Christian Vazquez throwing

Christian Vazquez and the Troubling Track Record of Catchers and Tommy John Surgery

One of the few nice surprises about Boston’s 2014 campaign was Christian Vazquez. Specifically, the young backstop emerged as a viable big-league starter during his age-23 season, proving that if you can frame pitches well, play solid defense, and hit just a little better than Tony Pena did with the Sox, then you can be an average catcher these days.

One of the few not-so-nice surprises about Boston’s 2014-2015 offseason was Christian Vazquez. Specifically, Vazquez fell victim to a tear of his ulnar collateral ligament, and faster than you can say “Jonny Venters” he was out for the 2015 season. Vazquez underwent Tommy John surgery to repair the ligament in question last Thursday and — despite the procedure’s usual association with pitchers — he’s not alone in wearing both the tools of ignorance and the “zipper” on his arm.

Thanks to the tireless work of Jon Roegele, we can figure out how many catchers have dealt with TJS (again, that we know of today), and perhaps explore what the long-term effects of Vazquez’s surgery might be. Maybe, just maybe, we can make an educated guess at when, what, or even where Christian Vazquez might be post-surgery.

So, as I’ve established before, Vazzy isn’t the only catcher to have TJS … but there aren’t very many others who’ve had the procedure. From Mr. Roegele’s list, here are the other 26:

Name Year of TJS Team
Steve Christmas 1986 Cubs
Matt Quatraro 1997 Devil Rays
Todd Hundley 1997 Mets
J.R. House 2002 Pirates
Craig Tatum 2005 Reds
Ben Davis 2005 White Sox
Taylor Teagarden ???? Rangers
Trey Lunsford 2006 Giants
Vance Wilson 2007 Tigers
Josh Ford 2008 Diamondbacks
Vance Wilson 2008 Tigers
Curt Casali 2009 Tigers
Josh Ford 2009 Diamondbacks
Tomas Telis 2010 Rangers
Chris Coste 2010 Phillies
John Baker 2010 Marlins
A.J. Jimenez 2012 Blue Jays
Spencer Kieboom 2013 Nationals
Kyle Higashioka 2013 Yankees
Andrew Knapp 2013 Phillies
Matt Reistetter 2014 Nationals
Matt Wieters 2014 Orioles
Dustin Houle 2014 Brewers
Mark Clark 2014 Rays
Will Remillard 2015 Cubs
Christian Vazquez 2015 Red Sox


The first thing I noticed when perusing the list is that precious few catchers have had the surgery during their run in the big leagues. In fact, Vazquez is only the seventh catcher who was already in the show to be cut up like this. While there are a couple of guys who’ve had the procedure, then made it to the majors later, only a handful have been in a similar position to CV.

Time to examine a few case studies, in chronological order:

Steve Christmas, Chicago Cubs — 1986

This is basically prehistory, as far as UCL surgeries go. Nevertheless, Christmas had the zipper in 1986, after splitting time between the Cubs and Iowa. By this stage of his career, he was more of a corner infield guy who spent a little time behind the dish … but after his TJS, there’s no record of him playing in the majors or minors ever again.

Worst case scenario? Sure. But you’ve gotta look at this through the lens of history, and we’ve got 30 years of refinements in the TJS process to go on.

Todd Hundley, New York Mets — 1997

Flashing forward 11 years, Hundley is one of the few catchers to have Tommy John surgery and play real innings before and after the procedure in the bigs. Hundley, a personal favorite of mine (I grew up a Mets fan), was a power-hitting backstop with a propensity to hit homers and play less-than-inspiring defense, so he was basically the opposite of Vazquez from an overall profile. However, Todd caught a respectable number of base-stealers, thanks to his arm … he had a 33.5% caught-stealing rate over his career. Of course, that’s nothing like Vazquez’s 50+% rate in action during 2014, but it’s still respectable.

Hundley’s CS% numbers pre-surgery (34.9%) and post-surgery (31.2%) aren’t wildly different, and it may be irresponsible to chalk up the difference to his surgery. Perhaps TJS had some effect on his arm and his ability to gun down runners, but it could also be chalked up to age and limited playing time in the years after 1997.

I’m not sure how the surgery may have affected Hundley’s offensive game — the numbers that he posted before the surgery were great, but the time after was riddled with injury bumps and lack of playing time. He still managed a peak-level season two years after his surgery in 2000, so I’d look at Hundley more as an example of a best-case scenario for Vazquez: while his performance wasn’t quite as good post-surgery, there wasn’t anything that stands out as being dramatically different.

Vance Wilson, Detroit Tigers — 2007

If at first you don’t succeed …

Vance Wilson, Detroit Tigers — 2008

… try, try again.

Wilson wasn’t like Vazquez or Hundley. He was nearing the end of a career as a career backup, taking on the surgery — well, surgeries — during his age-34 and age-35 seasons. Defense was all Wilson could really hang his hat on, as his career True Average was .243, just a hair over Vazquez’s .239 TAv in 2014, and right in line with what PECOTA projected for an un-injured Vazquez in 2015 (.244 TAv).

