Tommy John Should Be in the Hall of Fame

Tommy John’s Hall of Fame case is stronger than you might think. (via Ron Cogswell)

Born in Terre Haute, Ind., during the summer of 1943, Tommy John played baseball through college as a left-handed pitcher. In 1961, the Cleveland Indians signed him as an amateur free agent. After two years in the minors, John made his major league debut in 1963. He pitched until 1989, accruing 288 wins, 79.4 WAR, and an ERA of 3.44 over 4,710.1 innings pitched. He remains the 26th winningest pitcher with the 22nd highest WAR for pitchers, one win ahead of Bert Blyleven and 2.0 WAR ahead of Phil Niekro.

Those are the basics of Tommy John’s baseball career. He never had a dominant peak. He never won a World Series or break some long-established record. He ate innings, he pitched well, and he survived. Imagine if Rick Porcello pitched exactly like Rick Porcello for another 17 seasons:

Source: FanGraphsRick Porcello, Tommy John

That’s Tommy John.

Also: He was the subject of baseball’s most important medical experiment. At age 31, he became the first pro baseball player to undergo a transplant of a portion of his wrist ligament into his elbow to replace his utterly destroyed ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). He did not volunteer for the procedure, but rather put his faith into Dr. Frank Jobe, who made the transplant decision while his patient slept, expecting a more minor surgery to take place. Had Jobe and John had a weaker relationship, had Tommy John declined surgery like so many of his generation, if any of a million little variables had changed, the sport of baseball would have a very different story.

It is this other part of John’s story – the tale of John and Jobe – that the Baseball Hall of Fame saw fit to acknowledge as part of its “Whole New Ballgame” exhibit, which examines baseball from 1970 to the current.

There is little doubt that the night of Sept. 25, 1974, changed the future of baseball. Imagine the 2000s without John Smoltz. Imagine A.J. Burnett’s career cut short at the age of 26. Imagine a baseball landscape today where Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Carrasco, Wei-Yin Chen, Alex Cobb and Alex Wood have all retired or burned out in the minor leagues after failing to rehab a blown elbow.

But what of the Neil Armstrong of this group, the owner of the guinea elbow? That is a question the Modern Era Hall of Fame baseball committee examined this offseason. The committee, tasked with considering Tommy John and a number of other players and one labor organizer for Hall of Fame worthiness, ultimately chose to leave Tommy John out of the Hall. Part of the committee members’ task effectively required them to answer a question beyond player merits. They needed to answer: How much does context impact the Hall of Fame’s analysis of performance? Does the Hall seek to preserve greatness or history?

On the surface, John’s career is at best a marginal Hall of Fame performance. He crossed the minimum 70 WAR threshold common for Hall players, but he did so without any noteworthy periods of dominance, without any Cy Young wins, with only four All-Star nods. His JAWS Hall of Fame score is 48.4, well beneath the Hall’s average of 62.1.

In the days leading up the Modern Era committee’s decision, David Laurila spoke with writers from across the industry, and the consensus — with 18 of 22 writers agreeing — was that Tommy John did not belong in the Hall of Fame.

Here are some excerpts from the four writers who believed John did belong in the Hall:

Clearly, John’s statistics alone don’t merit enshrinement.

-Jared Diamond, Wall Street Journal

Tommy John was a borderline Hall of Famer as a player, and I think his impact on the game through the surgery that bears his name should be considered, and that pushes him in for me.

-Mike Axisa, CBS Sports

With 288 wins and a 3.34 ERA, [Tommy John] is right on the borderline.

-Tyler Kepner, New York Times

Only Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald felt Tommy’s numbers alone resembled an obvious Hall of Famer, saying:

Tommy John — the record, the longevity, and the perseverance all say Hall of Famer to me. The similarity scores also put TJ in pretty good company.

Given the faint praise of Tommy John’s believers, it is unsurprising to see little support for John from the Modern Era committee.

But I would like to propose a separate lens to consider John. First, let us take a second look at those career numbers:

Tommy John Career Ranks
Stat Rank
Pitcher fWAR 22
fWAR 61
Wins 26
RA9-WAR 42
Innings 20
Shutouts 26
SOURCE: FanGraphs Leaderboards

There are 77 pitchers in the Hall of Fame — more than any other position. Barring the possibility that only a handful of those pitchers were actually starting pitchers (and in fact the opposite is true), then Tommy John likely accrued a number of critical stats — such as career wins, WAR, and innings pitched — in excess of some Hall residents. And then there are the Bill James similarity scores that Bruce Miles mentions above:

Tommy John Comparables
Pitcher Similarity Score Hall of Fame?
Jim Kaat 923 No
Robin Roberts 898 Yes
Bert Blyleven 890 Yes
Fergie Jenkins 885 Yes
Early Wynn 870 Yes
Tom Glavine 866 Yes
Burleigh Grimes 865 Yes
Tony Mullane 864 No
Don Sutton 862 Yes
Eppa Rixey 857 Yes
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Eight of the 10 most similar players are already in the Hall of Fame.

