Red Sox

Nathan Eovaldi's arm gets a clean bill of health from his surgeon

Nathan Eovaldi's arm gets a clean bill of health from his surgeon

EDITOR'S NOTE: This week across the NBC Sports Regional Networks, we'll be taking an in-depth look at some of the top free agents in baseball. Thursday is dedicated to Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi.

BOSTON — Nate Eovaldi’s high-velocity stuff and incredible 2018 postseason have positioned him to be a star in free agency. After a routine visit to his doctor on Tuesday, Eovaldi has a strong bill of health, which should help him show teams that he’s positioned to be healthy for years to come as a two-time recipient of Tommy John surgery.

“To me, he’s over Tommy John surgery and he’s over revision Tommy John surgery,” Dr. Christopher Ahmad, the Yankees’ team physician who operated on Eovaldi’s elbow and forearm in 2016, told NBC Sports Boston. “And I would consider him in the same category of somebody who has a healthy arm, and whatever worry I have about that player, I have the same or less for Nate.”

Eovaldi went for an MRI as well as physical exam, matters of standard surveillance.

“His elbow, from his description, he had no symptoms whatsoever throughout 2018 once the season started,” Ahmad said. “His elbow felt great. Obviously, his velocity was there, so his performance and his ability to get guys out and his number of innings pitched was amazing. But from his description, he had no complaints at all. He felt great. 

“When I examined him, his motion was perfect. He had no features on examination that he had a compromise to his elbow. Nothing tender, nothing painful to stress. And we also performed an MRI scan to take pictures of his reconstructed ligament. His reconstructed ligament, even being a two-time reconstructed ligament, looked as perfectly healthy as could be. There was no signal changes in it. His bones around the ligament didn’t have any signal changes. 

“Sometimes subtle features can be picked up that the ligament’s acting a little weak, like small bone spurs forming often can be a sign that the ligament is a little loose or acting weak. Bone spurs form to compensate. No bone spurs. And even coming off an extended postseason, he didn’t have any muscle problems like muscle strain patterns. So essentially, his elbow checked out as well as it could be after having a second-time Tommy John surgery.”

As a performer, there’s nothing to doubt about Eovaldi, who’s entering his age-29 season. The righty is coming off a postseason where he pitched in six of 14 games the Red Sox played, throwing 22 1/3 innings, fanning 16 and allowing just four earned runs. 

In the regular season, after the Red Sox acquired him from the Rays, he lowered his ERA nearly a full run, to 3.33 from 4.26, in nearly an identical number of innings.

Entering his age-29 season, the righty threw 26 pitches at 100 mph or better in the postseason, per BaseballSavant.com. That’s 15 more than Eovaldi threw in triple digits in the regular season. He hit 101.1 mph in his final game of the year, and 101.6 mph in the ALCS — his two fastest pitches at any point in 2018. (He didn’t hit 100 mph this year until August, in fact. The hardest pitch of his career is 101.9 mph, which he last hit in 2016, prior to his most recent surgery.)

The performance Eovaldi delivered out of the bullpen in Game 3 of the World Series, which may be his final outing in a Sox uniform, was perhaps the most dramatic individual performance in all of the postseason — and that’s accounting for David Price’s rise to dominance and Steve Pearce’s slugging. 

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Eovaldi had already pitched in relief in Games 1 and 2, totaling 29 pitches. Despite that, he was not only willing to pitch again in Game 3, in the longest game in postseason history, but he was willing to go 97 pitches. The last toss was a game-winning home run for the Dodgers in the 18th inning — but that didn’t matter. He was throwing incredibly hard, and kept the Dodgers at bay for almost all of his six innings pitched, easily the equivalent of a start on short rest.

The outing was certainly selfless. Asked how the Red Sox knew Eovaldi could handle such a workload, Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski offered only two words at the general managers' meetings: “constant communication.”

The Red Sox care about the health of their players, but they could also have thrown caution to the wind in pursuit of a championship, even unwittingly. The Dodgers, for example, seemed much more reticent to use pitchers so aggressively.

Asked generally if player and team interests are ever at odds in a postseason setting, Astros president Jeff Luhnow said he did not think so.

“I mean, everybody wants to win,” Luhnow said. “Obviously, I think even our team interest is to keep our players healthy. The one area where you might see it is if a player is a free agent at the end of that year. But I think most managers, pitching coaches, and the players themselves are responsible enough where you don’t go into a risky area.”

Ahmad was watching Eovaldi’s progress.

“As Boston kept on doing well and advancing in the postseason, I started to say, ‘This guy is throwing hard,’” Ahmad said. “He’s only with Boston for a couple of months potentially, because he’s a free agent. … There could be some concern that he’s going to throw too much. So while I was celebrating how well he was doing, I also celebrated how strong he was right up into the final games of the World Series. He was incredible with his durability. So his performance was great, but also his durability.”

