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The peculiar case of A.J. Pollock's elbow: "We'd known this was coming"

Turns out his broken arm was, more or less, an accident waiting to happen.

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The plate/screws inside A.J. Pollock's right elbow.
The plate/screws inside A.J. Pollock's right elbow.
@dbacks, via Twitter

"He has a little bit of a sore arm. He has it every spring, just from swinging a lot and throwing. It’s nothing major."
-- Chip Hale, February 29

Pollock insists the state of his elbow isn’t a concern. An MRI he underwent on Wednesday ruled out any structural damage, so his focus at this point is making sure that the next time he returns to the lineup it’s for good. "It’s really not a big deal," Pollock said. "I’m not concerned about it."
-- AZ Central, March 12

It appears A.J. Pollock and Chip Hale have both been taking lessons from the Dave Stewart school of openness and honesty. A lot more information came out about A.J. Pollock's elbow injury yesterday, including in particular the history of the ailment, and it's clear both that there was significant structural damage to the elbow, and that it was an area of concern. The origin of the problem dates all the way back to spring training in 2010, his first camp after being drafted by Arizona the preceding June. At that time, he broke his elbow, and had a plate inserted into the joint to stabilize the fracture.

Nobody paid much attention at the time - I couldn't even find a mention of the injury reported by us, AZ Central or MLB - but a failure of it to heal correctly, rather than "swinging a lot", looks to be the root of Pollock's subsequent problems. Indeed, the X-rays taken, after A.J.'s "little bit of a sore arm" refused to go away, showed that the screw holding the plate in place had itself actually sheared, and the broken growth plate had not healed properly. Said the outfielder, "We actually took an x-ray of it and it kind of shocked me, the screw was broken. It was something I was confident I was going to play with... I played six years with it not fused."

That said, the subsequent re-fracture in an exhibition game at Chase Field, was apparently far from a surprise. Said surgeon Dr. Joe Sheridan, "We didn’t really set the plan in motion until last Friday night but we’d known this was coming," which raises some questions in itself. The subsequent inaction was due to concerns over the corrective procedure, Sheridan explaining, "Given the complex nature of the surgery we all kind of agreed, ‘Look, if you can play the way it is, let’s not do it.'" Pollock concurred: "We talked about if something were to happen this is what we would do. But the plan was just to play it out and you're probably not going to have to worry about it."

Still, the fact the potential injury happened almost immediately Pollock was "cleared" to return to the line-up, does give pause for thought, not least because of other cases where it seems the team's handling of injured players could have been better. For example, there's Chris Owings's left shoulder. It was originally injured on a slide into home-plate in June 2014, and he missed the next two months, returning for September. But he had a miserable month, with a .493 OPS, and it turned out the shoulder was still damaged. Chris required off-season surgery to repair the posterior labrum of his left arm - a diagnosis which took more than three months after the injury occurred.

Of course, it's hard to be sure in cases like this, because we don't have anything like all the info; as we have seem, teams will lie. As Ncik Piecoro put it (with, it feels, some annoyance) "This is why reporters often make bigger deals out of injuries than clubs think we should. You just never know until they're back playing." Though from the team's side, you can see why they want to keep these kinds of things quiet, especially if you're searching for a replacement. Any potential trade partners who know you are stuck in a corner, will play harder to get - the cost for someone who'll be playing every day, will be more than a fourth outfielder, even if they're exactly the same guy.

That's all water under the surgically-repaired bridge now. What was done to Pollock, and what's the way forward? "He freshly broke through an area of the bone that had been broken before but never healed," explained Sheridan. Steve Gilbert detailed the procedure: "During the surgery, Sheridan removed the broken screw, drilled several holes in Pollock's pelvis area to get some plugs of cancellous [porous] bone and then packed that bone into the elbow to try to stimulate the bone to heal," and replaced the plate with the newest model (shown at top) The player has also been undergoing bone stimulation therapy and taking supplements to help that process.

He won't be back anytime soon - it's worth noting that after the 2010 procedure, Pollock did end up missing the whole minor-league season, before returning to play in the Arizona Fall League that year. The surgeon predicted, "If everything goes extremely well it's going to be at least three months before A.J. is going to be released to start baseball activities. It could be the entire season, but I'm very hopeful." The main issue is that this is a re-injury: "We're trying to get a bone to heal that has not been healed together for some time," said Sheridan. "That's why we're taking this so seriously and doing everything we can." 20/20 hindsight, meet stable door.

Pollock himself was upbeat: "I feel really good about it. Somebody can look at it and say it’s a lot of stuff. I think it’s going to be as strong as ever and I look forward to the rehab process." We fervently hope that's the case, though I do have to wonder whether this preexisting condition was perhaps a factor in Pollock and the team not signing a contract extension this winter. One imagines all such discussions are now off the table for the foreseeable future, until A.J. has completed his recovery and proven he has completely returned to pre-injury form. We'll be keeping our fingers crossed that's a document we still get to see signed.