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I’m Not Worrying About Tanaka – And Neither Should You

Who would have thought that one of the biggest stories from Opening Day 2015 wasn’t any particular game, but rather the status of Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow?

Baseball Tonight referred to today, the day after Opening Day, as “Overreaction Tuesday” and had fans tweet them their most ridiculous hot takes for the season. Most of the responses were completely over the top and great for comedy, but would never truly happen. Still, Overreaction Tuesday is not such a crazy idea…

By day, I am a medical assistant for an internal medicine physician. Just last week I was taking care of a Hospice patient in heart failure and his wife. The two of them were incredibly cheerful throughout the entire visit; you would have never known he was seriously ill and that his heart could literally give up at any moment. When my coworker and I mentioned this, they simply said “You can’t be too serious in life.” They completely understood the severity of their situation, but they also weren’t going to let it hold them back. They were going to enjoy life as much as they could, and enjoy every minute of it.

How does this relate to baseball? Because it reminds me why I am not worried about Tanaka’s arm: because there’s no need to worry until it’s time to worry.

We all know about the partial UCL tear in Tanaka’s elbow – we’ve been talking about it since last summer. Here were are now, just two days into the new season, Tanaka named the Opening Day starter for the Yankees at home…and they lose. Not only is it disappointing, but suddenly everyone around baseball is a medical expert. And not just any expert – they’re all orthopedic specialists with particular knowledge about Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow. Without medical degrees. Without examining him. Without seeing his MRI results.

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Tanaka got the loss yesterday with 4 innings pitched and 5 runs scored (2 walks, 5 hits including 1 homerun), but he also threw 6 strikeouts. It’s not his best work, but it’s far from the worst showing a starting pitcher has ever made. It’s also not a good enough reason to strap him to a gurney and wheel him into the nearest operating room.

Without even considering velocity or evaluating the number of each pitch he threw, this is a different year for Tanaka in Major League Baseball. He is not a unknown pitcher from Japan anymore; he’s been in the year for a league now, and opposing teams have had all that time to study him. Many of the American League batter have already faced him. Quite simply, he’s more familiar this year than he was last year.

Even so, he is a very talented pitcher – otherwise, the Yankees wouldn’t have signed him (we hope), and he wouldn’t have had such a successful rookie season. But one bad day (or one really bad inning) does not mean Tanaka’s arm is doomed. Remember, the Yankees only had three hits all day and without Brett Gardner’s homerun, would have been shut out. (Doesn’t that sound like the 2014 Yankees? Good work by pitchers and little offensive support?) And what about Headley’s error? What should have been a sacrifice bunt and an out turned into a run scoring and two runners in scoring position – and just one hit to right later, two more runs score.

One game (with one really bad inning) and one loss does not mean Tanaka is broken, and it doesn’t mean the Yankees season is a lost cause. Personally, I’m just looking forward to tomorrow night’s game and hoping for a better result – and I still won’t be worrying about Tanaka’s arm.

There is a very real possibility the UCL may tear and require surgery at any time, but think about how true that is for all pitchers. Already this year there have been a handful of pitchers in spring training whose seasons have ended because of Tommy John surgery. There are several theories why so many pitchers are heading for TJS but the fact is, it’s happening. All the time, and at every level including high school and college.

The difference with Tanaka is we know about the small tear. Several orthopedic surgeons know about the tear and have evaluated Tanaka and have all agreed: No surgery. Where did baseball fans and writers suddenly get their medical degrees? When did any of us give Tanaka a physical exam?

Call it a ticking time bomb if you want, but none of us know if and when the ligament will actually require surgery. Right now it’s a possibility (maybe even a probability) but it’s not a necessity. The true experts have agreed he’s okay – Tanaka and the Yankees insist he’s okay – so let’s let him do his job. Right now, Masahiro Tanaka is the Yankees’#1 starter and a nearly $200 million investment.

Don’t worry until it’s time to worry.

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