Even though Jimmy Nelson knew he was going to miss the rest of the season after suffering a shoulder injury on September 8th, he tried to remain optimistic. Nelson was scheduled to undergo an “arthroscopic debridement” on his right shoulder yesterday, in which Dr. Neal ElAttrache was to remove some debris from the area. Once he was inside, ElAttrache would then determine the extent of the damage to Nelson’s labrum and determine if it needed to be surgically repaired. A few days before going under the knife, Nelson told reporters:
"It’s good news because there’s a chance that once he gets in there, and cleans it up, he might feel the labrum doesn’t need to be fixed, that I could rehab it and be just as good that way. If that’s the case, I’ll be back a lot sooner as opposed to if he fixes the labrum. The big thing is him getting his eyes on it and go from there. Right now, it’s optimistic news because he wasn’t 100% set on thinking certain things had to be repaired.”
Unfortunately for Nelson and the Milwaukee Brewers, the news was not good following yesterday’s procedure:
Jimmy Nelson surgery update: He did require a labrum repair and is likey to miss "a chunk" of '18, David Stearns said. How big a chunk? TBD.— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) September 20, 2017
Nelson suffered an anterior labrum tear and rotator cuff strain when he slid awkwardly back into first base during what was his final start of 2017, and the damage was significant enough that ElAttrache decided that surgical repair was the best option. Here’s what GM David Stearns had to say:
"This is probably somewhere in the middle of the scenarios. The best-case scenario Jimmy told you guys was the doctor goes in there and it's a relatively minor procedure, and he has the potential to be back at the front end of next year. Obviously, we don't think that is going to be the case. We do think he is going to miss a chunk of next year. But on the plus side, we do think he's going to be able to pitch in the Major Leagues for us at some point next year. We don't know exactly when, but we'll see how the rehab goes."
Labrum tears have been called “baseball’s most fearsome injury” and “the career-ender”. When the rotator cuff is involved, as it is with Nelson, a Yankees team doctor once said “that has a much worse prognosis and influences velocity and ability to pitch.” In some instances, the rehab for a labrum tear can take as long as 12 months. But because the the tear was a non-throwing injury, the damage occurred in a different location than most baseball-related labrum injuries. According to Brewers’ team doctors, the specific type of repair that Nelson had to undergo has as high as 90% success rate.
Still though, while Nelson should indeed return to action at some point next season, there is a major question about how effective he’ll be upon his return. Few pitchers regain their pre-injury form after suffering an injury to their labrum, including the likes of Mark Prior and Brandon Webb who had their careers ended by the injury.
The location of the repair shouldn’t force Nelson to alter his mechanics, so there’s reason to have some hope that he’ll be able to return to prominence in the next few seasons. But after he posted a 3.49 ERA with 199 strikeouts and 48 walks in 175.1 innings pitched in 2017, it’s fair to wonder if that was as good as we’ll ever see Jimmy Nelson.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs