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Tommy John For The Hall

Tommy John, along with a number of his contemporaries from the 1970s and 80s, is on the ballot for the Hall of Fame Modern Baseball Era committee’s election; results to be announced December 8th. The lefthander, who pitched eight years for the Yankees, was on the BBWAA ballot fifteen times, attaining his highest voting at 31.7% in 2009, his last year on the ballot. He appeared and fell short on the Expansion Era Committee ballots in 2011 and 2014. He was on the Modern Era ballot in 2017 but was again not elected.

John was 283-231, with a 3.34 ERA and 111 ERA+ over 26 seasons in the game. He ranks 26th in all time wins, 20th in career innings pitched (4710), and eighth all time with 700 games started. His lifetime WAR is 62.1, good for 53rd of all time. Impressive numbers.

Alas, he is also 19th in career losses, and 41st in base on balls (1259).

A case can, and has been made that the 288 wins are a product of holding on for too long. The voting results would indicate that the writers support this conclusion. He indeed was baseball’s oldest player in 1988 (45) and 1989 (46) and second oldest each season from 1985 – 1987.

Through age 40, John’s career stats were 248-184, 3.12, 116 ERA+, which would place him 50th in baseball history in wins. John’s “through-40 career” included a four year peak of 1977-1980, in which he averaged 20-9, 3.12, three All Star games selections, finishing second in Cy Young balloting in 1977 and 1979, fourth in 1980 and eighth in 1978. He had a career postseason record of 6-3, 2.65 over thirteen games started.

John’s career through age 40 stacks up well against these total careers of the following Hall of Famers:

Jim Bunning 224-184, 3.27, 115 ERA+; one second place Cy Young finish Eppa Rixey 266-251, 3.15, 115 ERA+ Jesse Haines 210-158, 3.64, 109 ERA+ Ted Lyons 260-230, 3.67, 118 ERA+

Sadly, TJ didn’t age well. After age 40 he was 40-47, 4.46 92 ERA+. His 1985 season was beyond miserable – 4-10, 5.53 between California, who released him, and Oakland. He rebounded with a 13-6, 4.03 record for the Yankees in 1987, but overall did not enhance his career numbers as he aged.

Can someone play themselves out of the Hall of Fame? He was an excellent pitcher as late as his age 38 season in 1981. By the time he came onto the ballot in 1995, his best days seemed a long time ago, his numbers and perhaps legacy tarnished by his later years.

Not that there weren’t moments even then. The misery of the 1989 season was brightened by John’s improbable making the Opening Day start, after being told he had no chance to make the team before Spring Training by manager Dallas Green. A couple of years before he led the Yankees in innings pitched. He always fiercely competed, even when his skills and command seemed to be abandoning him.

Of course, one thing that is unmentioned thus far, which in my opinion puts him over the top and into the Hall, is that he achieved much of his success after his career was seemingly over and left for dead. On July 17th, 1974, TJ felt “the pitch” as he has termed it in his book TJ: My Twenty Six Years in Baseball, tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. His season, 13-3, 2.59 ERA at the time, was done. His twelve year career was seemingly finished.

Dr. Frank Jobe, a well-known name now but not necessarily then, performed the first known transplant of the ligament, a radical surgery with unknown prognosis, with Jobe guessing the odds of returning to pitch “one in a hundred”.

Despite the bleak outlook, John would not be deterred. He missed the whole 1975 season working through the grueling process of rehab. He came back and won ten games in 1976, twenty in 1977. In his “second career”, John went on to win 164 games.

He has become the trailblazer for the surgery now named after him. Going into the 2019 season, over 500 MLB players had undergone the procedure. Among those who have come back to perform at a high level afterwards are two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Paul Molitor, and 2019 World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg. Yankees players on the 2019 roster who have undergone the surgery include Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Jordan Montgomery, Gleyber Torres, Ben Heller, Domingo German and Johnny Loaisiga.

The surgery seems to be almost routine now, but it certainly wasn’t in 1974. For pioneering a surgery that changed the sport and thriving afterwards, it’s time for Tommy John to take his place in Cooperstown.


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