Tommy John paved the way to Cooperstown for John Smoltz

24 07 2015

When John Smoltz is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend (deservedly), who’s the first guy he should thank in his acceptance speech?

Not Bobby Cox or Leo Mazzone or Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine or Chipper Jones or his high school coach or any other teammate, coach or manager who helped his career. Those can come later. Smoltz should thank Tommy John, who’s still awaiting his call from Cooperstown.

As I noted in a post about Roger Maris, the actual name of the museum where Smoltz will be enshrined is the Hall of Fame. 

I 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 Hall of Fame). But stats shouldn’t be the only factor in Hall of Fame selection. I do think fame should be a factor in considering a player. Or change the freakin’ name.

Here’s how famous Tommy John is: They named a surgery for him. I can think of only one other player whose name is similarly famous in baseball and medicine, and he is in the Hall of Fame: Lou Gehrig.

As I noted in another earlier post, if your name means comeback for dozens of pitchers who have suffered injuries that formerly would have ended their careers, you’re exceptionally famous.

Before Smoltz injured his elbow, he was nowhere near reaching the Hall of Fame (but well on his way). He had pitched 12 major league seasons, won a Cy Young Award in his only 20-win season and won 157 games. He had led the league once in wins, twice in strikeouts and never in ERA.

That’s not going to get you into Cooperstown, or even keep you on the ballot long. He had a sterling 12-4 post-season record, but as I’ve noted before, if post-season performance counted for anything in Hall of Fame voting, we’d see more Yankees there (see my posts about Bernie Williams or about the Yankees being only third in Hall of Fame).

When he injured his arm, Smoltz didn’t have nearly as strong a case for the Hall of Fame as Jack Morris, who outlasted Smoltz in the one of the best-pitched World Series games ever and one of the best Game Sevens ever.

Morris will make the Hall of Fame someday, but the writers never gave him more than 68 percent of the vote (you need 75 percent to be a Hall of Famer) in his 15 years on the ballot. (Players snubbed by the writers get a later chance through committees honoring players from different eras.)

But Tommy John Surgery (that link is to WebMD, not Wikipedia, but the surgery has its own Wikipedia page, too) saved Smoltz’s career. He came back from the surgery (and more than a year off) to pitch 11 more years. He was the National League’s best closer for a three-year stretch, leading the league in saves with 55 in 2002 and following that up the next year with 45 saves and a 1.12 ERA.

Then Smoltz did something that’s unique in baseball history: He went from being a dominant starter to being a dominant reliever to being a dominant starter again. Only Dennis Eckersley can approach Smoltz’s achievement in both roles, but Eck was never as good a starter as Smoltz and once he went to the bullpen, he stayed there. And Eck never faced as serious an injury.

Smoltz had three more strong years as a starter, including leading the NL with 16 wins in 2006.

He was a four-time All-Star before Tommy John Surgery and a four-time All-Star after. And he’s rightly a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And the pitcher who pioneered that comeback trail never reached 32 percent of the vote from the biased buffoons in the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Another Wikipedia page lists more than 70 players (more than 60 of them pitchers) who have undergone Tommy John Surgery. Smoltz is the only Hall of Famer in the group, but some other pitchers have returned from the surgery to continue impressive careers: A.J. Burnett (who had three good years for the Yankees and won a 2009 World Series game, all post-surgery), Chris Carpenter, John Lackey, Joe Nathan, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Kerry Wood (who had a brief Yankee stint).

Brian Wilson‘s brilliant career was bracketed by two Tommy John Surgeries: his first injury ended his college career at Louisiana State University (where I now teach) and he saved 172 major league games and became a World Series hero before his second injury. He returned after the second surgery and had a decent year and a half for the Dodgers, but was unable to return to his dominant form.

It’s too early to know how great young pitchers such as Matt Harvey, Yankee Ivan NovaJoakim SoriaStephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann will be, but clearly some of the best arms in the game have been repaired by Tommy John Surgery. If you’ve enjoyed watching baseball in the past 40 years, you’ve probably been a fan of multiple players who followed John’s comeback trail (or tried to; it’s still a serious injury and a difficult trail and not everyone comes back).

Tommy John was not the surgeon who saved these careers (the late Frank Jobe developed the surgery). But he was the first pitcher to take the risk of letting a doctor transplant a tendon from his right wrist into his left elbow, creating a new ligament to replace the one he had torn.

Before John, that injury meant your career was over. And John had a promising one. He blew out his elbow at 31 in his 12th season. He had led the American league in shutouts with the White Sox in 1966 and ’67 and made his first All-Star team in ’68. With a 16-7 record for the Dodgers in 1973, he led the National League with a .696 winning percentage.

In 1974, John was one of the most dominant pitchers in the NL (his 13-3 record again gave him the league’s best winning percentage again that season) when he tore a ligament in his elbow, pitching against the Montreal Expos on July 17. The Dodgers would make it to the World Series without him. At that point, he had only 124 wins and no shot at the Hall of Fame. He appeared to be another good pitcher whose career ended with a torn elbow ligament.

But Tommy John didn’t give up. He underwent groundbreaking surgery, persevered through a daunting rehabilitation and blazed the trail for John Smoltz and the others who would follow.

After sitting out a season and a half to rehabilitate his new elbow, John was an even better pitcher than before. He won 20 games three times after surgery (Smoltz only did that once in his whole career) and reached 288 career wins, plus six more in the post-season. The only pitcher being kept out of the Hall of Fame with more wins is Roger Clemens, and that’s because of suspicion about performance-enhancing drugs.

Even sitting out the whole 1975 season, John pitched for 26 years. That rebuilt elbow pitched until he was 46 (I saw his last win against the Royals in 1989).

I think John will make the Hall of Fame, maybe the next time the Expansion Era Committee considers players spurned by the writers. The era committees include Hall of Fame members. I hope Smoltz gets a seat on the Expansion Era Committee. Who better to make the case for the guy who paved the path to Cooperstown for Smoltz?

(The Expansion Era Committee may eventually correct some of the worst anti-Yankee bias of the writers. Most of the egregious writer snubs of the era were Yankees: Maris, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson and, of course, John. Several others, including Morris, deserve consideration. But no eligible player left out of the Hall from that era has a stronger case than John, and I expect at least him and Maris to make it someday.)

Tommy John belongs in the Hall of Fame based on his achievements on the pitching mound. And he certainly belongs in the Hall based on his fame.

Others in the 2015 Hall of Fame class

I blogged in January about my observations on all four members of this year’s Hall of Fame class:

  • Smoltz, who got two of his four post-season losses (and only one win) in World Series appearances against the Yankees.
  • Randy Johnson, a former Yankee pitcher, but more notably the primary reason the Yankees lost a memorable World Series.
  • Pedro Martinez, a rival Yankee fans loved to hate in his Red Sox days. He was only 1-4 against the Yankees in the post-season.
  • Craig Biggio, who had no notable history with the Yankees, but made his only World Series appearance as a teammate of former Yankees Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

All four are deserving and I’m glad to see them honored this weekend.

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this post come from Baseball-Reference.com.