Tommy John surgery 'epidemic'?

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As he watched Kris Medlen walk off the mound in mid-inning last month and head straight for the trainer, Frank Wren already had that "sickening feeling" in his stomach.

Unfortunately, it's a feeling the Braves' GM knows all too well.

Within days, Medlen and Brandon Beachy would become the third and fourth Braves pitchers to visit their friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon since May. Only a few weeks later, reliever Cory Gearrin would become the fifth.

Now, you don't need to graduate from Harvard Medical School to know a pitcher can't catch that Tommy John surgery bug the way he would, say, the measles. There's no vaccine to prevent it, no pill you can pop to stop it, no room you can quarantine yourself inside to avoid contracting it.

But yikes. Something seems to be going on here -- and not just in Atlanta, either.

According to research by Jeff Zimmerman and Jon Roegele for the invaluable website Baseballheatmaps.com, we've already seen 14 major league pitchers undergo Tommy John surgery just this year. And two others are scheduled to have surgery next week: Yankees starter Ivan Nova and Rangers reliever Pedro Figueroa.

And this is happening in a sport that averaged fewer than 16 of those surgeries per year between 2000 and 2011.

So, everywhere you turn, somebody is asking probing questions about this stunning proliferation of trips by all these elbows to the ligament-reconstruction repair shop. And the group asking those questions, naturally, includes the beleaguered Atlanta Braves.

"We've taken a step back and looked at everything," Wren said. "We've talked to our doctors. We've talked to [Dr.] Jim Andrews. We've talked to our medical staff. And from everything we can tell, nothing would indicate that what's happened to us is anything other than fate."

But is this just fate? Is this an official "epidemic" that has mysteriously afflicted the entire sport? And whether it is or not, what can baseball do to keep all those elbow ligaments off the operating table?

Let's examine those questions, with the help of people who have studied this topic in exhaustive detail.

Is this a true 'epidemic'?

OK, so this isn't an epidemic in the same way the swine flu was an epidemic. But when you start to see something in the medical sphere that begins happening with greater and greater frequency, doesn't that still qualify as some sort of epidemic?

"It's not an epidemic -- yet," said Stan Conte, the Dodgers' vice president of medical services and a man who probably has done more injury research than anyone else in baseball. "But I think I see the storm clouds gathering.

"Hopefully," he said, "the storm will miss us. But I'm still going to grab an umbrella."

Sounds like an excellent idea. But it's still too early to determine whether this year's Tommy John surgery outbreak is part of a trend or just One of Those Years. So see what you think:

The stage seems to have been set for a record year, when you consider that, in the past, March and April have been relatively light months for these surgeries. They've tended to increase as the season goes on -- with June and July as the peak months.

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