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MLB will be without two of its top aces when the 2020 season finally starts

Noah Syndergaard and Chris Sale both opted for Tommy John surgery with the MLB season delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Houston Astros v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Mets recently announced Noah Syndergaard will be out for whatever constitutes the 2020 MLB season with surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. His UCL was apparently so thoroughly shredded that repairing it required an ‘essential’ procedure, which meant it was still allowed despite the Covid-19 crisis leading states to postpone most surgeries. Syndergaard is the second ace to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery this month, joining Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox; both will be unavailable to pitch until around the midpoint of the 2021 season.

It’s tempting to see the start of the Covid-19 outbreak as a good time for UCL repair. The pandemic has shut down organized sports around the world, leaving the current MLB season in limbo and almost certainly reducing the number of games they’ll be able to fit in this summer. Missing the whole season is more palatable when nobody has much clue how much season we’ll actually have.

But it’s difficult not to think this ought to have been done even earlier. Sale in particular had a rough 2019, and was shut down in August with elbow inflammation (there’s less of a history here for Syndergaard, but he was ‘experiencing elbow discomfort’ before spring training, and it’s hard to imagine it was the offseason which did that to him). It worked out well enough for Sale, incidentally — he managed to nurse his hurt arm through the offseason and earned a lucrative contract extension, but one has to imagine the Boston Red Sox are annoyed that they committed $145 million to a pitcher who needed elbow surgery a week later.

Decades ago, Tommy John surgery was a major gamble, the sort of procedure chosen if there was no other option. But now it’s more straightforward, and despite the long recovery pitchers can be fairly confident they’ll return in more or less one piece. This should probably change the calculus on pitching through elbow pain, since ligaments aren’t great at healing on their own, but as Sale clearly demonstrates, the economic value of not missing a year and a half can be too great to pass up.

For teams, however, the unwillingness to read the warning signs early enough to act on them is grimly reflective of one of the fundamental truths of how humans react to crises: a platelet-rich injection of denial, cheerful optimism, and then finally, after it’s far too late, deal with the issue as best they can. That doesn’t sound metaphorical at all.