Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Card #75: Tommy John

Who Can It Be Now?
Thomas Edward John was born on May 22, 1943, in Terre Haute, Indiana.  Tommy is 71 years old, meaning that he avoided the entry draft and, instead, was signed by the Cleveland Indians out of Gerstmeyer High School in Terre Haute (a school which no longer exists).  He had been a high school basketball star and, according to his SABR biography, he was recruited by none other than the noted University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp.

When John first signed in 1961 -- again showing how long ago it was -- he was assigned to Class D  Dubuque in the Midwest League.  He pitched well there, though he had some control issues. He moved up to Triple-A Jacksonville in the International League as a 19-year-old for the second half of the 1962 season, where he made 8 appearances and 7 starts in a league in which John averaged being nearly 7-1/2 years younger than everyone else.  According to John, he had no idea how to be a pitcher at this point in his career, and started learning only in 1962 from a player-coach in the Indians system named Steve Jankowski in Single-A. From Jankowski, John learned the classic art of pitching to contact and saving the 100% effort pitches for key points in the game when it was needed rather than throwing at 100% all the time.

His performance in Double-A Charleston in 1963 -- a 9-2 record, a 1.61 ERA, 12 walks and 45 strikeouts in 95 innings -- earned him a promotion back to Jacksonville in 1963.  He did not pitch badly there, and so the Indians gave him a late season cup of coffee that year.  He yo-yoed between Triple-A Portland and Cleveland in 1964, getting sent down in mid-July after getting lit up for 11 runs (10 earned) in 3-1/3 innings in his last three appearances for the Indians.  John's effectiveness may have been compromised by John trying to please Hall of Famer and pitching coach Early Wynn, who told John that John needed to learn a slider to go with the curveball and fastball he already threw.  To throw the slider, John made adjustments to his delivery which threw off his control.

After the 1964 season, Indians GM Gabe Paul tried to undo the unpopular 1960 trade engineered by Frank "Trader" Lane which sent Rocky Colavito to the Tigers in exchange for Harvey Kuenn.  Sportswriter Terry Pluto wrote about this -- and the ensuing years of misery that followed -- in his book The Curse of Rocky Colavito.  Indeed, one of the parts of the curse was that getting Colavito back caused the Indians to trade John.  In a three-way deal consummated on January 20, 1965, Tommy John, Tommy Agee, and John Roman were sent to the Chicago White Sox by the Indians.  The White Sox sent the Indians Cam Carreon (Mark Carreon's dad).  The third team, the Kansas City Athletics, received Fred Talbot, Mike Hershberger, and Jim Landis from the White Sox and then sent Colavito to the Indians.

John spent 7 years on Chicago's South Side, putting up a good ERA -- 2.95 (ERA+ of 117, putting him 17% better than league average) -- but only a fair-to-middling 82-80 record.  He was named to the American League All-Star team in 1968 and pitched a scoreless 2/3 of an inning in the AL's 1-0 loss.  Still, the White Sox of the late 1960s had declined significantly in John's time with the team -- going from the 2nd place team with a 95-67 record of 1965 to their low point of 56-106 in 1970 (a team so bad that they finished 9 games behind both the Kansas City Royals and the Milwaukee Brewers -- two teams that had come into existence the previous season).  

While the Sox had bounced back somewhat in 1971, it probably was a welcome change of scenery in many respects in December of 1971 when the White Sox sent John to the Los Angeles Dodgers with Steve Huntz in exchange for mercurial third baseman Dick Allen.  With the Dodgers, John enjoyed three solid years in 1972 through 1974.  

He had an injury issue that shortened his 1972 season: bone chips in his elbow.  Today, we would see this issue and likely would start thinking that the pitcher was walking a fine line with his ulnar collateral ligament.  Then, it was a procedure to clean out the elbow for John in hopes that he could pitch without pain the next season.

And he did pitch without pain in 1973 and into 1974.  In fact, he started out so well in 1974 -- a 13-3 record -- that John and his wife were certain that New York Mets manager Yogi Berra (as the manager for the All-Star Game for the National League) was going to name John to the All-Star team.  Sally John told the story to the AP in 1976:
Tommy came home from the ballpark that night [of July 16, 1974] with huge ol' cow eyes.  It's the only time I've ever seen him angry.  I don't think anyone realizes how much the snub hurt him.  I hate Yogi Berra to this day for that.  I know that's bad for a Christian to say, but Yogi Berra cannot even be considered a human being after doing that.
Okay, Sally, sit down and relax.  The next night, though, things changed even more to the worse for Tommy -- it was the night that he snapped his UCL.

Dr. Frank Jobe was at the game for the Dodgers, as he always was, as the team doctor. After all the diagnoses were completed and everyone knew that John had torn the UCL, Tommy pushed Jobe to come up with something for him to be able to pitch again.  As Jobe recalled in 2000:
"You have to understand," Jobe says now, "there was no known procedure to fix something like that.  But Tommy told me, 'You've got to do something.  I don't care what it is, but fix me.'" . . .  "I have to give Tommy credit. I might not have taken on his case if he hadn't pushed me so hard."
So, on September 25, 1974, Jobe took a 6-inch strip of tendon from John's right arm and used it to replace and fix John's left elbow.  Complications arose.  A second, secret surgery took place in December of 1974 to clear up scar tissue that had formed around John's ulnar nerve and caused his left hand to curl up into a claw.  

