Tommy John belongs in the Hall of Fame as a member, not a special guest with his surgeon

26 07 2013

Tommy John, photo linked from mlbreports.com

The Hall of Fame is recognizing Tommy John’s undeniable fame Saturday, but not by inducting him as a member. What could more clearly illustrate how farcical Hall of Fame selection has become?

John will be honored with the surgeon who pioneered Tommy John surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe. That’s fine, and certainly Jobe deserves to be honored by the Hall of Fame. But, as I’ve noted here before, Tommy John deserves to be a full-fledged Hall of Famer based on his pitching career but especially based on his role as the trailblazer who showed about 50 other pitchers the way back from an injury that used to end careers. It’s called Tommy John surgery, for crying out loud!

But let’s set aside the surgery for a while. Tommy John is a clear Hall of Famer based on his credentials, however you examine the record:

With the exception of Roger Clemens, who’s being kept out of Cooperstown because of allegations about performance-enhancing drugs, every eligible pitcher who played in the 20th Century with as many wins as Tommy John is in the Hall of Fame (and more than 30 pitchers with fewer wins than John are in the Hall of Fame).

Some claim that wins and losses are overrated for pitchers, but no player has more influence on the outcome on a team’s success in a game than the starting pitcher. His most important job is to win games and not to lose them. A rare achievement for pitchers is to win 20 games in a season while losing fewer than 10. It’s a good measure of a pitcher’s dominance, and John did it three times.

The only pitchers with more wins than John and more of these dominant seasons are Clemens, Tom Glavine and Lefty Grove.

Of the Hall of Fame pitchers with more wins than John, these didn’t match John’s achievement of pitching three seasons with 20 or more wins and fewer than 10 losses (again, omitting 19th Century pitchers): Early Wynn, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Eddie Plank, Greg Maddux, Warren Spahn, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Cy Young.

These 300-game-winning pitchers matched John’s three seasons with 20 wins and single-digit wins: Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson.

Hall of Famers who had fewer wins than John and fewer dominant 20-winning seasons: Bert Blyleven, Robin Roberts, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Palmer, Bob Feller, Eppa Rixey, Ted Lyons, Red Faber, Carl Hubbell, Bob Gibson, Vic Willis, Joe McGinnity, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, Whitey Ford, Jim Bunning, Catfish Hunter, Stan Coveleski, Chief Bender, Jesse Haines, Don Drysdale, Bob Lemon, Rube Marquard, Jack Chesbro, Ed Walsh, Addie Joss and Dizzy Dean.

The Hall of Famers with fewer wins than John but as many dominant 20-win seasons: Hal Newhouser, Lefty Gomez, Sandy Koufax,

The only Hall of Famers with fewer wins than John but more dominant 20-win seasons: Juan Marichal, Three Finger Brown.

If you measure just by the number of pretty good seasons, John also was better for longer than most Hall of Fame starting pitchers. He had 12 seasons with a winning record and 10 or more wins. That’s more such seasons than Niekro,  Jenkins, Rixey, Willis, McGinnity, Rusie, Marichal, Pennock, Brown, Hoyt, Coveleski, Bunning, Hunter, Bender, Haines, Drysdale, Lemon, Newhouser, Marquard, Chesbro, Vance, Walsh, Waddell, Gomez, Koufax, Joss and Dean and as many such seasons as Grove, Wynn, Roberts, Grimes, Feller, Lyons and Faber.

Dennis Eckersley had fewer wins than John, only had one 20-win season and eight winning seasons with double digits in wins, but I mention him separately because he’s really in the Hall of Fame for his relief achievements, so he’s not comparable to other starters.

As I’ve said before, I don’t argue for a person’s Hall of Fame credentials by comparing him to marginal players. I compare him to all Hall of Famers at his position or to the best. Tommy John has more wins than most Hall of Fame pitchers. He has more dominant 20-win seasons than more than 70 percent of Hall of Fame pitchers. He has more pretty good seasons than most.

Let’s look at some more career measures: On the all-time shutout list, John is about in the middle of the Hall of Fame pack, tied with Clemens at 46, ahead of such Hall of Famers as Ford, Niekro, Roberts, Ruffing, Feller, Hunter, Bunning and Koufax.