But Ahmad didn’t indicate he was particularly worried at any point, namely because Eovaldi didn’t have a significant jump or decrease in velocity. Eovaldi averaged 95.2 mph on his hard pitches in the regular season, and saw that rise to 96.3 mph in the playoffs.

Ahmad also knows Eovaldi particularly well and how hard Eovaldi worked to return to form. Ahmad, with Eovaldi's permission, named a character in a children's book he authored "Nate."

“What worries me in general across the board, especially with the young developing thrower, that’s where we see it the most — a guy who has a rapid jump in velocity and has never seen that velocity before,” Ahmad said. “So if a kid who’s developing, getting stronger, goes from 92 to 98 in a very short period of time, he’s not adapting well enough to that velocity. So somewhere in his system, he’s gonna have a breakdown, and the weak link is the elbow ligament. 

“For Nate, as you know, he was averaging [a high velocity] for the last five, six years of his playing career,” Ahmad said. “And to go from 98-99, to 100, to 101, and occasionally touch 102, that from a percentage increase, wasn’t alarming. And if anything, it made me feel like his ligament was strong, that it was not about to go.”

MORE ON NATHAN EOVALDI

There is still a label involved here: two Tommy John operations. Eovaldi had his first Tommy John procedure when he was 17 years old. He had his second at age 26. Ahmad handled that second operation, as well as a repair of the flexor tendon at the same time. 

Ahmad thinks it is likely that Eovaldi is the first two-time Tommy John recipient to throw over 100 mph upon return. That was not immediately verifiable, but Eovaldi is clearly a success story where there haven’t been many. 

Per a 2016 study published by some renowned surgeons, including Dr. Neal ElAttrache and Dr. David Altcheck, 38 pitchers at that time were determined to have undergone a second Tommy John surgery, called a revision.

“Of the 38 MLB pitchers who underwent revision UCL reconstructions, the operations in 12 pitchers were in 2013 to 2014; thus, only 26 MLB pitchers remained for return to play analysis,” the study went. “Seventeen pitchers (65.4%) returned to pitch at least 1 MLB game (Table I). Only 11 pitchers (42.3%) returned to established play.”

How, then, does the fact that Eovaldi has had two operations factor in now?

“I often use the analogy of, if you’re wearing out the tires in your car, and your car is not aligned well, if you simply change the tires, the tires are going to wear out again quickly, and you’re going to be right back where you started,” Ahmad said. “For Nate, he didn’t have, say, two or three years before his ligament failed. He had seven or eight years on his ligament. So his alignment analogy is good. His throwing mechanics are good. 

"What a lot of people are delving into as we learn more about revision Tommy John surgery is, if the surgery was done, say, less than perfectly the first time — and even more specifically, if the tunnels that were used to place the new graft were not in ideal position, the graft tends to be stressed in an abnormal way and it fails early. His tunnels are perfect. So essentially we were able to put in a new graft into perfect tunnels. And we used a graft from his knee called the gracilis tendon. That graft is bigger and stronger than his palmaris longus, which came from his wrist. 

“So we used perfect tunnels again, put in a bigger graft, on a guy who has demonstrated that he can throw well and throw hard over a number of years. So while I’m concerned about the general population of throwers who throw hard, I’m not concerned about him any differently.”

Teams will always draw their own conclusions, but after an incredible postseason, Eovaldi has clarity on the one matter that could draw back his market, and the news reinforces what Eovaldi believed all along.

COMING FRIDAY: Patrick Corbin

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David Ortiz not afraid to return to the Dominican Republic after shooting

David Ortiz not afraid to return to the Dominican Republic after shooting

David Ortiz met with reporters for the first time since he was shot at a bar in the Dominican Republic Monday, opening up on his recovery and how the experience has changed him. 

Oritz detailed the feeling of getting shot and how a good samaritan rushed him out of the bar and to the hospital before it was too late in an interview with Bob Hohler, so Monday's session was a chance for the Red Sox legend to open up a bit further. 

Even though Ortiz nearly died due to an act of senseless violence in his own country, he explained that he is not afraid to return home but will have to be more careful in the future.

"Now, I guess, once I'm down there, I guess I'm going to have to have my security," Ortiz said. "I never did it because I thought it was too lousy and I never thought anybody would do anything like that to me, or to anyone. But you learn.

"I was sitting on the street, with my back to the street," he said. "Like, when you do things like that, you know that you don’t have a  problem with anyone. Because if you have a problem with someone, you’d never put your back to the street because you know that’s how somebody could easily attack you. It happened to me knowing that I don’t have enemies anywhere, so now I’m going to have to be more careful about it, that’s all."

The future Hall of Fame slugger has hired former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis to investigate his shooting so Ortiz can find out why he was targeted the night of June 9th. Reports after the shooting suggested that Ortiz was not the intended target by the gunman, but either way, Ortiz wants to know for sure. 

"I've got to just be able to make sure it wasn't directed to me because I don't do things to deserve anything like that, you know? So I pretty much hired my own group, you know, to get together with them to find out and go through all the details and stuff," he said. "I respect what they came out with, but I would like to know if there is something else." 

