Tommy John’s Career Was More Than Just a Surgical Procedure

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Tommy John
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Tommy John 61.5 34.6 48.0
Avg. HOF SP 73.2 49.9 61.5
W-L SO ERA ERA+
288-231 2,245 3.34 111
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Tommy John spent 26 seasons pitching in the majors from 1963-74 and then 1976-89, more than any player besides Nolan Ryan, but his level of fame stems as much from the year that cleaves that span as it does from his work on the mound. As the recipient of the most famous sports medicine procedure of all time, the elbow ligament replacement surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in late 1974 that now bears his name, John endured an arduous year-long rehab process before returning to pitch as well as ever, a recovery that gave hope to generations of injured pitchers whose careers might otherwise have ended. Tommy John surgery has somewhat obscured the pitcher’s on-field accomplishments, however.

A sinkerballer who relied upon his command and control to limit hard contact, John didn’t overpower hitters; the epitome of the “crafty lefty,” he was so good at his craft that he arrived on the major league scene at age 20 and made his final appearance three days after his 46th birthday. He made three All-Star teams and was a key starter on five clubs that reached the postseason and three that won pennants, though he wound up on the losing end of the World Series each time.

Born in 1943 in Terre Haute, Indiana, John excelled in basketball as well as baseball in high school, so much so that the rangy, 6-foot-3 teenager was recruited by legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, and had over 50 basketball scholarship offers but just one for baseball (few colleges gave those out in those days). Reliant on a curveball learned from former Phillies minor leaguer Arley Andrews, a friend of his father, he pitched to a 28-2 record in high school despite his lack of top-notch fastball, signing with the Indians out of high school in 1961, four years before the introduction of the amateur draft.

John climbed the minor league ladder quickly and debuted in the majors on September 6, 1963, with an inning of scoreless relief against the Senators. He split the 1964 season between the minors and majors, spending time in an Indians rotation that also included 23-year-old Luis Tiant and 21-year-old Sam McDowell. He pitched far better than his 2-9 record indicated, suffering due to a lack of offensive support; during one six-start span in June and July, the Indians scored a total of nine runs for him. He struggled to incorporate a slider taught to him by pitching coach (and future Hall of Famer) Early Wynn, which compromised his mechanics. The following January, he was traded to the White Sox as part of a three-team, eight-player deal that sent slugger Rocky Colavito from the Kansas City A’s back to Cleveland.

John quickly emerged as a solid mid-rotation starter on the South Side. He spent seven seasons with the White Sox, pitching to a 2.95 ERA (117 ERA+) and 3.20 FIP while averaging 213 innings and 3.4 WAR per year. He shared the AL lead in shutouts in both 1966 (five, tied with Tiant and McDowell) and ’67 (six, tied with four other pitchers including the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich) and finished in the top five in ERA in both seasons. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, he posted a 1.98 ERA (also good for fifth in the league) with 5.6 WAR (sixth) and made his first All-Star team. He topped 5.0 WAR and placed in the league’s top 10 in each of the next two seasons as well. By 1971, however, he was clashing with another pitching coach who pushed him to integrate a slider, the great Johnny Sain. Via Jon Weisman’s Brothers in Arms, John endured 12 weeks of frustration while trying to integrate the pitch before reconnecting with Sain’s predecessor, Ray Berres, who told him, “Stick that slider up your ass… You don’t add a pitch if it takes away from your other pitches.”

In December 1971, John and one other player were traded to the Dodgers in exchange for slugger Dick Allen, who had spent just one year in Los Angeles and would go on to win AL MVP honors in his first year in Chicago. The trade wasn’t entirely one-sided, however, and John found a sympathetic collaborator in Dodgers pitching coach Red Adams, who told him to emphasize his sinker, which had plenty of movement to compensate for its lack of velocity. In his first three seasons in Dodger blue, John pitched to a 2.89 ERA (119 ERA+) and 2.94 FIP. But on July 17, 1974, at a time that he led the NL with 13 wins for a team that would go on to win the pennant, the 31-year-old southpaw’s left arm went dead. “It felt as if I had left my arm someplace else. It was as if my body continued to go forward and my left arm had just flown out to right field, independent of the rest of me,” he later told Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite.

Dr. Jobe, who had removed bone chips from John’s elbow after the 1972 season, initially could not determine how damaged the pitcher’s elbow was. When rest and therapy proved inadequate, John asked Jobe to operate to alleviate what the doctor called “Overuse Syndrome.” The surgery to replace a ruptured elbow ligament had never been tried in a pitcher. On September 25, 1974, Jobe replaced John’s ruptured medial collateral ligament with a tendon harvested from the pitcher’s right wrist; three months later, he operated again to reroute the ulnar nerve. John spent all of 1975 undertaking a rehab for which there was no road map. On September 29, 1975, he finally got to pitch again, this time in the Arizona Instructional League.

The operation and the rehab worked. John returned to the Dodgers in fine form in 1976, throwing 207 innings with a 3.09 ERA (109 ERA+) and 3.08 FIP. He won The Sporting News‘ NL Comeback Player of the Year award as well as the Hutch Award, given annually to an active player “who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of Fred Hutchinson.” The next year, he began a true career renaissance, winning 20 games for the first time, placing fifth in the league with a 2.78 ERA, throwing a one-run complete game on three days of rest in the NLCS clincher against the Phillies, and finishing second behind Steve Carlton in the NL Cy Young race.

