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Will Phillies' Andrew McCutchen still be elite after return from knee surgery? Even medical experts don't know for sure.

Scott Lauber, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Baseball

PHILADELPHIA -- Andrew McCutchen batted .709 as a high school senior. Of the 1,501 players drafted in 2005, he was taken 11th. He's a five-time All-Star, a Gold Glove Award winner, and the 2013 National League MVP.

And he did it all after blowing out his right knee at age 16.

Let that serve as context for McCutchen's response to a Feb. 17 question about feeling nervous that he will make an equally successful recovery from having the torn anterior cruciate ligament in the middle of his left knee reconstructed with a tendon grafted from his quadriceps last June.

"No, (because) there's no 'hope' in my mind. There's a 'know,' " the Phillies left fielder said. "I know what I can do, I know what I'm going to do, and I know what I am doing. That's the end of it."

OK, so McCutchen's confidence is as strong as ever. Even after the Phillies ruled him out for the original March 26 season-opener in Miami, he vowed to play on March 27, a goal that didn't even seem overly ambitious once manager Joe Girardi said McCutchen likely would be ready at some point in April.

But while there's little doubt that McCutchen will return to the field, it's fair to wonder if he will be able to do so at his previously elite level of performance, according to multiple medical experts.

 

For one thing, ACL repairs are far less prevalent among professional baseball players than their football, basketball, and soccer counterparts. For another, McCutchen is older than the average athlete who overcomes major knee surgery. And even considering the recent dip from his career peak (.262/.358/.447 from 2016 to 2019 compared with .302/.396/.509 from 2011 to 2015), he's still 15% more productive than the average major league player based on adjusted-OPS, a high bar to meet upon his return.

"At 33 years old, he may take a little bit longer and his performance may be a little bit slower to get back to that," said Stan Conte, formerly the head athletic trainer for the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know younger people heal better than older people."

In 2014, Conte co-authored a study that attempted to determine if baseball players who had ACL surgery experienced a decline in performance upon returning to play. The results were mixed because, by Conte's admission, the sample was too small.

Using publicly available information and studying only big league position players (no pitchers or minor-leaguers), Conte and his colleagues found only 26 players who had ACL surgery over a 13-year period from 1999 to 2012.

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