Yankee fans were blindsided yesterday by the news that Mariano Rivera tore his ACL while shagging fly balls in his customary pre-game routine. The video of the injury and the emotional postgame interview were both very difficult to watch, as the devastation on Mariano’s face was evident, along with the uncertainty about his future. In what may be Rivera’s final season, he faces the prospect of having his career end on a fluke injury suffered during warmups. This is not the way that he, or any Yankee fan, could envision his career ending (in fact, it’s pretty impossible to imagine his career ending in any way other than ascension to Heaven). Despite the ominous nature of an ACL injury, Rivera has reportedly vowed that he will try to come back this season, but most are writing off this injury as season-ending.
Does Mariano have a chance of making it back this season? That was the question that was running through my mind when I heard about the injury. A torn ACL is often considered the kiss of death for an athlete’s season, because the ligament is so important for providing stability to the knee. To address this question, and hopefully make myself feel a little better about the whole affair, I decided to reprise the research I did for my Michael Pineda post and see what recent cases can tell us about Mariano’s chances of making it back in 2012.
Once again, the lack of a centralized database of injuries (if somebody knows of one, let me know) made this task a little more challenging, so it is likely I have missed a few people. My main focus was on baseball players and pitcher specifically, because while ACL injuries are more common in other sports, the physical demands are very different.
The ACL, short for anterior cruciate ligament, primarily functions to stabilize the knee. When torn, that function is compromised, making athletic movements such as cutting, running, and jumping almost impossible to perform. The ACL can’t heal on its own or get reattached, so surgical interventions graft replacement tissue into the knee to replace the stabilizing function of the ACL.
The website for the Hospital for Special Surgery says that the typical recover time for a torn ACL is 6-9 months, a pretty wide window, but one that would seem to indicate that Rivera’s chances of returning in 2012 are pretty slim. A 6-month recovery would have Rivera recovered in November, which would mean that he would miss the entire season. However, professional athletes are not normal human beings, and sometimes they have phenomenal healing abilities. Plus, recovery times could be different for a pitcher who is not running around as much as a position player.
I wasn’t able to find many cases of pitchers with ACL injuries, which is not too surprising. This is likely because an ACL is usually injured while cutting, jumping, stopping suddenly, or colliding with another player. Since baseball is not really a contact sport, and pitchers do less running than position players, ACL injuries wouldn’t really be expected in anything except a freak accident.
Yovani Gallardo of the Milwaukee Brewers was the only recent example I could find of a pitcher tearing his ACL. Gallardo’s injury occurred while covering first base during a May 1st start against the Cubs. Gallardo actually pitched another inning before being taken out of the game and eventually getting diagnosed with the ACL injury. As with Rivera, there was major concern that Gallardo would miss the entire season. However, because the injury happened early in the season, Gallardo was able to make it back on September 24 and start in the Division Series.
If Rivera recovers at the same rate as Gallardo did there is a chance that he could be back in the end of September, and pitch in the postseason. However, this may be a dicey proposition for a number of reasons. I have no idea whether Mariano’s injury is more or less severe than Gallardo’s, though Rivera also has damage to his meniscus, which might lengthen the recovery time. Plus, at age 42, it is plausible that the healing/recovery process will be slower for Rivera than it was for the 22 year-old Gallardo.
Despite the odds, there is still room for optimism, primarily because Mariano Rivera has been defying the odds for his entire career. His physical fitness and work ethic are both phenomenal, and I imagine Rivera will work as hard as he possibly can at his rehab if there is a chance it would allow him to pitch in 2012. The fact that he is a pitcher rather than a position player may allow him to come back before his knee is 100% recovered, potentially shortening his timeline. The chances may be low that we see Mariano pitch again this season, but I learned long ago never to count out Mariano Rivera.
Update: While it is unclear whether Rivera will return in 2012, he has made his intentions clear to come back in 2013 if he misses the remainder of the season (via Mark Feinsand’s twitter):
“I am coming back. Write it down in big letters. … I’m not going out like this…I love to play the game. To me, going out like this isn’t the right way.”
I have nothing to say to that except hell yeah.
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