When left-handed pitcher Tommy John went under the knife to have ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow in 1974, little did he know that years later that surgical procedure would come to be known simply as “Tommy John surgery.” Even many doctors refer to the procedure by that name.
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Maybe one day people will simply refer to hip labrum repair as “Rob Johnson surgery.”
Or maybe not.
Unlike John’s groundbreaking procedure, Johnson’s surgery isn’t necessarily new or revolutionary. In the past year, Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez, former Phillies pitcher Brett Myers, Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell and Royals third baseman Alex Gordon all had surgery to repair torn hip labrums. Rodriguez came back 60 days after his surgery and helped lead the Yankees to the World Series championship.
And the trend for this type of surgery is growing.
“It is kind of the new thing in baseball,” Mariners trainer Rick Griffin said on Thursday. “If you go back 10 years, you didn’t do this. They are starting to realize in baseball players, especially pitchers on their landing leg, this is a common injury. (The labrum is) a smaller structure than the one in the shoulder. It doesn’t cause the same type of instability, but it limits people from a pain perspective and a range of motion perspective a little more than we thought.”
Of course, the 27-year-old Johnson is nowhere near an All-Star performer, as John was at the time of his surgery. In fact, he was a part-time catcher for the Mariners in 2009. In his rookie season, he hit just .213 with two home runs and 27 RBI in 290 plate appearances, while striking out 60 times and posting an on-base percentage of .289. He also tied with two other catchers in giving up the second most passed balls (9) in the American League.
So why call it “Rob Johnson surgery”?
Well, while his counterparts had labrum surgery on one hip, Johnson had the surgery to repair both hips this offseason.
He went to hip specialist Dr. Marc Philippon on Oct. 16 and had the labrum repaired in his left hip. Three weeks later, he had his right hip repaired.
Phillippon, who also did the surgery on Rodriguez and the other players, had done the procedure on a few catchers as well.
“But he’s never done two hips on a catcher before,” Griffin said.
Because of the demands of catching, particularly squatting and going in and out of that squat – to block balls in the dirt, to throw runners out, in between pitches – the hips are especially vital for catchers. And the hip issues were limiting Johnson, both behind the plate and at the plate while hitting.
“If it’s your front leg, you can’t rotate through your swing,” Johnson said. “And when you’re a catcher you lose some of your lateral ability and your ability to move forward to block balls. It just restricts everything. Imagine if you put a small pebble in your hip joint and you go to move and it catches every time it rolls over – that’s basically what you are talking about.
Johnson said he could feel bone on bone catching in the hip joint.
“I was battling it quite a bit,” he said. “I was having to do a lot of stretching to get in the positions I wanted to get in. I think that was locking me up with my catching and going down to block balls. And with my swing I wasn’t able to turn like I would like to. But you just battle through it. It’s part of the game.”
Now the discomfort is gone. And it was gone almost immediately after the surgery.
“About a week after the surgery, I could feel on the inside of my hips there was no bone-on-bone catching,” Johnson said. “I knew at that point (the pain was gone). The rest would be muscular stuff.”
He’s now a full go in terms of hitting, running, working out and doing catching drills. He said he’ll be ready for spring training to go 100 percent. Griffin said that Johnson will still be monitored closely and might not get to do full activity at the start.
“This goes back to last year before the surgeries, we made it very clear to Rob, and sometimes things don’t get real clear to him, the goal is for him to be ready to go by opening day,” Griffin said. “The process of spring training for him is going to be ... go slowly and do everything you need to do and progress in a manner where he gets to the point where he can do everything with confidence.
“We’re going to take a very cautious approach.”
“I’ll be ready,” he said.
And as for the name “Rob Johnson surgery”?
“Well, maybe in a few years,” Griffin said. “Tommy John surgery wasn’t called that until he came back and did well. So if he comes back and does well, then maybe.”
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