Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Could Phil Hughes' "Dead Arm" Be Rick Ankiel Syndrome?

The "slight positive" news for the New York Yankees is that pitcher Phil Hughes' test results for thoracic outlet syndrome came back negative after being examined in St. Louis by Dr. Robert William Thompson on Monday.  The bad news is that doctors still say the righthander's arm problems are a mystery to them.

Doctors have now ruled out TOS, which causes circulatory problems.  This leaves everybody wondering just what is wrong with the 24 year-old pitcher and his "dead arm?"

If it's not a physical problem causing Hughes to lose the velocity on his fastball, it might be psychological and that draws comparisons to another young hot-shot pitcher who suddenly lost his mojo--Rick Ankiel.

Ankiel was the St. Louis Cardinals 20 year-old lefthander with a blazing 97 mph fastball who, after a wonderful rookie season in 2000, turned into the real life Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn from "Major League."

It's hard not to see some similarities between the immensely talented Hughes and Ankiel after their first full seasons as major league starters.

Hughes was shuttled between the bull-pen and starting rotation for three years before landing a permanent spot in the rotation last season.  He made the most of it for the first half of the season before fading a bit down the stretch.  He finished with an impressive 18-8 record, 4.18 ERA and 146 strikeouts for the Yankees.

Hughes' name was always tossed around in trade-talks,  but the Yankees managed to keep him from being sent packing ala Ian Kennedy.  The team held on to this prized pitcher, who they considered one of the best young arms in the American League.

Ankiel started for the Cardinals in 2000 and was considered by some to be one of the best young pitchers in the National League.  He finished the season with an 11-7 record, a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts and was runner-up Rookie of the Year.

Those are the good similarities.

Ankiel's arm suddenly went south in the 2000 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves.  In the first game, Ankiel inexplicably threw five wild pitches in one inning.  He followed that with a few more in his next playoff game.  He threw 12 wild pitches during the whole 2000 regular season.

Hughes followed a similar path last year.  After being chosen for the All-Star Game as a starter, Hughes suddenly started losing velocity on his fastball, slumped down the stretch run and got rocked in two games against the Texas Rangers in the ALCS.

The similar frustrations for these players don't end there.

In his second season, Ankiel threw 5 wild pitches and walked 25 batters in 24.1 innings before being sent down to the minors for evaluation.

This year, Hughes second as the No.3 starter, his stat-line reads like this: 0-1 record with a 13.94 ERA and only three strikeouts in three starts.

Both players faced a lot of pressure at an early age.  Ankiel, because of his personal relationship with his father and Hughes because of all the position juggling and trade talk.  Both had a lot of media hype to live up to in big baseball towns.

Ankiel and Hughes were both brought up carefully by their respective clubs.  There were frustrating  pitch-total counts and micro-coaching.  The two pitchers must have felt great disappointment after letting their teams down in two playoff games.

Even ten years ago, hospitals didn't have as many sophisticated injury-probes which Hughes has been enduring the past few weeks.

In Ankiel's case, it was finally determined that his problems stemmed from a physical and psychological breakdown.  He just didn't trust his success and there was too much pressure was the diagnosis.  

The verdict is still out on Hughes' "dead arm."  The Yankee flamethrower, who has seen his once vital fastball drop from 94 mph to 89, was put on the 15-DL on April 15.

He has seen specialists in New York and St. Louis who are still puzzled.  Doctors now want to put him on "reset," which means, "Rest him, send him away from the team and give his arm two weeks of nothing to see if there is a change."

Dr. Thompson did not have a reason for Hughes' arm woes and did not lay out any plans for the disappointed player's rehabilitation.

"We are going to try and keep him going and strengthen [the arm]," said Yankee manager Joe Girardi after the positive diagnosis.  "It makes me feel better."

Ankiel ended up returning as the Cardinals rightfielder in 2007 and became a real threat with his bat and rifle of an arm for a couple of seasons.

The next step for Hughes and his fatigued arm is vague.  Today, he will be returning to New York and not rejoining the team on their road trip.  Hughes will be visiting Dr. Chris Ahmad, the team doctor on Wed. for another evaluation and rehab program.

"I'm sure he will figure [the program] with Dr. Ahmad," said Girardi.

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