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Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

BASEBALL

Want to see baseball’s best young aces? Try the operating room Add to ...

They are twin poles, for the moment, of a grim trend that has become the story of the baseball season: Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, must-see ace right-handers just starting their major league careers, sidelined suddenly by a serious elbow injury.

“It’s becoming a pretty common story,” Harvey said in the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, “but it’s something you definitely don’t want to hear about when the best pitchers in the game are going down for a year.”

Harvey started the All-Star Game for the National League last July, but by August he was finished until 2015. Fernandez of the Miami Marlins was the major league leader in strikeouts when the team placed him on the disabled list Monday night. Fernandez is likely to have ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery, the same operation Harvey had last October.

The procedure, in which a torn ulnar collateral ligament is replaced by a tendon from another part of the body, is the scourge and the savior of pitchers’ careers. First performed by Dr. Frank Jobe on John, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 1974, the procedure has been performed on an alarming number of arms already this season.

According to research by Jon Roegele, a writer for the Hardball Times and Beyond the Box Score, 33 pitchers in the majors or the minors had had Tommy John surgery since Harvey’s operation. The typical recovery time is at least 12 months.

Here are some of the injured: Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, A. J. Griffin, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Matt Moore, Josh Johnson, Ivan Nova, Bobby Parnell, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Rondon, Cory Gearrin. That is a full staff worth of major league pitchers. Even a top prospect for the coming draft, East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman, has had the injury.

The volume of injured pitchers seems staggering. The year with the most documented Tommy John surgical procedures was 2012, when there were 69 between the majors and the minors. By mid-May of that season, only 26 operations had been performed. There is no telling what the final toll will be for 2014, of course, but there is reason for concern.

Here are some of the injured: Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, A. J. Griffin, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Matt Moore, Josh Johnson, Ivan Nova, Bobby Parnell, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Rondon, Cory Gearrin. That is a full staff worth of major league pitchers. Even a top prospect for the coming draft, East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman, has had the injury.

“It’s worrisome as an industry,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. “Teams have tried to protect players as much as they can, but I don’t know if there’s anything we can do. You’re not going to tell a guy, if he throws 97, to throw 92.”

Girardi, a former catcher, cited the increased specialization by amateur athletes as a reason for the trend. He said he made sure his 12-year-old son, Dante, stops playing baseball every Oct. 1, and takes time to participate in football and basketball.

Many young pitchers play baseball year-round to satisfy scouts and college recruiters hungry for hard throwers. Doctors regularly cite this as a cause for the spike in the occurrences of Tommy John surgery among amateurs. Anything beyond 80 to 85 miles per hour is considered more than a developing ligament can handle.

“I don’t really care what coaches want to see and what scouts want to see,” Girardi said. “I need to do what I think is best for my son: keep him healthy, keep him doing what he loves.”

The Yankees lost Nova to a torn U.C.L. last month during a game against the Rays. Nova said he did not expect to be so severely injured, and in the clubhouse Tuesday, he wore a bulky brace on his right arm, which he cannot straighten.

Nova said he was discouraged to hear about Fernandez, a pitcher he admires, he said, for his “easy cheese” – baseball lingo for a seemingly effortless fastball. According to the website Fangraphs, which tracks and analyzes baseball statistics, Fernandez’s fastball averages 95.1 m.p.h., sixth among major league starters. Soon, it seems, Fernandez will be part of a group Nova never knew was so big.

“In the past, it was scarier, but right now, it’s like routine, because everybody’s getting it,” Nova said. “It’s really unbelievable. Even here, there’s guys I didn’t know had the surgery, and they told me. So that’s a good thing, because everybody says, ‘You come back stronger.’ ”

Not all pitchers recover so easily. Typically, about one in five never make it back to full strength, and some, like Beachy, Medlen, Johnson and Parker, end up having the operation again.

Brian Wilson, a Dodgers reliever, grew up in New Hampshire, where the severe weather limited his pitching opportunities but did not keep him from having two Tommy John operations. Wilson said the modern ethos was to give in to pain, not grind through it. Modern technology can detect problems unknown to previous generations of pitchers.

“I guess I can’t compare the game to the way it was played before, but now people are getting Tommy John with the slightest tear,” Wilson said last week. “I have to believe that people would be pitching through the slightest tear three decades ago. Now you don’t pitch with pain. It’s very precautious.”

Harvey played in youth tournaments growing up in Connecticut, but he said he could not determine what caused his injury. He tried to avoid surgery and still sounds surprised he needed it. Even on the operating table, Harvey said, he never felt discomfort in his elbow, only his forearm.

“Guys are getting bigger and stronger, and ligaments just aren’t able to withstand the pressure of throwing a baseball,” Harvey said. “It’s obviously an unnatural movement and motion to actually throw something at 95 or 100 miles an hour. That involves a lot of stress. Thankfully, they have Tommy John to make you come back and make you stronger, hopefully. I feel better about the way that my arm feels right now.”

Harvey, who is throwing from 120 feet, stays with the Mets for his rehabilitation while the team is in New York. He was at Yankee Stadium on Monday when news of Fernandez’s injury spread to the dugout during the game.

Terry Collins, the Mets’ manager, said it caught everyone’s attention, even during a tight game, a testament to Fernandez’s status. Collins said he got to know Fernandez at the All-Star Game last summer, and called him a special breed.

“It’s very, very sad, because we all want to watch the greatest players play; that’s why we do this,” Collins said. “But there’s not much you can do about it. These are big, strong guys who put a lot of stress on their entire bodies. Dr. Jobe told me years ago, ‘Terry, no matter how hard you try, if they’re going to break, they’re going to break.’ But I think it’s really sad for baseball.”

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