He made All-Star teams in each of the next three seasons, helping the Dodgers to another pennant in 1978 with a four-hit shutout of the Phillies in the NLCS before a victory in the World Series opener against the Yankees. New York prevailed in that series as they had the year before, and just a few weeks later, they signed John, who had reached free agency, to a three-year, $1.2 million deal, with an option for the fourth year.

John made 36 starts in each of his first two seasons in pinstripes, totaling a whopping 541.2 innings and notching 43 wins. His 2.96 ERA ranked second in the AL in 1979, and his 5.5 WAR seventh. He again finished as the runner-up in the Cy Young race, this time to Mike Flanagan. The Yankees missed the playoffs in 1979, and despite winning 103 games the following year, they were ousted in the ALCS by the Royals in 1980. They made it back to the World Series in 1981 to face the Dodgers. John spun seven shutout innings against his old teammates in a Game 2 win, but when summoned into a bases-loaded relief appearance in the eighth inning of a tied Game 4, he allowed two inherited runners to score in what proved to be the decisive rally. In Game 6, with the Yankees trailing three games to two, John threw four innings of one-run ball, but with two on and two outs in the bottom of the inning, manager Bob Lemon made the controversial decision to replace him with pinch-hitter Bobby Murcer, who flied out to end the threat. The Dodgers broke the game open against reliever George Frazier (who had already taken two losses in the series, including in Game 4) and claimed their first championship since 1965.

John didn’t complete his final year under contract with the Yankees; disgruntled after being moved to the bullpen, he was traded to the playoff-bound Angels on August 31, 1982, and threw a complete game victory in the ALCS opener against the Brewers, though he was roughed up in Game 4 and the Angels went down in defeat. He spent three more seasons with the Halos before drawing his release in mid-1985, briefly caught on with the A’s, then, improbably, wound up back in the Bronx in May 1986; he was 43 at the time. In 1987, he went 13-6 with a 4.03 ERA (110 ERA+), 3.88 FIP, and 2.4 WAR, which was certainly not too shabby for a 44-year-old. He spent two more years with the Yankees — and was the Opening Day starter for the last of them, the third-oldest in MLB history at the time at 45 years and 317 days — before calling it quits.

Thanks to his longevity and ability to eat innings like few other pitchers, John finished with some impressive career totals and lofty rankings: he’s eighth all-time in games started (700), 18th in batters faced (19,692), 20th in innings (4,710.1), and 26th in both wins (288) and shutouts (26). That said, he never led his leagues in any of the Triple Crown categories (wins, ERA, and strikeouts), made just four All-Star teams, and never won a Cy Young.

One can play “what if” and surmise that John might have gotten to 300 wins, and thus automatic enshrinement, had he not missed a year and a half due to his elbow injury, but it’s entirely possible that his elbow (or another body part) would have instead given way in his late 30s or early 40s, after he’d made a few million dollars in free agency, at an age when rehabbing might have seemed less appealing than when he was 31. His score of 112 on the Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, which measures how likely (but not how deserving) a player is to be elected by awarding points for various honors, league leads, postseason performance and so on — the things that tend to catch voters’ eyes — marking him as “a good possibility” rather than “a virtual cinch.”

While 164 of John’s wins (about 56%) and 2,544.2 innings (54%) came after his fateful collaboration with Dr. Jobe, his WAR split is almost exactly down the middle: 31.1 WAR before, 31.0 after. For all of his longevity, his 65.5 total WAR (including offense) is just 57th all-time, ahead of only 23 out of 65 enshrinees, and just one out of the 10 contemporaries from “That Seventies Group,” Catfish Hunter (40.9), who’s also the only one from that group with a lower ERA+ (104) than John (111). In addition to his lesser run prevention relative to that group, his lack of strikeouts — he’s 61st all-time, having whiffed just 4.3 per nine overall and 3.4 per nine after surgery — means that he shares a greater portion of the credit with his fielders. With just four seasons of at least 5.0 WAR and among his leagues’ top 10, his 34.6 peak WAR is tied for 164th, matching or ahead of just seven of the 65. He’s 85th in JAWS, ahead of just 16 of 65, some of whom (such as Sandy Koufax, Dizzy Dean, and Addie Joss) threw fewer than half as many innings. As he’s significantly below all three WAR standards, to these eyes, one needs to apply a very large bonus for his being Patient Zero when it comes to his role as a medical marvel to justify his election. That the Hall honored him in tandem with Jobe in 2013 is enough for my tastes.

John debuted on the BBWAA ballot in 1995, receiving just 21.3% of the vote. He lasted the full 15 years but didn’t top 30% until his final one, when he got 31.7%. Though he appeared on the 2011 and ’14 Expansion Era ballots, and the ’18 Modern Baseball one, he didn’t break out of the “less than” pack, so it might be somewhat surprising that he’s back for another try. Then again, given the thousands of damaged pitchers who have undergone the surgery in an effort to continue their careers, it’s quite likely we’ll be talking about Tommy John for a long, long time.

We hoped you liked reading Tommy John’s Career Was More Than Just a Surgical Procedure by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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gtagomori
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gtagomori

Hi Jay

Nice analysis. My personal opinion is that TJs success after his surgery makes him an exceptional story. Breaking the “4 minute mile barrier” of baseball as it were. Maybe TJ and Jobe should go in as contributors.

WARonEverything
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WARonEverything