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January 21, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Seeing Red

by Tommy Bennett

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When the rumors began trickling out that, of all teams, the Cincinnati Reds were the winners on the Aroldis Chapman Plinko board, three thoughts struck me in quick succession. First, I wondered how a team that was reportedly facing financial difficulty could afford to shell out $30 million to a player yet to throw a professional pitch in the United States. Second, I wondered whether the signing meant that revenue sharing was working and whether it meant the draft could be abolished. Finally, I thought about how nasty the Reds' 2012 rotation could be if it featured Chapman, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Homer Bailey. I wasn't the only one, as BP's Christina Kahrl and John Perrotto, plus Mark Sheldon and Phil Rogers out in the mainstream, all had similar thoughts.

If you've been to see a game in Cincinnati, you know they have a very nice ballpark with a wholesome-sounding name (that is, in fact, just a nifty bit of corporate sponsorship) in a town that is certainly nice by Ohio metropolitan standards. The product on the field, however, is not the reason you're buying a seat. While the history and ballpark stand at odds with the current state of the franchise, the Chapman signing (along with the other young arms) represents a glimmer of hope for victory-starved, yet chili-rich fans. Unfortunately, like The Banks' land-use project that sits adjacent to Great American Ballpark, the future rotation is still in the early construction phase.

So a Hard-Throwing Dominican Right-Hander Tears His UCL…

Edinson Volquez is an excellent proxy for the promise and risk of a future ace-studded rotation by the banks of the Ohio River. The six-foot Dominican drew many comparisons to Pedro Martinez when he signed with the Texas Rangers as an international free agent in 2001. After his professional debut in 2003, Volquez worked his way up the ladder of the Rangers' system. Less than a year after the DVD surpassed VHS in rentals, Volquez was joined in the Rangers system by Thomas Diamond and John Danks. In 2004, Newberg Report forum member, Eric Belin, coined the DVD acronym for the trio, reflecting the cutting-edge hope of the time. Volquez had brief cups of coffee with the Rangers in each of the 2005-07 seasons, which were enough to render him ineligible for the Rookie of the Year award. However, that certainly didn't stop him from finishing fourth in the voting when he finally made his full-season debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 2008, as some BBWAA voters did not realize he had exhausted his rookie eligibility.

A challenge trade and a near-complete tear of his ulnar collateral ligament later, Volquez is soon to begin throwing again after undergoing Tommy John surgery in early August. For his part, Volquez has stated that his intention is to return to the Reds by June. This 10-month schedule would, at first glance, seem aggressive. What implications might such an early return have on Volquez and the Reds' hopes for their future rotation?

The Warm Embrace of Untested Assumptions

Upon hearing of Volquez's throwing schedule and timetable for return, some expressed doubt, while others displayed fear. Adam Bernacchio at the Ghost of Moonlight Graham opined, "There is no reason for the Reds to rush the 26-year-old back and risk further damage." This reaction seemed reasonable enough, and it certainly is true enough in general that an early return from injury can lead to subsequent re-injury. But I wondered if this was true for a specific, and now common, procedure like Tommy John surgery. So I asked around.

Of course, my first thought was to ask Will Carroll (you know, he wrote the book). According to Will, there is no necessary relationship between the speed of recovery and the likelihood of further injury. Even the "honeymoon" period (the five years after surgery during which the pitcher's elbow is very resilient) is the same length for quick returnees, Will says. A brief survey of players who have had repeat engagements with Tommy John surgery shows similar results. Among those who have succumbed to a second elbow injury after a return from the first procedure, none of has had an abnormally quick turnaround. Chris Capuano, Shawn Hill, Scott Mathieson, and Matt Riley all were out more than 11 months before their return. Although Tommy John himself required a second procedure, this was due to the novelty of the procedure and the need to correct nerve problems.

One aspect of injury analysis that is particularly difficult is separating injury-related performance degradation from bad luck or declining skills. This difficulty is compounded when dealing with Tommy John returnees since very often their control is worse when they return to the mound. For a pitcher like Volquez, the ill effects of whose wildness are tempered only by his ability to induce swinging strikes, an early return might mean a marked decline in effectiveness. Even while healthy in 2008, Volquez allowed more than four walks per nine innings and hit another 14 batters in 196 innings.

From the Reds' standpoint, the relevant tradeoff probably isn't between the benefit of extra Volquez innings and the risk of re-injury but rather between a diminished and recuperating Volquez and the next-best pitching option. Whether the fifth starter is Micah Owings or Matt Maloney, the Reds should feel free to let Volquez pitch as soon as he will be more effective than the next guy. While he will certainly require a bit of readjustment, he will not be worse off.

It is worth adding that Volquez's surgery was performed by Dr. Tim Kremchek who, in addition to serving as the Reds' team orthopedist, has a tremendous amount of experience with the Tommy John procedure. In recent years, Kremchek has performed between 75 and 90 such procedures per year and has a reputation for his patients making quick turnarounds. Much of the success of the procedure comes not on the operating table but during the rehabilitation and the fact that Volquez was able to stay in Cincinnati at Kremchek's offices and conduct rehab with his staff bodes well for a quick return.

Nevertheless, Volquez's health is just one variable in the Reds' future rotation formula. If they are to assemble the formidable array of pitchers, they must all develop (Leake, Bailey, Chapman) and remain healthy (Volquez, Cueto). While the combined ceiling of this rotation is high, the road ahead of Volquez helps to underscore how far away 2012 really is. For the Reds' sake, let's hope it isn't apocalyptic.

Question of the Day: How quickly can Volquez return to the mound for the Reds? Would they be wise to keep him sidelined out of caution? What other variables are worth considering?

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