So despite the age, Wilson is a fair comp in terms of player type to Vazquez. The bad news, of course, was that Wilson needed a second TJS almost immediately after his first (both were performed by Dr. David Altchek), and he never returned to the majors. All we got from Vance was a short run in Double-A for the Royals in 2009. And when we talk about his arm in those games, we talk in hushed tones. According to Baseball-Reference, Wilson threw out 0% of baserunners, as 20 guys stole on him, and zero were caught in the act.

Vance Wilson: also a worst-case scenario, but his age plays a big part in that, I’d imagine.

Chris Coste, Washington Nationals — 2010

Coste, who was hanging onto major-league relevance by a glimmering thread, saw his 2010 Tommy John Surgery end his career as well. Having been a long-term minor-league lifer who finally found the show at age-33, he was a solid defensive backstop with a 28.3% caught-stealing rate and a bit of bat-to-ball skill. But he had his surgery during what would have been his age-37 season, so he’s not exactly an easy comp.

John Baker, Miami Marlins — 2010

John Baker, once, was a promising offensive prospect. Prior to the 2010 season, Baker looked like an average defensive backstop with legitimate offensive upside riiiight up until the 2010 season. That year, he *gasp* had his UCL fixed up, and things haven’t been the same since. Since then, he’s been a fringe big-leaguer: has catcher’s mitt, will travel.

At any rate, Baker has a rep as a smart and nice guy, a good clubhouse presence, and an average defender (though BP’s metrics say he’s no stalwart in that regard). He’s also not very good, and hangs on as a backup catcher because America will always need backup catchers. His offensive downfall, which may or may not be related to the TJS and two years only playing a little ball, makes for a scary comp for Vazquez. Baker’s career CS% is 23%, but it was 24.1% before the zipper.

Again, he’s a lot different from Vazquez, so maybe we can’t draw too much from that small sample … but he also pitched in 2014, so that’s something, right? He threw a scoreless inning and ended up with a win. If a catcher can come back from Tommy John and actually win a big-league game, that’s got to count as a success story in some fashion.

Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles — 2014

The elephant in the room is Baltimore’s franchise catcher and fact-font, Matt Wieters. Wieters is just about ready to return from his surgery, which is great for him, but not so great for anyone looking to draw conclusions about what effect said surgery will have on his game. Perhaps we could just take a little, teeny, tiny peek at his Spring Training numbers? I know, I know, it’s a ridiculously small sample size, but we really need a data point.

Oh. Oh my. I shouldn’t have looked. Matt Wieters fact: he’s gone 0-for-Spring, despite 24 plate appearances. He’s been shut down again. He isn’t really throwing. This could take a while.

One thing that is perhaps worth keeping in mind is this: Wieters may not be ready for Opening Day, but he’s expected to rejoin the Orioles’ 25-man roster sometime around the middle of April or maybe in May. If we hedge our bets, and say that he’ll be back in May, then that gives us a timetable of about 11 months for his recovery. Applying that same recovery timetable to Mr. Vazquez gives us a Spring Training return for Vazquez, putting him in position for Opening Day 2016 — or close to it.

None of this information, all of which is pretty anecdotal, looks great for Vazquez. Hundley and Baker carved out careers post-TJS, but neither relied as much on a cannon arm as Christian Vazquez. In addition, Baker saw his offensive ability plummet after missing the brunt of two seasons — though Vazquez is likely to miss only one full campaign.

There are other guys who had TJS and eventually made the bigs after the fact, like Curt Casali of Tampa Bay, Andrew Knapp of Philadelphia, and Taylor Teagarden of … wherever the hell Taylor Teagarden is now (the Chicago Cubs). Backups, one and all, if and when they make the bigs. It turns out that starting catchers don’t really get Tommy John, and if they do, the recoveries can be messy.

If we squint, could we even see a role for Vazquez in the big leagues if his arm never comes back? Well, he’s not a good hitter, yet. He’s got patience, but not a ton of pop, so he’d need to really ratchet the offense up to be a viable option in an outfield corner or at first base. It would also be a stretch to imagine him improving enough with bat and glove enough to handle a move to second base.

No, with Christian, the only thing we should try to imagine is a full recovery from Tommy John, and that the lost development time won’t keep him from developing into a more well-rounded hitter. Vazquez is a miracle-worker in the realm of pitch-framing, and even if his bonkers pop time doesn’t come back, he’ll still likely be a solid enough defender to be a very nice option as a backup catcher.

In the meantime, we’ll wait for Vazquez (and Matt Wieters) to teach us a little bit about what Tommy John surgery really means for a starting catcher. If this moves the Blake Swihart timetable up a little for the Sox, so be it … but I for one will miss watching the defensive artistry of Vazquez while he’s gone, and I’ll be hoping that the surgery doesn’t make him a diminished version of what we saw in ‘14.

Photo by Kelly O’Connor, 

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