In a book called “The Arm” set to be released in April, baseball writter Jeff Passan reports the existence of a “grenade” in Chicago Cubs pitcher, Jon Lester’s arm. The grenade, or bone chip has yet to be an issue, but most surrounding Lester know this is something that will need to be addressed at some point.
Jeff describes how after the 2014 season, Jon went in personally for a MRI on his arm. The test came back mostly glowing, except “a little grenade floated near his ligament, and at some point it would require surgery.”
When asked by the Chicago Sun-Times Gordon Wittenmyer, Lester mentioned how he figured he pitched much of his career with the chip, and hopes to continue to manage without surgery.
“It’s just a matter of hopefully it stays put and we don’t have to worry about it,” Lester said. “And if it does become a concern, if I start having inflammation or missing starts because of it, then that’s when we’ll probably sit down and talk to somebody about getting it removed.”
“As of now, knock on wood, I haven’t had any concern with it.”
While Lester didn’t hide this from the Cubs, or any of the other teams pursuing him last offseason, should the team and it’s fans be worried about his arm, and the ramifications if he requires a mid-season surgery?
“We did a very thorough exam, including imaging of the shoulder and elbow,” Cubs president Theo Epstein mentioned. “We were really quite pleased with the results, as Jon compared very favorably with most of the free agent pitchers we have examined and MRI’d over many years.”
Still, you can’t help but wonder if some of Lester’s 2015 struggles resulted from the “grenade” in his elbow. We have heard all the excuses over the past several months, pressures of a big contract, unfamiliarity in Chicago, pressures placed on himself, and all that other noise. This could actually be hard evidence of why there was a drop in typical production from the Cubs lefty.
First, let’s dip into what a bone chip or spur is. As defined by Dr. Michael Marshall, “bone spurs result from bones colliding, which causes pieces of the hyaline cartilage that covers the ends of bones to break loose. Therefore, what orthopedic surgeons call ‘bone chips,’ are actually pieces of hyaline cartilage.”
To define further, chips are often the result when a pitcher throws breaking pitches or change-ups. The motion creates additional stress, or from bones within the elbow colliding, breaking loose the hyaline cartilage.
This could cause irritation in a pitching elbow, or someone might not feel it at all, or maybe in the case of Stephan Strasburg, it just became the new norm.
In the 2013 season, Strasburg finished the season with a respectable 3.00 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 56 walks, 191 Ks in 183 IP. For most of the year, he was pitching with a bone chip in his right elbow, and his manager knew early on something was wrong with the former No. 1 pick.
“I was a little concerned about Strasburg,” Washington’s manager Davey Johnson explained. “He always has a tendency to shake his right arm — and him being wild and whatever, I talked to [pitching coach Steve McCatty], ‘Have you talked to him? Because he doesn’t look right to me?'”
And he wasn’t. After the season a doctor went in and remove the bone spur which caused Strasburg some troubles throughout the season. While he pitched through it all, and put in a fine performance, his bulldog mentality was responsible for him staying out there and gutting it out.
Bulldog. Do a quick Google search of Lester and bulldog and you quickly find pages and pages of people calling him one. From Al Leiter to now teammate John Lackey and coaches and managers and anyone in between, Lester is a bulldog.
Could that bulldog mentality actually be hurting him?
Not exactly. Lester has said this has likely been in there for a long time. He’s even mentioned that others have all but guaranteed there is something in his elbow. If you really get down to it, I’d be surprised if a pitcher with any sort of tenure doesn’t have some spurring in his elbow. That is just how it is.
“With certain throughout the year that come up, they’re like, yeah, you probably have something in there,” Lester mentioned.
But why tell the story now? Mostly… he didn’t want to damage his brand, especially during a free agent year.
“Going through that process you never know,” he said. “You just hear different stories from different people, and stuff that gets out. You definitely don’t want to be that guy where you work your whole life to get to that point and have a chance at something that I was fortunate enough to sign and it get ruined by a bone chip.”
He did sign, for $155 million and even knowing this bit of information, the Cubs are pleased, but acknowledge the risk.
“Historically, nine-figure deals for starting pitchers in their 30s haven’t worked out,” he said. “There are a lot of mitigating factors in there, but I’m not going to say it’s without risk, because it’s not without risk. Contracts like this always carry risk
“We’ve been around Jon since he was 18. So I know exactly what shoulder program he’s been on since he was 18. I know how well he’s executed that shoulder program, how diligent he was. I know what his MRIs look like.”
Whether this grenade ends up blowing up in the Cubs faces is yet to be seen. I tend to believe Jon will continue on throughout the season with no problems because of his motion, which was probably the reason for the spur in the first place. Time will certainly tell on this one.