Well at least part of the mystery is solved.
After being sidelined from full baseball activities for the entirety of spring training thus far, Aaron Judge was diagnosed with a stress fracture of his first right rib. It’s believed he sustained the injury diving for a ball in September. The bone’s location, right under the collarbone, explains the soreness he’s experienced in his shoulder and pectoral muscle.
Less certain is what happens next. He’ll be shut down for two weeks, with the hope that the bone will show signs of healing on its own. For his part, Judge sounded optimistic when addressing reporters Friday. Despite the fact that it’s been more than five months since the fracture occurred, Judge noted that he’d started offseason workouts in November, unaware of the true problem and after playing with it through the Yankees’ October run. In other words, the rib hasn’t truly had the rest to heal on its own.
At least that’s the hope. If the healing stalls, surgery to remove the bone becomes a possibility.
Of course, it’s a fool’s game to speculate on how injuries will play out. But perhaps looking at recent cases involving baseball players and rib injuries will provide a dash of context. Make of it what you will.
Last season Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa fractured his rib while, ahem, getting a massage. Make of THAT what you will. He was sidelined on May 26, with a targeted recovery time of four to six weeks. He was back in the lineup exactly two months later, July 26, not terribly out of line with the projected timeline.
The good news for him is the injury had no apparent effect on his production. In the 50 games before the fracture, he hit 11 home runs and had an OPS of .907. In the 25 games post-fracture—he would go on to miss more time in August/September with back problems—he hit 10 homers with a .966 OPS. I’d wager the Yankees would be thrilled if Judge’s recovery moved along a similar timeline.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Matt Kemp suffered a broken rib crashing into a wall on April 21 last season. The former All-Star had become a fringe player by that point, so there’s probably little we could glean by looking at his post-recovery performance. Unfortunately, we couldn’t glean even if we wanted to because there was no post-recovery performance. The Reds released Kemp on May 4 and he attempted to latch on with the Mets on a minor league deal.
Kemp played eight games for the Triple-A Syracuse Mets in early June—putting his recovery time at a little more than a month—but he had to be shut down after experiencing a recurrence of rib pain. He didn’t play again last season and is currently in spring training with the Miami Marlins as a non-roster invitee.
You have to go back a bit further to find another position player with a broken rib. Hanley Ramirez, then a Los Angeles Dodger, suffered a hairline fracture on a hit by pitch in Game One of the 2013 NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals. He missed one game before returning to play in the following four contests until the Dodgers were eliminated. After a full offseason to recover, he had a pretty good 2014 (.817 OPS, 3.6 bWAR), but as a 30-year-old shortstop was clearly on the downside of his career; he only had one more .800+ OPS season. That decline was coming, though, injury or not.
Rib removal surgeries bring us into more dicey waters, but the points of comparison are even less exact because the cases involve pitchers. The surgical removal of the first rib, again the same rib that Judge has fractured, has been done for a number of pitchers suffering from thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). Notable names to have undergone the procedure include Matt Harvey, Phil Hughes and Josh Beckett.
The results have been mixed. In a study published in 2016 in the Annals of Vascular Surgery, Dr. Robert W. Thompson, one of the leading experts in TOS in the country, reported that of the 13 major league pitchers to undergo surgery between 2001 and 2014, 10 returned to professional play “and sustained play at or above pre-injury levels.”
However, we’ve also witnessed prominent examples of pitchers—particularly Harvey and Hughes, whose injuries occurred after the above study was conducted—struggle considerably following their rib removal procedures. Hughes had his first TOS surgery in 2016 and actually had to have a second in 2017. He called it quits in 2018. Harvey, who had his procedure in 2016, returned in 2017 but was plagued by poor performance, injury and off-field drama. He was designated for assignment by the Mets in 2018.
Of course, this is largely an apples and oranges comparison. The repetitive nature of a pitching motion is completely different that the actions hitters and outfielders need to perform. And the pitchers had an underlying condition, thoracic outlet syndrome, which Judge does not have. All of this is to simply point out that surgery can carry with it a level of unpredictability.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. With Aaron Judge mystery nearly solved, the last thing the Yankees need is more uncertainty.