His ERA is not as stellar, but certainly worthy of Cooperstown: identical to Jenkins and Gomez and better than Niekro, Lyons and Roberts, among others. John was not a strikeout pitcher, but he struck out more batters than Hall of Famers such as Palmer, Alexander, Vance, Hunter and Ruffing.

You simply can’t find a statistical measure where John is not an easy peer of the starting pitchers already in the Hall of Fame. He’s never at the bottom of the pack, usually in the middle of the pack and sometimes in the top half or third.

Let’s compare him to his last contemporary pitcher elected to the Hall: Bert Blyleven (whom I’ve already compared unfavorably to Ron Guidry). Blyleven and John pitched at about the same time, overlapping from 1970 to 1989 and both pitching in both leagues. Blyleven pitched slightly more innings, 4,970 to 4,710. John won one more game. Blyleven barely leads in ERA, 3.31-3.34. John has solid leads in 20-win seasons, 3-1 and in winning percentage, .555-.534. Blyleven leads decisively in shutouts, 60-46, and strikeouts, 3,701-2,245. Blyleven also gave up way more homers, 430-302. And Blyleven walked more batters, 1,322 to 1,259, each at 2.4 per nine innings. Each pitcher led his league three times in shutouts. Neither led his league in wins or ERA. Blyleven led once in strikeouts and John led twice in winning percentage. Neither won a Cy Young, but they both were top-four three times, John finishing second twice and Blyleven finishing third twice. Both were good in the post-season: Blyleven 5-1 overall, John 6-3 and both of them 2-1 in World Series. You can’t prove that one is better than the other; their results were just too similar. It’s absurd that the baseball writers elected Blyleven to the Hall of Fame and never gave John even 32 percent of the vote.

For lots of Yankees denied entry into the Hall of Fame, longevity is the knock against them. But John’s 13-6 season in 1987 at age 44 is one of the best seasons ever by a pitcher that age.

Please note that I’ve concentrated on John’s pitching achievements, not on his primary claim to fame (which, after all, is in the name of the museum). Compare Tommy John to any Hall of Famer you want by pitching achievements, and you can see that he belongs. The only ones with clear advantages are among the best ever. With the others, John was either clearly better or has similarities like those to Blyleven. And none of those guys sat out a season-plus in his prime, underwent groundbreaking surgery and then returned in a comeback so remarkable that the surgery was named after him.

On a personal note, I watched John’s last win in Royals Stadium, a 3-2 win on April 27, 1989, in which he pitched eight innings, giving up seven hits and two walks. He looked like he could keep going for another 12 wins, if not in ’89, then early in 1990. But he retired after losing four more games that season.

If he had cleared 300 wins, John would be a no-doubt Hall of Famer. That is the threshold that has assured enshrinement for everyone but Clemens. At 288 wins, he came up less than one prime season short of 300. It’s as though voters decided to hold the injury and his fame against him. It’s as though performance-enhancing surgery is as shameful as performance-enhancing drugs.

Tommy John should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. To bring him to Cooperstown for a ceremony in honor of his doctor the day before the Hall of Fame inductions without acknowledging that he belongs in the Hall because he was better than most of the pitchers already honored there is an embarrassment to an institution that is too often too embarrassing.

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4 responses

31 12 2013
Reviewing 2013 on my blog: lots of leadership and ethics posts | The Buttry Diary

[…] be a sure Hall of Famer in football or basketball, Mariano Rivera’s incomparable career, Tommy John’s continuing exclusion from the Hall of Fame, Joe Torre’s election to the Hall of Fame and my memories of Paul Blair’s brief hitch […]

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24 07 2015
Tommy John paved the way to Cooperstown for John Smoltz | Hated Yankees

[…] often use stats to bolster arguments for inclusion in the Hall (and documented two years ago that John’s achievements were statistically better than most of the pitchers already in the […]

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28 09 2015
Yankee starting pitchers who belong in the Hall of Fame: Reynolds, John and Guidry | Hated Yankees

[…] Tommy John belongs in the Hall of Fame as a member, not a special guest with his surgeon […]

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18 01 2017
Tim Raines finally makes the Hall of Fame; other Yankees fall short | Hated Yankees

[…] the ballot), though I can think of four ex-Yankee starting pitchers who belong there ahead of him: Tommy John, Ron Guidry, Allie Reynolds and Andy […]

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