I know it seems early to be writing Hall of Fame takes, but this is one that warrants some attention before it gets buried in the madness over the “what to do with the steroid guys” silliness from the older crowd and the lamenting over Larry Walker and Andruw Jones ultimately having their fates sealed from the younger ones.
It seems as though one of the more important inductions could be a pitcher not known for his on field play, but for what happened off of it.
Tommy John’s statistical case for Cooperstown is feasible, but a bit flimsy:
- 61.5 WAR (Just a shade over Andy Pettite)
- 288 Wins (5 more than Jim Kaat)
- 111 ERA+ (Comparable to Gio Gonzalez or Doc Gooden)
So he’s not a resounding case based on his mound performance, but he was certainly no Jack Morris either (i’m going to let that go one day, but not yet). No, the case for Tommy John lies in his elbow, and what doctors did to save it.
In 1974, John was having a fantastic year for the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching to a 2.59 ERA over 153 innings, winning 13 games in the process. On July 17th, he had completed two innings against the Montreal Expos, but could go no further than that. He was taken out of the game, and diagnosed with a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his throwing elbow. They tried a few weeks of rest, hoping that would help the problem, to no avail. Team Doctor Frank Jobe told John that there was a way to repair it, but that the procedure had never been done before.
“He Looked around my office very seriously… He looked me in the eye and said “let’s do it.”… “and those three words changed baseball.” – Frank Jobe in 2015
What followed was a routine that we see with almost alarming regularity in todays game: Surgery, a year of rest, then back to work. In John’s case, it gave him another bite at the apple, and he took a big chunk. He won 164 games after his operation, pitching to a 3.66 ERA and a 107 ERA+. By all accounts, the operation was a success, and since then has given hundreds of pitchers a second chance at a successful career. Without that operation, John Smoltz would’ve had likely called it a career in 1999, but instead went on to reinvent himself as a closer, saving 154 games, ultimately becoming the first pitcher elected to the hall of fame since having “Tommy John” surgery.
So, why is it so important?
As time has passed, it’s become clear that the Hall of Fame has become less a place reserved for only the finest on field performers, but more for those who had a tangible impact on the game and its culture. As players like Jack Morris (not going to happen in one article) and Harold Baines continue to blur the lines of on field accomplishment, we need to better embrace the latter of the two identities. Tommy John’s willingness to go under the knife to fix his ailing elbow has clearly had a tangible impact on the game itself, taking an injury that could’ve derailed a pitchers career, and revitalizing it. Without his bravery, think of the names we would’ve lost to the depths of the “what if” machine?
- Tim Hudson
- John Smoltz
- Yu Darvish
- Jacob DeGrom
- Stephen Strasburg
- Kris Medlen
- Johnny Cueto
- Anibal Sanchez
- AJ Burnett
- Charlie Morton
Oh there’s more… a lot more.
The Consequence of Innovation:
So unfortunately it’s not all sunshine and roses on this subject. Notice anything about that list of names above? A vast majority of them are surgeries performed in the last 20 years. In fact, the number of surgeries has increased so much that some are saying “enough”, including John himself. Coaches and scouts have put such an emphasis on playing often and throwing hard that the operation has gone from an outlier last ditch effort, to almost a necessary part of a pitchers life if they want to throw hard and throw in the majors. There has been over 1,100 professionals (list compiled by Jon Rogele) that have undergone the operation (or some variation thereof) since its invention, and even the man himself isn’t sure how to feel about it.
Regardless of the shadows cast, Tommy John deserves a space in the hall because he laid it all on the line for another shot at the show. In doing that, he paved the way for others in the process.
Besides, is there literally ANYONE who deserves a successful second chance than the guy who provided one for countless others after him?