John missed the entirety of the 1975 season rehabilitating his arm.  If the surgery had not worked and his career was over, he would have been just another 32-year-old former pitcher with a sore arm who finished his career with a 2.97 ERA, a 124-106 record, and good stories to tell his children and grandchildren.

Instead, he came back in 1976.  He enlisted the aid of his teammate and kinesiologist Mike Marshall and Dr. Jobe and rebuilt his mechanics.  As was said in a 1984 interview with Robert Markus of the Chicago Tribune:
When he was just starting as a pitcher in high school, John explained, his coaches told him he was throwing the ball across his body and "that it was the worst thing in the world. They told me I had to do what they called 'open up.' I worked and worked to 'open up.'  
But that put a lot of strain on the elbow and could have been the reason for the injury.  In rehabilitation, I did a lot of talking with Dr. [Frank] Jobe and Mike Marshall and found that throwing across the body was not as bad as people said it was back in 1961.  In fact, it's a pretty good way to throw effectively.
It clearly worked for John. He enjoyed his finest seasons in the major leagues in the years 1976 through 1980.  In 1976, he ran out of gas down the stretch and went from 10-1 to 10-10.  Despite the 10-10 record at a time when win-loss record mattered a lot, John was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year in 1976.  As his former teammate Mike Marshall put it, "At that moment [of John's first start on April 16, 1976], Tommy John became the comeback player of the year."

From 1977 through 1980, though, John put up impressive numbers for any pitcher -- whether working on a reconstructed elbow or not, whether aged 34 through 37 or not.  He put up an 80-35 record, a 3.12 ERA (ERA+ of 124), gave up just 45 homers in 975 innings, made the All-Star team three times, finished as the runner up in the Cy Young Award race twice, and even garnered attention for MVP.  He also swapped his Dodger whites for the pinstripes of the New York Yankees after the 1978 season when the Dodgers refused to meet his demands in free agency.    

John was a regular in the post-season between 1977 and 1982.  He missed out on pitching in the post-season in 1979 only because the Orioles pipped the Yankees to the AL East Title that season.  In 1982, he pitched for the Angels against the Brewers in the ALCS, winning game one but taking the loss in game four.  He stayed with the Angels until 1985 when, at the age of 42, the Angels released him.  His career was not done yet.  The Oakland A's picked him up for the rest of that season but did not sign him after that.  

In 1986, then, John entered the season without a team.  Surprisingly, however, on May 2, 1986, the New York Yankees gave John another shot.  John got a bit lucky -- a 2.93 ERA v. a 4.17 FIP shows that -- but it led the Yankees to keep him on board until the end of May in 1989.  Shortly after his 46th birthday, the Yankees released John.

Mustache Check: No whiskers for Tommy John here.  Sorry Night Owl.

Trivial Pursuit
We all know now that Tommy John was the first pitcher to undergo the tendon-to-ligament transplant surgery that Dr. Jobe pioneered in 1974.  According to Tommy John himself on Twitter, the second pitcher to have the surgery performed was Brent Strom. 

Strom's career did not turn out as well as John's did, however.  I'm assuming that he underwent the surgery in 1977 since he missed 1978 entirely.  Strom never made it back to the major leagues.  I wonder if pitchers today would be as quick to get the surgery if Strom and not John had the surgery first.

Bonus Trivia:  According to his SABR biography, Tommy John enjoyed a 26-year career in major league baseball.  The only two players to have longer careers of 27 years each were Nolan Ryan and Cap Anson.

Totally Gnarly
John decided to retire in 1989 rather than trying to hook on with another club.  He jokes today that his decision to retire came about from the fact that Mark McGwire got two hits off him.  McGwire's father was a dentist in Southern California who counted Tommy John as a patient, so, as John claims to have said, "When your dentist's kid starts hitting you, it's time to retire!"  

Not to be a spoilsport, but that's a better line than it is a truth.  After all, if giving up hits to Mark McGwire was John's impetus for retiring, he waited three years too long.  In an August 24, 1986 game at Yankee Stadium, then third baseman Mark McGwire went 3-for-5 against John.  In fact, McGwire's first inning double off Tommy John was McGwire's first major league hit.

I think he should have used Novocaine.

Bonus Gnarliness: If you have a spare $1,295 laying around, you can purchase a limited edition print directly from Tommy John's website.  The print features four different MRI photos of Tommy's UCL ligament signed both by "Patient Zero," Tommy John and the Late Dr. Frank Jobe.  Proceeds go to two different organizations: the "Let's Do It Foundation," an organization whose goal is to end the need for Tommy John Surgery and the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.  The second organization reflects the fact that John's youngest son Taylor committed suicide by a prescription drug overdose in 2009.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
This entry has taken a ton of time to write in large part because Tommy John pitched for 26 years, had a groundbreaking surgery, and generally is a nice Indiana boy who married a college cheerleader.  It's tough to make calls as to what to include when there is literally too much information.  I mean, he wrote a book.  He was traded in 1982.  He managed in the minor leagues.  He's engaged on social media.  There's a lot going on here.  That said, Tommy John to me was and is a Dodger because that is when he first came into my consciousness as a baseball player.  The fact is, though, that John pitched 8 years for the Yankees and 7 years for the White Sox versus 6 years for the Dodgers.  

