Ever since the New York Mets drafted lefty Steven Matz in 2009, he’s dealt with one injury after another. He almost immediately underwent Tommy John surgery and after a slower than expected recovery, Matz didn’t pitch in his first professional game until 2012. With that in mind, it was hardly a surprise for Mets fans when the team announced Monday that Matz will soon undergo elbow surgery, effectively ending his 2017 season.
Matz began this season dealing with elbow problems. He was sidelined late in spring training with inflammation of his elbow. Such irritation was believed to be residual pain after Matz underwent surgery during the offseason to remove bone spurs from the elbow. He was given platelet-rich plasma injections, the current status quo treatment for pitchers with elbow problems, and spent the first two months of the season on the DL.
It wasn’t until June 10th that Matz made his season debut. Despite the time off, Matz now says that he’s been dealing with discomfort in his elbow all season. He notes the pain is worst in between starts, making it difficult for him to work on his delivery and make adjustments.
Based on his performance this season, it seems plausible that his elbow had been affecting him on game days. Matz has endured the worst season of his career. In 13 starts, he was 2-7 with a 6.08 ERA, a far cry from the 3.40 ERA he posted in 22 starts last season. The only similarity between last season and this season for Matz is that he made his final start of the season in August, failing to pitch a full season because of elbow issues.
It appears this nerve problem has been an issue for Matz all season. Unfortunately, doctors missed the diagnosis back in spring training. To be fair to the doctors who failed to diagnose Matz properly, the lefty wasn’t experiencing the primary symptom of ulnar nerve irritation, which is a tingling or numbness in the fingers.
The good news for Matz and the Mets is that the elbow surgery that will end the lefty’s season is less serious than other types of elbow surgery. The procedure Matz needs is called ulnar nerve transposition surgery. For pitchers like Matz who need the surgery, the elbow remains structurally sound, but the ulnar nerve is being compressed by the medial epicondyle, which is part of the humerus bone in the arm. The ulnar nerve is particularly important for pitchers because it runs all the way down to the hand and is responsible for feeling in fingers 3, 4 and 5. Any abnormality in sensation on the outside of the hand will adversely affect throwing.
During the surgery, the ulnar nerve will be removed from its natural position under the medial epicondyle and placed elsewhere, usually inside a muscle or under the skin. That should relieve the irritation and allow Matz to pitch pain-free. Two other members of the Mets pitching staff, Jacob deGrom and Erik Goeddel, had the same procedure last offseason, giving Matz hope that he will come back healthy despite his recurring elbow issues.
“Before I had it done, every time I tried to straighten my elbow the last 10 degrees or so, everything felt jammed up in there,” explains Goeddel. “Nothing felt right, and you need that to get extension through a good pitch. After I had the surgery, recovery really wasn’t that bad an immediately, I could straighten it again. It felt good throwing and it was like night-and-day.”
Those words from Goeddel provide some semblance of a silver lining for Matz. That being said, it must be both frustrating and disappointing for both the Mets and their fan base to see Matz miss time with yet another elbow problem. Injuries to pitchers have become a recurring theme for the Mets, whose World Series hopes in the years to come revolve around their pitchers being able to stay healthy and live up to their full potential, two things Matz and the rest of New York’s pitchers have been unable to do in 2017.