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Mookie Betts and the $35 million question -- is anyone worth that much?

mookie_betts.jpg
File photo

Mookie Betts and the $35 million question -- is anyone worth that much?

The question shouldn't be if Mookie Betts is worth $30 million a year, but this:

Is anyone?

Look across baseball, and the game's longest, largest contracts consistently crap out. Presumed AL MVP Mike Trout, who signed a historic 12-year, $430 million deal, is an exception, because of course he is. Until a foot injury ended his season, he was rampaging towards his first 50-homer campaign, though a lot of good it did the Angels, who are already guaranteed their fourth straight losing season.

And that's part of the problem. In a sport where few teams have the resources or will to spend beyond $200 million, a $30 million contract can tie up 15 percent of the payroll.

In the same winter that Trout signed the biggest contract in sports history, two other young stars in their primes also cashed in, and it's hard to argue either team got its money's worth in Year 1. They should be viewed as cautionary tales before the Red Sox make a similarly monster expenditure on Betts.

Former NL MVP Bryce Harper, 26, received $330 million from the Phillies over 13 years, while Manny Machado, 27, scored a 10-year, $300 million contract from the Padres.

The returns thus far are decidedly meh. Harper is hitting .253 with 31 home runs, 102 RBIs, and an .864 OPS. Machado's at .256-30-82-.797 and leads the NL in double plays with 24.

In a season with more homers than ever, 30 ain't what it used to be. Daniel Vogelbach, Mitch Garver, and Kole Calhoun are just three of the game's 48 sluggers with at least 30 bombs. Among position players, Harper (3.4) and Machado (3.0) rank 62nd and 70th, respectively in WAR, right behind Angels utilityman David Fletcher (?!?) and Yankees fire hydrant Mike Tauchman.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. The players who swim in the deepest end of the salary pool almost always end up needing a life preserver, and sooner than you'd think.

Consider the rest of baseball's 10 richest contracts. Giancarlo Stanton ($325 million) has been limited to nine games by injuries and like Harper has basically delivered one outlier MVP season amidst a sea of pretty good. He signed his 13-year deal with the Marlins at age 25.

Alex Rodriguez makes the list twice, first for his landmark $252 million contract with the Rangers in 2001, and then for the $275 million deal he renegotiated with the Yankees in 2008. You'll get no argument with contract No. 1, which included three MVP awards and more than 350 homers. Contract No. 2 is one of the worst in sports history, highlighted by scandal and injury and eventually ending with the Yankees paying A-Rod not to play at all in 2017.

More encouraging is what the Rockies have received from third baseman Nolan Arenado, who is completing a fifth straight All-Star season in the first year of his eight-year, $260 million extension. So far, so good.

The same cannot be said of former Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, whose eight-year, $240 million extension runs through 2023. He has 10 home runs after hitting three last year, and eventually he may receive the A-Rod treatment from Detroit, which owes him a staggering $124 million over the next four years.

Cabrera's might not even be the worst deal running through 2023. Remember Robinson Cano? The Mariners signed him for 10 years and $228 million at age 31 in 2014. He delivered three All-Star appearances in his first four seasons before falling off the face of the earth. The Mets subsequently chose to eat his salary to acquire All-Star closer Edwin Diaz, and he has delivered 13 homers and 37 RBIs this year.

Then there's Albert Pujols, whom the Angels swiped from the Cardinals at age 32 in 2012 with a 10-year, $240 million deal. He has made one All-Star team since.

Cabrera, Cano, Pujols, and A-Rod (the 2nd time) were all players on the wrong side of 30 signed in a different era, one could reasonably counter. Today's owners recognize that the biggest contracts should be reserved for stars like Betts in their 20s, who are more likely to deliver, especially in the first half of their deals.

Ask the Twins how that worked out when they signed 27-year-old MVP Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract in 2011. He limped to the finish line as a broken-down first baseman/DH.

Or the Cubs, who jumped on Gold Glove outfielder at Jason Heyward when he was 26, figuring they'd lock in his prime for eight years and $184 million in 2016. He has instead delivered below-average production for four straight seasons.

Or the Rockies, who watched All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki break down shortly after signing a 10-year contract in 2011 at age 26. Or the Tigers, who gave Prince Fielder $214 million at age 28. Or the Yankees, who must be wondering what kind of player Stanton will be moving forward.

A case can be made that Betts is a better all-around player than all of them, with a diverse enough skillset to maintain value even if one or two of the component parts regress. But the Red Sox already know what it's like to pay someone $30 million and wonder if it was wise. Left-handers David Price and Chris Sale represent worse long-term investments than Betts, and both are already breaking down. Their bad money may render any discussion of extending Betts pointless, with owner John Henry deciding that he will not, in fact, tie up nearly half of his payroll in three players.

If that's the case, and the Red Sox trade Betts this winter, they will lose a tremendous talent. They may also be doing right by the long-term interests of the franchise, because the lengthier and richer the deal, the more likely history suggests it will be to miss.

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