Tommy John surgery is something that we, as a baseball community, have gotten a lot more comfortable with over the past decade or so – at least at the major league level. When a star pitcher like Stephen Strasburg or Adam Wainwright or Tim Hudson undergoes the procedure, we set our watches to 12-14 months in the future and wait for our beloved stars to return. We then all talk about how it really takes 18-24 months for a pitcher’s full arsenal (stuff + command) to come back once they go under the knife. By most sources, the success rate of Tommy John surgery across the board is roughly between 80% and 90%, and this appears to be universally accepted by even the casual fan. So why is it that we overrate the procedure when it comes to prospects?
The latest example of this is John Lamb – a left-handed starting pitching prospect in the Royals farm system. Lamb was a 5th round draft pick of the Royals back in 2008, although he was considered a first-round talent prior to a car accident which caused him to miss his entire high school senior season. He repaid the Royals belief in him early by pitching well in his 2009 debut across the Appy and Pioneer Leagues, but it was 2010 which put him firmly on the prospect map. Between Low-A, High-A and Double-A in 2010, Lamb went 10-7 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 159 K in 147 2/3 IP. He entered 2011 as the #18 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America and the #11 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus. His star was firmly on the rise as a potential #2 starter who could be within 12 months of making the big league team.
Unfortunately, 2011 didn’t quite go as planned for Lamb. Although the results weren’t terrible (3.09 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 22 K in 35 IP) to start the season in Double-A, reports of decreased velocity caused the Royals to take a closer look at Lamb’s elbow. And just like that, on June 3, 2011, Lamb underwent Tommy John surgery. His return to the mound would come 14 months later, as his rehab was slightly derailed by an ankle injury. The results after he came back in August were not particularly encouraging, both from a statistical perspective and a scouting perspective. He seemed tentative and his velocity came and went, though it was only a 13 inning sample to work with.
Now with Lamb, the question becomes how do you value him as a prospect? Since 2011, Lamb has precipitously dropped down prospect lists, to the point where he’s not even being viewed as a top-10 prospect in the Royals system (which is not nearly as strong as it was back in 2011) by multiple outlets. Marc Hulet at FanGraphs just ranked him 12th in the system behind names like Sam Selman, Jason Adam and Kyle Smith. J.J. Cooper put the Royals top-10 together for Baseball America and that had Lamb’s name omitted entirely. Baseball Prospectus will be releasing their list shortly and I’m very curious to see where they have him, especially given that Kevin Goldstein still ranked Lamb as a 4-star prospect last year.
Personally, I think this all is a bit of madness. Yes, the success rate of Tommy John is mildly proportional to the age of the person on the operating table, but Lamb’s chances of a full comeback aren’t that much smaller than if he were 25 or 27 (he’s still only 22). And yes, there are more pitchers who return from Tommy John surgery today to unexpectedly great results immediately (like Brett Anderson did this year), but they are still not the norm. The normal cycle is still the 18-24 month full recovery – which would give Lamb the first few months of 2013 to show that he still has the same upside he had prior to the surgery. Which is why I’ve only slightly dropped him in my ranks.
When I release my 2013 Top 150 Dynasty League Prospects list, barring anything unforeseen, I will have Lamb within the back end of the top-100. Right now, he’s the #5 Royals prospect on my list, just barely ahead of current Wilmington darling Yordano Ventura (Royals’ arms are often at their greatest level of hype post-Wilmington because it’s such a favorable pitching environment). He can still be the big lefty (he’s 6’4”) with a 6 fastball, two above-average secondary pitches (curve and change) and plus command/control. If I believed that before Lamb had his Tommy John surgery, I will trust the process that led to that belief and give him a full recovery period before drastically altering my valuation of him. So let’s check back in June, shall we?