Sunday, May 20, 2012

Why on Luebke

Corey Luebke felt the need for speed.

The ride was exhilarating, but did the extra miles per hour exact a price on the pitcher's elbow ligament?

Based on what Luebke told them, the Padres believe it did. Luebke, the club announced today, is likely to have reconstructive elbow surgery next week. The surgery will come about a month after the revved-up lefty, in a career-long outing against the Phillies, may have increased the fearsome stress loads on his elbow when he aired out several fastballs.

"Cory admitted he was really over-exerting himself," manager Bud Black told this blog. "There were a number of pitches in that game where he really tried to overpower the hitters, unlike any other time of his career. He thinks that might be the cause."

Luebke reaped a short-term gain when he rode a hot fastball past Roy Halladay and the Phillies in his fourth start this season. The lefty completed eight innings, the most in his career. As noted by this blog last month, Luebke broke tendency by throwing more fastballs deep in the count. Both his average velocity and velocity range, indeed, were season-highs, as this chart shows.

The pain in the elbow first arrived over the next two days, Black said. Luebke had a "little more elbow soreness" than normal the next two days, said Black, and didn't mention it to the pitching coaches. He made his next start, against the Giants, after which an MRI exam revealed the damaged ligament.

"I was very surprised," said pitching coach Darren Balsley.

Balsley, too, remembers Luebke throwing quite hard on April 21st against the Phillies. Attempting to explain an injury that may be more random than explainable, the coach suggested Luebke's arm "had never experienced that up here, and just couldn't take it."

Of all the injuries suffered by the Padres this year, Luebke's hit the team the hardest.

In March, the Padres guaranteed $12 million to the 27-year-old. As the baseball men say, Luebke had a "fresh arm," having thrown fewer than 600 innings as a professional. He had a delivery flaw when the Padres drafted him in 2007 but fixed it while in Single-A. When Luebke and the other pitchers reported to spring training three months ago, they were given a battery of tests that compared their strength and range of motion with their previous baseline levels. Luebke received a second examination in March to insure his contract extension.

"We were extremely thorough with him in spring training," said Jim Malone, the strength and conditioning coach. "Weeks before this (injury) happened, there was not a single thing that would indicate that would happen."

Black called the injury a "stretch of pitches event" that no one saw coming.

"All the signs pointed to health for his entire career," said Black.

Black threw more than 2,000 innings in his major league career yet never required ligament surgery. Asked to explain his left elbow's durability, Black shrugged.

 "Strong ligaments?" he said.

Balsley, who called the injury a "big hit," said he can't recall the last time a homegrown Padres pitcher required Tommy John surgery during the season. He noted that Tommy John surgeries have a 90-percent   success rate for pitchers and suggested Luebke could be stronger when he returns than leading up to the injury.

The Padres expect Luebke to pitch for them in 2013. Generally speaking, however, pitchers need two years to regain consistently good form after Tommy John surgery. Under the deal he agreed to in March, Luebke is guaranteed $12 million through 2015 with club options in 2016-17 that could bring the total value to $27.75 million.

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