John Lamb (LHP – Kansas City Royals – HighA)
Salem Red Sox vs. Wilmington Blue Rocks on April 30th, 2013 in Wilmington Delaware
6.0 IP, 2 ER, 7K/1B with one home run
In 1974, Tommy John, then of the Los Angeles Dodgers, had a revolutionary surgery to reconstruct his pitching elbow that had failed him during the season. After John’s operation, surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe put his chances at 1 out of 100 for a complete recovery. Not only did he recover, Tommy John won 164 more games and played until he was 46-years-old.
Since that initial operation, the surgery has been performed on thousands of individuals. The procedure has become so successful that nearly everyone outside of the medical community simply refers to the reconstruction of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament as “Tommy John Surgery”
While nobody truly understands the causes of an elbow ligament tear, if you’ve ever viewed a slow-motion video of the violent torque involved in throwing most off-speed pitches, you begin to question the entire profession of pitching. How can an elbow handle that stress for 150-200 pitches at a shot? Furthermore, with pitchers throwing harder today and with secondary pitches having tremendous tilt and curve, it’s no wonder that barely a week goes by without a pitcher heading off to have Tommy John Surgery.
TJS has become so common place that most people just assume that it’s a bump in the road. The pitcher goes out for a year and comes back as “good as new”, maybe even better. However, the surgery is not 100% and we can look no further than Kansas City minor-leaguer John Lamb as an example of what can happen.
At the start of the 2011 season, John Lamb was a key part of the future of the Kansas City Royals. In fact, most observers considered him, fellow lefty Mike Montgomery (traded as part of the James Shields deal) and Danny Duffy (currently recovery from TJS) untouchable and the trio that would bring winning back to Kansas City.
Lamb’s stuff was really good. His fastball sat in the low-90’s with a lot of arm-side run, a hammer of a curveball that was a true swing and miss pitch, and a change-up that graded out even better. The command was good but not great, but then again, he was 20-years-old and had plenty of time to hone his craft. I put a number two ceiling on the lefty in 2011 and had even traded for him in one of my Dynasty Leagues.
The pop was heard on May 19, 2011 and a week later, John Lamb had Tommy John Surgery and started his rehab. From all accounts, he worked as hard as ever and I’m sure was hopeful that this was just “a bump in the road”. However, when he returned late in the 2012 season, reports of reduced velocity started to surface and concern quickly spread.
I had a chance to see Lamb pitch on April 28th and while it was a chilly night, the velocity of his fastball was sitting 84-85 MPH, nearly 7-8 MPH off from his pre-surgery level. I was honestly hoping that my radar gun needed to be tuned, but others around me were getting the same results. It was true…John Lamb was not the same pitcher.
The hammer curve though was still there, but instead of coming at the hitter at 73-74 MPH, it was sitting 65-67 MPH. Ignoring the velocity, it is absolutely a beautiful pitch – a Barry Zito type of curve. In fact, the more I watched Lamb, the more I thought about Zito. The stuff was very similar and his control that evening was very good. The change-up was still a plus pitch and five of the strikeouts occurred on that offering; including fanning some very good Red Sox prospects (Blake Swihart and Sean Coyle).
But the problem is two-fold. First this is High-A and while the Salem Red Sox have some excellent prospects including Garin Cecchini, who looked very good that night (look for an upcoming profile), Lamb was getting out Double-A hitters before the injury. However, the bigger problem is his velocity. While major league pitchers can achieve some modest level of success pitching at that speed, it has to come with excellent control and superb command (the ability to throw the ball where you want). While Lamb demonstrated really good command that evening, his next outing was not as successful. In 5.0 innings, he gave up nine hits including a home run. While I didn’t see the game, the results show the razor thin path that he’s on – if you miss with your pitches, they become hittable, particularly with your fastball is coming in at 84 MPH.
I’m a John Lamb fan and I’m at the front of the bus wishing him success. However, with the diminished arsenal, the odds are stacked squarely against him. At this juncture, he should not be owned in any Dynasty League format.