June 24, 2009; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joel Zumaya (54) reacts in the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Joel Zumaya Has A Tough Decision To Make

This weekend was just the latest in what seems to be a constant uphill battle for Joel Zumaya. After missing all of 2011 following surgery on his right elbow that had a screw replaced, he entered free agency and the Minnesota Twins decided to take a chance on him with a one-year, incentive laden contract. Unfortunately, 13 pitches into his season, he felt pain in his elbow, and an MRI revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which requires Tommy John surgery and for him to miss all of 2012.

Since he hasn’t played a full season since 2006, it was hard for me to remember much about Zumaya, other than the fact that he threw really hard. I took a look at his stat line in that season, and I was surprised to see he was a workhorse:

6-3 record, 1.94 ERA, 62 appearances, 83.1 innings pitched, 97 strikeouts, 1.18 WHIP

He was a key player in the Detroit bullpen that helped the Tigers reach the World Series in 2006, and was awarded the Setup Man of the Year Award from This Year in Baseball. If you’re wondering exactly how many times Zumaya has been hurt, here is a list of all his injuries:

  • Missed the 2006 ALCS due to a sore wrist; reports later revealed it was from playing video games.
  • He ruptured a tendon in his hand in May 2007, which needed 12 weeks to rehab.
  • While helping his father prepare for a storm, a 50-60 pound box fell on his pitching shoulder, leading to a separation.
  • In 2009, he was placed on the DL with a sore right shoulder; after he returned in July, he couldn’t move his throwing arm. That required surgery and ended his season.
  • He had a non-displaced fracture of the olecranon in 2010, needing four months to rehab.
  • He then missed all of 2011 due to the aforementioned exploratory elbow surgery.
  • The latest injury to his UCL will prevent him from playing at all in 2012.

That’s a heck of a lot of injuries! However, when Zumaya was healthy, he was one of the most consistent hard throwers in the game, hitting over 100 mph regularly. After his rookie year in 2006, Bill James published a list of Major League pitchers and the number of times they have thrown over 100 miles per hour; Zumaya led the league with 233 pitches of that kind. His average fastball was at 99 mph, with a pitch coming in at triple-digits one out of every six fastballs he delivered.

Why am I throwing out all of these statistics at you? First off, it’s amazing that any pitcher is able to throw that hard, that consistently. Secondly, even though Zumaya has a God-given talent that only a few have, I think he needs to hang up his spikes. After his latest injury at Twins camp, the reliever released a statement saying that he is thinking about retirement, but will be weighing his options over the next couple of days to see if he wants to try and make another comeback. I can only imagine how tough it would be for Zumaya to walk away from the game at the age of 27, when he hasn’t had the opportunity to show that he belongs in the Major Leagues.

However, I think that the amount and severity of the injuries he has suffered since 2006 are indication enough that this is not the path that he is supposed to take with the game of baseball. In his statement, he is considering retiring because he’s not sure if he wants to put his body through another long rehabilitation. He needs to think 10-20 years down the road as well when it comes to his overall health and keep his two-and-a-half year old child in mind, which he is. Athletes sacrifice their bodies during their playing career and don’t think about how it will affect them once they are finished as a professional athlete.

Zumaya’s right arm, whether it is his wrist, shoulder, or elbow, has dealt with an extreme amount of trauma over the last five years and I hope that he takes that into consideration. He can also see taking a year off to rehab and come back strong may not work; as if his 2012 season isn’t enough proof, with one pitch derailing his chances. If I were his agent, I would advise him to think about his quality of life beyond baseball. Would it be worth going through with this surgery and rehab to play for a couple more years and possibly sacrifice his health later on, or retire as a player, and start to find another way to impact the game and keep it in his life.

I hope that whichever decision Zumaya comes to, he will be satisfied with it. Do you think he should give the comeback one more try or hang them up?

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Tags: Detroit Tigers Joel Zumaya Minnesota Twins Tommy John Surgery

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