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Tigers' Bobby Parnell a good bet to regain prior form following Tommy John surgery

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Odds favor the former Mets' closer returning to form, potentially giving Tigers a low-risk, high-reward bargain.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers signed Bobby Parnell, the former New York Mets' closer, to a minor league contract on Thursday. They are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with Parnell, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow two years ago. The signing is another in a long list of low-risk, high-reward transactions that could pay big dividends for the team and the pitcher if it works as planned.

Parnell's return to action in 2015 didn't go as planned, but there is evidence that suggests he will be more effective in 2016. Ever since Tommy John underwent surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow in 1974, the procedure has become commonplace across Major League Baseball. According to MLB.com, a 2012-2013 survey of active players found that 25 percent of major league pitchers and 15 percent of minor league pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery in their careers. In 2015, 31 pitchers had Tommy John surgery, 11 of whom had the surgery for the second time.

The Hardball Times published an analysis of available Tommy John surgery data just after the 2014 season, which provided a detailed analysis of professional baseball players who have had TJS, their recovery rates and recovery times. A major league player is "recovered" from Tommy John surgery only once he re-enters a major league game. There were 87 Tommy John surgeries for professional players in 2014 alone, at the major and minor league levels.

The study found that the return rate has been remarkably consistent -- around 90 percent -- since 1974. The recovery rate for major league pitchers is closer 80 percent. The THT study found that, since 2005, players have typically returned within 15-16 months of the surgery date, with position players returning quicker than pitchers. Age also plays a factor. Veteran players require more rehabilitation time before returning to the level they were playing at before having Tommy John surgery.

Dr. James Andrews, who performs a large percentage of Tommy John surgeries on major league players, said:

"The trend right now, particularly at the major league level, is to make sure they're a year and a half out before we move them along competitively,''

As we know, "making it back" and pitching effectively are not necessarily the same thing. Neftali Feliz returned to action last season with the Rangers, but was hardly effective. The former AL Rookie of the Year posted a 6.38 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 48 innings for the season.

On the other hand, Former Tigers closers Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria not only made it back, but regained their status among the premier relievers in the game. They were able to re-establish their value and sign lucrative multi-year contracts as free agents. Soria recovered from two surgeries, and Nathan will now try to come back after his second. Joel Hanrahan also had his flexor tendon repaired and bone spurs removed during Tommy John surgery. At age 33, 22 months after surgery on Opening Day 2015, he never made it back to the show. He's one of the 20 percent.

Glenn Fleisig, research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute told USA Today:

"When things go well, like for the 80% of pitchers, in about 12 months you're back playing pro baseball, but you're not as good as you were until about 18 months.''

Parnell has made it back, but the effectiveness has not yet returned. Having had surgery in April, 2014, his 18 month mark would be in October, 2015, when the season was over. Rob noted that Parnell reeled off eight scoreless outings before losing his command, finishing with career worsts 6.38 ERA and 1.96 WHIP.  His velocity was back, but the command was not. He could not land a guaranteed major league contract this offseason, but the Tigers pursued him throughout the offseason.

An ESPN study found that 67 percent of 147 major league Tommy John pitchers returned to "established status," 13 percent merely "made it back" to major league action, and 20 percent never returned. The study also found that, while performance overall declined, the stats were not statistically significant from declines in age-matched control groups that had not undergone Tommy John surgery.

Prevailing evidence suggests that if a pitcher does make it back to the major leagues following Tommy John surgery, odds are very good that his prior performance level will be regained. The Tigers will be hoping that Parnell, a former closer with a triple-digit fastball, is part of this group. If he does, the Tigers may have hit the jackpot. If not, they haven't lost much, except the hope of getting a premier pitcher for minimal cost.