It certainly hasn't been kind to Ryan Strieby. Baseball has been both his gift and his curse. The 6' 5" Strieby has the power that you would expect from someone of his stature, but he is also disciplined enough to hit for average and draw walks. He provides above average defense at first base. By all accounts, he has the make-up to be a major league player, which could have come sooner rather than later given the current state of the Tigers' offense. Unfortunately, the game has done all it can to impede his progress.
Last year while on a record setting pace, having hit a league leading 29 home runs by August 12, averaging one every 14.52 at-bats, Strieby hit the disabled list after fracturing the hamate bone in his left wrist.
He had it operated on later in the month and hasn't been the same player since. No, it isn't reflected in his statistics. His current .305/.421/.561 batting line with 17 homers and 53 RBI are what many minor league players would consider a successful season. For Strieby, those are just two good months.
Since June 1, Strieby has been forced to miss 19 games due to bone spurs that have developed and are putting pressure on the ligaments in his surgically repaired left wrist. He received a cortisone shot in early June, but it has proven to be ineffective.
"The doctor found that there was a bone spur on both bones- the pisiform and triquetrum. On the right hand you can see a gap there, but on the left hand it's smaller," Strieby said. "On the left one that growth is closing the gap and causing stress on the ligaments. That's where my pain is coming from."
"It could be something they have to fix later. If it's something that needs surgery, we're going to try to get through the season and take it out after."
It had gotten to a point where the SeaWolves and Strieby didn't know what to expect on any given day. He'd show up to park, work out with the team and take batting practice.
Then, depending on how he felt, he'd let manager Tom Brookens know if he was able to go that day or not. There were no guarantees. The situation had gotten so unpredictable that Brookens prepared two line-ups for each game: one with Strieby and one without.
They played this game for a couple of months until it became clear that Strieby just wasn't going to be able to be productive member of this team, and they placed him on the disabled list for the second time this season on July 22.
"He's going to do some rehab to try to get strong again, and then we'll go from there. He just can't really let it go, he can't swing, and it this point it's not fair to him to make him play when he can't get the bat through the zone," Brookens said. "We'll go with rest to get back playing if that works, great. If not, then there will be something more drastic in the future."
"There could come a point where they are going to have to think about shutting him down for the future, but at this point the organization thinks that he can salvage this season."
What is a hamate injury?
Will Carroll, the Injury Expert at Baseball Prospectus, describes the hamate as a superfluous two-part bone in the wrist that doesn't provide any real function.
"A hamate is one of the small bones in the wrist," Carroll said via email. "There are two parts to the bone – the hook and the body. Most surgery is done to remove the hook, which is so fragile that it seldom realigns well. The wrist functions well without it."
Three players on the SeaWolves opening day roster had suffered hamate injuries at some point over the last year, and all have been able to return to various results.
Strieby is still having ongoing issues a year later, Scott Sizemore had a successful recovery and was able to garner a promotion to Toeldo with his early play in Erie, and Casper Wells was able to get back on the field in a little less than six weeks after breaking his hamate on April 13.
Wells struggled in the early going and stated that he was afraid to let it loose in the batters box upon returning.
"The main thing was that I was a little tentative swinging the bat. I had a different approach when I was hitting – not at all like last year—I've always been an aggressive swinger. I'd get after fastballs- that's my approach. I was a little more relaxed in the box and it caused me to not be in the position to hit," Wells said.
His first week back, this wasn't evident, as he was able to hit two home runs, but over the course of the month his power eroded and he was limited to a .235/.326/.494 batting line.
"I saw balls coming off my bat during BP and in games and thought they were coming off soft. So I said, ‘you know what, they took the bone out. I can't do any more damage. If it huts a little bit, then it hurts, I've got to be aggressive," Wells said.
In July he's been able to turn it around. His batting line for the month is currently .283/.377/.483, but his two home runs and four doubles indicate that he still hasn't gotten all of the power back that allowed him to hit 27 home runs last season.
Carroll states that many players suffer from a power outage after having their hamate removed. "There's some lingering power deficit in the first year, but there's no long term problems," Carroll said. "The recovery time depends on the severity and mechanism of the injury, their pain tolerance, and the individual healing response. People are all different."
The hamate has become baseball's version of the wisdom tooth in recent years, but it wasn't really a mainstream injury until Ken Griffey Junior had his removed in 1996, while playing with Seattle.
Even though many people were not aware of what it was, the injury has been creeping into baseball clubhouses since the early 1970's.
The first documented hamate injury occurred in 1972 with Rusty Staub, who was playing with the Mets at the time.
Staub suffered through the injury and saw several doctors, but at the time no one was aware of the injury since it didn't show up on a typical X-ray. Desperate, Staub flew out to Los Angeles to see a specialist that found the problem after angling his wrist so that the X-ray could get a good look at the area where the hamate is housed.
Since then, there have been a number of these injuries and the operation has saved a lot of careers that would have been previously lost.
There are several theories on how hamate injuries occur. Carroll believes that they could be caused due to the use of whip-handled bats, which are manufactured so that the bulk of the weight is up top, thus allowing more bat-speed to be generated. Most, though, believe that they are caused by the way that players grip the bat.
Dave Hollins, who starred for the Phillies in the early 90's, had three hamate operations and believes that most of the injuries, including his own, are caused by players gripping the bat on the knob.
"I had three hamate injuries, I switch hit, so I got it in both hands," Hollins said. "What caused the injuries for me – and probably for many others—is the way that they hold the bat. They hold down on the knob so that they can generate more torque. When you do that, you get that knob just pounding away at the hamate over and over and it eventually catches up with you."
It sure caught up with the SeaWolves.