Yesterday, punkrawka took a look at what we might expect from our beloved gazelle who once roamed the vast savannah grasslands of left field at Camden Yards. Something I have been wondering in re Nolan, is what are some precedents for his type of injury / surgery? And how did any players who had such ill fortune befall them return to perform feats of athletic endeavor post-recovery (if they returned at all)?
Nolan had a herniated disc removed from his neck last June. As one may imagine with issues of the neck / back / spine this is a very significant injury and not exactly a commonplace one for a pro-athlete. However, the previous link provides one example which should hearten any O's fans expectations for Nolan: Peyton Manning. Manning had a similar procedure (along with a few other neck surgeries) as the one Nolan had and he returned in 2012 after missing a full year to have a remarkably good season. Now, of course NFL football and baseball are two entirely different games involving different physical movements and different impacts on the body. And I shant speculate on precisely how analogous the two situations are or aren't. Another factor of divergence between Manning and Reimold is that Manning is coming off his surgery at the age of 36, whereas Nolan is still only 29. One can imagine Nolan's prospects for a successful recovery to be greater based on such an age difference alone. But Manning's performance was rather spectacular this past season, a year removed from his multiple surgeries. He complied counting and rate stats similar to his MVP season in 2009 along with advanced stats such as DVOA (Defense adjusted Value Over Average), DYAR (Defense adjusted Yards Above Replacement), and Total QBR. In short, his recovery from neck problems far worse than Nolan's can, at the moment, be deemed an incredible success.
But what about some baseball players who come from and return to a more similar set of circumstances as Nolan will? The most recent case can be found in Justin Morneau. The Twins 1st baseman had a herniated disc fragment removed in late June of 2011. As with Nolan, the first mentions of neck pain surfaced for Justin in April. He received a cortisone injection at that time and played through the issue for approximately two months before the herniated disc was discovered. Morneau, though, managed to return from his surgery nearly 6 weeks later. He would put up numbers similar to what he had prior to the surgery:
- Before: .225 / .281 / .335 over 231 plate appearances
- After: .235 / .298 / .317 over 57 plate appearances
Now, neither of these samples are particularly illustrative as they reside in the land of the SSS boogyman. And Morneau's return from his neck issues was cut short after just 14 games due to a reoccurance of previous concussion symptoms. However, the age difference between Morneau (30 at the time of his surgery) and Reimold (28 at the time of his surgery) is much closer than the Manning example shown above. Morneau would return in 2012 to play the bulk of the entire season without any back/neck/spine issues recurring (he would spend 15 days on the D.L. with a wrist issue). And his 2012 performance was solid, if unspectacular: .267 / .333 / .440, good for a 113 OPS+ over 134 games (99 of those spent in the field at 1st base) and 570 plate appearance. This was, though, a steep decline from the previous lofty performances Morneau had been known for during his peak seasons of ages 25-28. But, nonetheless, he was able to recover to a fairly satisfactory degree; able to handle the rigors of being a full time hitter / part time defensive player.
A less sanguine example comes in the form of Chris Duncan. Reimold and Duncan have a rather similar career arc. Both saw their first significant action, as well as success, come in their age 25 seasons. Duncan would put up a .293 / .363 / .589 line with 22 HRs over 90 games (70 of them played at corner OF) and 314 plate appearances. Nolan would compile a .279 / .365 / .466 line with 15 HRs over 104 games (90 of them played in the OF) and 411 plate appearances. In their respective follow up seasons Duncan would see similar-though-somewhat-regressed success in the majors while Nolan would struggle to start the season before spending the bulk of the year back at AAA. After that, it all fell apart for Duncan. He would get off to a decent start in April before slowly fading over the course of May through June. In late June, at age 27, a degenerative disc was discovered in his neck. But Duncan underwent a different procedure than Nolan, who had his bulging disc removed and the spine fused. So this is a rather substantial difference in their separate experiences. Duncan would return from the surgery for his age 28 season in 2009 and get off to a respectable start in April: .304 / .417 / .522 slash line over 22 games. But again he would fade come May, and by the end of July he was back in the minors, never to see the big leagues again.
So, is there any insight to be gained from these examples? I come away with a slightly more optimistic view of Nolan's chances to return to his previous status as an above-average regular player, as Manning and Morneau have demonstrated. Since Duncan had a different procedure performed on his neck, I am not as willing to draw a parallel between his experience and Nolan's potential future performance. If Nolan can put up, say, something resembling a .270 / .340 / .440 slash line while playing 80 or so games in LF and another 50-60 at DH, he'd be a perfectly useful, low-cost, 1-1.5 WAR player for the O's in 2013.