Modern Era HOF Ballot: Surgery, guile not enough for Tommy John

Tommy John, en route a longer pitching life after the surgery that bears his name than he had before it . . .

Tommy John, en route a slightly longer pitching life after the surgery that bears his name than he had before it . . .

There’s a new line of underwear out there called Tommy John. Unfortunately for baseball fans, it isn’t the creation of the former pitcher, which is kind of a shame. There go your opportunities for beefing up John’s Hall of Fame case by observing, “Jim Palmer only posed in his underwear; Tommy John up and created his.”

John—the lefthanded pitcher, not the young underwear magnate in the making—is on the Modern Baseball Era Committee’s Hall of Fame ballot, along with Steve Garvey (whose case or lack of one I discussed previously), Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, and Luis Tiant, among former players.

And it’s always been tempting to push for John’s election to the Hall of Fame as a hybrid candidate, a solid pitcher who also underwent the first of the pioneering surgeries that have long since borne his name. It’s a powerful case until you remember two things:

1) Tommy John himself didn’t devise the surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe did, though it’s kind of a shame that you even have to make the distinction. I’ve actually bumped into millenials who think Tommy John surgery was named after the doctor who created and performed it for the first time.

There have been baseball players who became doctors of one or another kind after their playing days (Moonlight Graham, family practitioner; Bobby Brown, cardiologist; Ron Taylor, orthopedist; Jim Lonborg, orthodontist; Doc Medich, orthopedist), but Tommy John wasn’t one of them.

2) Both John and Jobe have been honoured by the Hall of Fame for Jobe’s creation and John’s successful rehabilitation from the operation. They were recognised formally by the Hall during the presentations of the J.G. Taylor Spink (for writers) and Ford C. Frick Awards (for broadcasters). And that’s still a lot more than a lot of major league baseball players get.

John’s supporters like to point to his longevity and longevity does matter to a certain extent. But he had twelve seasons prior to the surgery and sixteen after that arduous eighteen-month rehabilitation. Was there a truly broad difference between Tommy John before and after?

There really wasn’t. According to the measurement of wins above a replacement level player, John was worth almost exactly the same WAR before and after his surgery. (Before: 31.1. After: 30.9.) That’s taking into account that he had his three 20+ win seasons after the surgery.

It also accounts for the fact that three of the four times John ever reached five or more WAR in a season happened before the surgery, with one (1979) after it. His first (5.6 in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher) landed him his first of four All-Star appearances and saw him finish with the best ERA (1.98) of his career; his last was a season in which he finished second in the Cy Young Award voting.

John was an off-speed specialist whose money pitch (earlier in his career, anyway) was a sinkerball and who threw ground balls as prodigiously as Ozzie Smith hunted them down with or without the acrobatics. (He also threw a few other, shall we say, trick pitches, about which more anon.) He threw with an easy motion and was a lot better staying away from walks after his surgery than before it, but he wasn’t much of a strikeout pitcher, averaging 105 per 162 games lifetime with a lifetime 1.8/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

John has four years of real peak value (1977-1980), which he divided with two seasons for the Dodgers and two for the Yankees and got his only top-ten Cy Young Award finishes including three top five. He was, on both sides of his surgery, a classic innings-eater even into his 40s, and in fact ate a few more innings after his surgery than before, and that accounts for the five 200+ inning seasons he had pre-surgery with the White Sox and the Dodgers.

Before his surgery, if people knew Tommy John at all it was because he was dealt to the Dodgers in the 1972 deal that brought talented and buffeted Dick Allen to the White Sox, where Allen promptly went out and had the MVP season that led the White Sox back to pennant contention for a spell. Or, because he was part of the three-way 1965 deal between the Indians, the White Sox, and the Kansas City Athletics that returned Rocky Colavito to the Indians after a four-year exile.

John was a good pitcher. For a very long time. His lifetime 62.0 career WAR is only 10.1 below the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher’s WAR. The time off for his surgery and rehabilitation just might have cost him the level of a proper career-value Hall of Famer, but that’s an awfully big “might.”

His lifetime ERA (3.34) is only four points under his lifetime fielding-independent pitching rate (3.38). That’s an above-average pitcher, but everything else computes to a fellow who falls short enough of being a Hall of Famer with or without the surgery that bears his name.

John, with the White Sox in 1968 . . .

John, with the White Sox in 1968 . . .

Which is a shame, because for a long time I thought John had a case until I looked a little deeper at the actual evidence. John finished in the top ten for win probability added six times. For a pitcher whose career is cut short, that’s impressive; for a pitcher who managed a 26-season career it’s a dollop. He currently ranks 51st all time in WPA; he’s liable to fall lower in due course.

John and his family slipped into the national consciousness not just by way of the surgery but when his young son Travis fell from a third-floor window in the family’s New Jersey home at age two in 1981. While the entire country prayed for the little boy, one of John’s Yankee teammates did more than pray, forging a lifelong friendship with the boy for his trouble.

Travis’s daily visitors included Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson—who needed a diversion during a particularly trying time with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner that season. Jackson put on little shows with replica Muppets and helped draw the boy out of the coma, his first movements since falling into the coma reported to have happened during one of those Jackson Muppet routines.

John has one other hope for any kind of Hall of Fame honour: he could be awarded the Buck O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, which the Hall gives annually to one individual “who enhances baseball’s positive image on society, who broadens the game’s appeal, and whose integrity and dignity are comparable to the namesake of the award.” His name would be etched onto the base of the statue of the Negro Leagues legend outside the Hall.

Of course, some sourpusses might question John on the integrity part. He was fun to watch as he got older, and he became more wily as he got older. And, more willing to use any and everything he could think of to get an edge on the mound, heh heh heh. Go ahead, tweak John on that. Then ask when Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry, and Don Sutton will be purged from Cooperstown.

John was Perry without the curmudgeonly personality. “The elegant Rhett Butler of scofflaws,” Thomas Boswell called him. “[T]he gentlemanly John can turn a tiny scratch into a double-play grounder.”

The classic story involves a game during his return to the Yankees after tours with the Angels and the Oakland A’s, when he faced the Angels and Don Sutton—another pitcher known to put everything he had or could think of on the ball. (Sutton, of course, was notorious for tweaking umps who frisked him by letting them find little notes in the fingers of his gloves, such as, “You’re getting warmer. But it’s not here.”)

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was watching the game from his Tampa home, and he was none too thrilled about Sutton’s tricks. He rang the dugout demanding manager Lou Piniella do something about Sutton—like getting him frisked and ejected.

Piniella replied, “George, do you know what the score is? [The Yankees led, 1-0, at the time.] If I get the umpires to check Sutton, don’t you know the Angels are going to check TJ? They’ll both get kicked out. Whatever they’re doing, TJ is doing it better than Sutton. So let’s leave it alone for now.”

The Boss relented, the Yankees went on to win, 3-2, and a scout in the press box made an unforgettable crack: “Tommy John and Don Sutton? If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

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