The question that has to be raised about John, though, is the obvious one: is he a Hall of Famer?  It's a very close call and it depends on how much "credit" you give to him for being Dr. Jobe's Patient Zero, I think.

Before his surgery, John was a pretty good pitcher.  Certainly, he had some good years for some bad White Sox teams in the late 1960s, but his totalled stats for that period are good but not great:  124 W, 106 L, 2.97 ERA (3.16 FIP), 28 shutouts, 1273 strikeouts (5.3 K/9) versus 633 walks (2.6 BB/9).  His average season was a 10-9 record with 180 innings pitched.  In those days, that would be a low innings total for a starter.

After his surgery, John turned into a total "pitch to contact" innings eater.  He played with better teams, however, and that shows in his stats: 164-125 record (18 shutouts), 3.66 ERA (3.56 FIP), 972 strikeouts in 2544-2/3 innings (3.4 K/9) versus 626 walks (2.2 BB/9).  His average year -- with numbers tamped down by the 1981 strike and the mercifully early end to his 1989 season -- was 12-9 in 182 innings with 200 hits allowed and 69 strikeouts.

The BBWAA considered John's candidacy and his overall career mark of 288-231 every year for 15 years between 1995 and 2009.  His percentage of the vote got no lower than 18.7% (1999) and no higher than 31.7% in 2009 -- the last season bump.  

Evaluative methods based on statistics are mixed for John as well.  He did not lead the league often or even finish in the top ten with frequency in any of the major categories -- Black Ink score of 11 versus 40 for the average HOFer, Gray Ink score of 134 versus 185 for the Average HOFer.  

On the other hand, he scores a 112 on the HOF Monitor, which means that his longevity and his pitching for good teams helps him tick a lot of those boxes; indeed, 25 of his 112 points come from his 288 wins.  The HOF Standards Test, which attempts to normalize the players in the Hall on a scale of 100 puts John at 44 and a likely HOFer at 50. And looking at similarity scores, the only two players on John's ten most similar pitchers who are not in the Hall are Jim Kaat -- #1 on the list -- and Tony Mullane (#8).  But, to be fair, those beyond Kaat are not all that similar to John.

Even using WAR/WAR7/JAWS is a mixed bag.  John does pretty well with WAR due to the long career -- 62 for him, average pitcher in the Hall is 73.4.  WAR7 and JAWS attempt to measure career peak more, and those are not kind to him -- 34.7 WAR7 (wins above replacement in his peak 7 seasons; HOF average is 50.2) and 48.4 JAWS (combines WAR and WAR7; average HOF pitcher is 61.8).

What do you do with a problem like Tommy John and his HOF candidacy?

Part of me is the sentimentalist.  It says to reward the guy who stuck around so long, who overcame all the obstacles that life threw at him (I didn't even mention the issues with his son Travis in 1981, after all), who was a groundbreaker in sports medicine.  

The calculating, rationalist part of me looks at John's candidacy with a jaundiced eye.  Would we even care about a pitcher with 288 wins over 26 seasons (which comes out to an average of just 13 wins a year) if not for the fact that John is a good-looking, tall, lanky lefty who pitched for two of baseball's most storied franchises and, oh, yeah, he has an elbow surgery named for him? 

Compare him to his most comparable fellow pitcher, Jim Kaat, for just a moment.  Both pitched for a long time.  Both finished with over 280 wins -- Kaat at 283, John at 288.  Kaat also pitched for the Yankees for parts of a couple of seasons (1979 and 1980).  John is slightly better in WAR for his career, Kaat is better on the Hall of Fame Monitor (130 vs. 112), and both are at 44 on the HOF Standards Monitor.

I have gone back and forth on this, and in the end, I think he should go in.  Joe Posnanski made a compelling case for the fact that, taken as a whole, John's career is groundbreaking -- for being Patient Zero -- and distinguished.  Posnanski noted that Tommy John had 13 no-decisions in which he pitched eight or more innings and gave up one or fewer runs.  Those 13 games going John's way would have given him 301 wins and we wouldn't be having this discussion. 

So, initially I was going to say no way, but I'm now convinced.  While John would be a borderline Hall of Fame inductee, I think he should be in the Hall based on the overall body of his contributions to Major League Baseball.  Yes, being desperate and having it work out positively matters sometimes.


  1. He has the good back story that a lot of voters like. Like you, I didn't think he should be in at first, but I understand the argument to put him in.

  2. i tend to look at the borderline hof guys and see one or two things that makes them unique that, to me, helps their case - bert blyleven's strikeout total and his curveball; jack morris' world series record. certainly tommy john's surgery and comeback tips the scales in his favor in that regard. i'm not as familiar with guys like jim kaat or harold baines; i don't know what their 'scale tipper' might be in regards to the hall of fame.