Chen’s no margin for error
Lefty’s partially torn UCL looms as he tries for rebound
SEATTLE — When Wei-Yin Chen finished his seven hitless innings against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, he did the same thing he does after every start: iced down and received extra treatment to help manage the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.
Chen and the Miami Marlins found out about the UCL damage last summer, when Chen spent about two months on the disabled list, but he said it has not interfered with his 2017 season. He has spoken since the start of spring training about how strong and healthy he feels, and he has been sharp in two out of his three starts this month.
Chen knows, however, that this is something he will have to deal with indefinitely. Partial UCL-tears don’t just go away. But he also said he doesn’t give it too much thought.
“With the tear in the ligament, it doesn’t really heal,” Chen said through translator Louis Chao. “It’s still there. It won’t heal. So I don’t really think about if it’ll get worse or not. I just think about
with this, what treatment I should be getting.”
For now, that includes more massaging from the Marlins’ trainers and an extra degree of focus on his mechanics — which, if they get out of whack, could lead to more damage.
The Marlins weren’t wrong in calling Chen’s injury a left elbow sprain when they put him on the disabled list last summer. They just weren’t specific. A sprain is a stretching or tearing of a ligament. It just so happens that Chen had tearing, not stretching, and the ligament was the most famous one in baseball. Complete tears of the UCL require reconstructive surgery, commonly known as Tommy John surgery.
Chen received a plateletrich plasma injection, which uses a person’s own blood to help promote healing of the ligament. He said Tommy John surgery — which sidelines pitchers for roughly a year — was never a serious consideration since the tear was not significant. Instead, he recovered in time to make three starts at season’s end.
“PRP was the quickest way for me to recover and come back,” said Chen, who has had his left UCL repaired once already, via Tommy John surgery in 2006 when he was pitching in Japan.
The rest-and-rehab path — aided by PRP treatment— that Chen chose is not uncommon for pitchers with partial UCL tears. The New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka has avoided surgery since rehabbing his partial tear in 2014, and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright pitched with his for more than a half-decade before having surgery in 2011.
Manager Don Mattingly first mentioned Chen’s tear Tuesday night after he took Chen out of the game, nohitter intact, after seven innings and100 pitches.
“This guy had a UCL tear last year,” Mattingly said. “He’s coming back. He’s been healthy, but I’m not going to let him go to 130 [pitches].”
The two months of inaction were the low point of Chen’s 2016, the first season of his five-year, $80 million deal with the Marlins. He posted a 4.96 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in a career-low 22 starts.
This season, Chen is the highest-paid player on the team with a salary of $15.5 million, and he is due $52 million from2018-20.
With the gaudy salary have come signs of promise in the early parts of what Chen and the Marlins hope is a rebound season. Sandwiching one ugly outing — six runs in three innings against the Mets — have been two very good ones, including Tuesday’s against the Mariners.
It was, by several measures, Chen’s best in a Miami uniform.
“Of course, because last year there wasn’t any game in which I didn’t allow any runs,” Chen said. “[On Tuesday] I felt pretty good with my command of all my pitches, so I think definitely, this ismy greatest game as a Marlin.”
Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria has been activated from the disabled list after missing a week and a half with a strained left oblique. To make room on the 25-man roster, the club optioned shortstop J.T. Riddle to Triple-A New Orleans.
This positions the Marlins to field their fullstrength lineup for the first time this season Friday against the San Diego Padres.
Marlins starting pitcherWei-Yin Chen has two strong starts sandwiched around a poor one so far in 2017. He is pitching with a partially torn UCL.