tips a few week after surgery. The first time they put you in that brace and slowly straighten [the arm]. [The second time] there was no brace.”

Burnett has had a nice major-league career. He’s appeared in 380 games, pitched 378.1 innings, and posted a 3.52 ERA. But he could make his biggest contribution to the sport, and to those two-time Tommy John victims to follow him, if that career can continue in 2017 and beyond.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

Er…won’t he put himself at risk for liability for doing that after signing with the Angels?

Jimmy Dugan
7 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Not really. There’s no potential liability for a negligence cause of action because he owes the angels no duty to protect himself from harm, and also the angels would suffer purely economic damages. While the angels could theoretically go after him for a bad faith claim (assuming the CBA doesn’t specifically prevent it), he would have plenty of arguments that his intention was to help the team, not to hurt it. In addition, the Angels would be taking a huge risk by going after him because it would reflect incredibly poorly on the organization. I’d have to see the actual contract to confidently say “there is no cause of action for the angels to pursue”, but even without it I’m confident saying its not likely, and even if they succeeded, it would be a bad idea.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jimmy Dugan

He did a much more extreme version of what in theory more players should be doing: knowing they are hurt and doing what they need to do to get better instead of playing through it. Frequently, when a player is hurt, the best thing both for the team and for the player’s career is for him to rest and heal, but both parties seem to conspire to do the suboptimal thing. If the Angel’s went after him for this, it could push things way in the wrong direction.