But for many voters, the simple fact remains that John never had a dominant peak. Despite some second-place finishes in Cy Young voting, John never led the league in ERA or strikeouts. notes that John is the career leader in ground into double plays (GIDP), but this is something of a tinted accomplishment because it first requires you place a lot of players on base. In fact, as a sinkerball pitcher, he had a middling strikeout rate through most of his career, and then in the 1980s, when the major league-wide strik out rate began to climb, his K-rates began to decline. Starting in 1983, he began maintaining K-rates near seven percent — half the major league average strikeout rate.

But there is one final angle of his statistics that does not often get considered: How well have pitchers performed on Elbow No. 2?

The following data show what uncommon territory the league’s first TJS recipient walked. Not only did he pitch a nice full career before his UCL busted, he pitched the second best career after his UCL busted:

Click on the maximize button on the bottom right to increase the report size.

The table on the left is a compendium of Jon Roegele’s TJS survivor list sorted by career WAR from the FanGraphs leaderboards. Tommy John, you will note, accrued the second most WAR for any player to have ever received TJS. The top-left graph shows the most WAR accrued after Tommy John surgery. Tommy John also ranks second in this. The bottom-left graph shows Tommy John accrued the seventh-most WAR before his surgery among TJS recipients. And the bottom-right graph shows total career WAR of those with TJS, side-by-side with the total WAR accrued after surgery.

Only the great John Smoltz, himself a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has more career WAR than Tommy John — and even then, just barely. In the top-right scatterplot, we can see two very separate dots from the crowd — that’s Tommy John and John Smoltz.

Smoltz probably would not be in the Hall of Fame without Tommy John. Smoltz’s career — and the careers of every player on this list — ties back to not just Tommy John’s successful surgery, but his successful rehabilitation and the protracted success of his late career.

My FanGraphs colleague Craig Edwards examined John’s numbers last November and concluded:

His Hall of Fame case is based on being good for a very long time. He has just that one six-win season, but he has another five seasons above four WAR, and another 13 seasons above 2.5 WAR. Tommy John was an above-average major-league pitcher in 19 seasons — maybe 20, if you count strike-shortened 1981. John’s 3.38 FIP and 3.34 ERA are both around 10% better than league average over the course of his entire career.

I spoke with Craig about this analysis, and he told me he did not consider the surgery component of John’s story. The surgery, in the minds of many writers and fans, was something that happened to Tommy John, not something he accomplished. And that is fair in some senses — he is not a surgeon, after all, and Dr.  Jobe was the one who took the initiative to transplant the ligament.

But the grueling rehab — a process Jobe and John had to pioneer — and the extended, very public return to effectiveness (John’s two Cy Young near misses came after his surgery) belong to Tommy. The surgery’s success belongs to the doctor, but the surgery’s renown, its proliferation through baseball, its impact on the sport — all that belongs to Tommy John.

So we then must work on that implicit question: What is the Hall of Fame for? Is it for the best players? Is it for the players whose pictures graced the top of the sports pages week in and week out?

Or is the Hall of Fame a place where we preserve the story of the game?

Tommy John’s accumulation of stats merit consideration — especially in the unique context of TJS survivors, and how he has outclassed almost of his second-elbow peers. But, as Craig noted, he was a stats accumulator, not a player who played a critical role in the day-to-day story of major league baseball from 1963 to 1989. I was not alive during the most of the time period, and so I do not have the empirical sense of Tommy John’s impact. I do not know what a typical fan’s Tommy John memories — or lack of memories — felt like.

“Who is starting today?”

“It’s Tommy John against Joe Cowley.”

“Geez, Tommy John is still pitching? I can’t believe he’s still around.”

I imagine that was the typical means of a fan interfacing with Tommy Joh’s story, especially late in his career. He did not register in the minds of the casual fan the way his already-enshrined contemporaries did.

But now, years removed from his actual career, his name is known to high schoolers and All-Stars. His name has arguably become more important than the name associated with the sport’s most important pitching award:

Some of this analysis is theater. The Modern Era committee could not decide the direction of the Hall of Fame. It could only accept it or defy it. The Hall of Fame is and always has been about preserving the game’s story. That is why Negro League greats and meaningful executives have plaques. That is why Ichiro Suzuki will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer with likely less than 60 WAR. And that is why not just Tommy John, but key labor organizer Marvin Miller, were colossal snubs last December.

Sort the above data by WAR accumulated after TJS. Consider all the games and highlights, the cheers and tales of defiance, that would be lost if Tommy John had flopped after his surgery, or found the rehab too difficult, or been anything but a beacon of endurance.

David Wells would not have pitched in the majors. Nor would have Tom Candiotti. Stephen Strasburg, cut down with 2.5 WAR. No Anibal Sanchez, no Erik Bedard and no Jacob deGrom.

Maybe someone else takes the risk and has the surgery if Tommy John does not. But is it soon enough for Jaime Garcia to pitch 10 innings of 1.80 ERA baseball in the 2011 World Series? Or for Brian Wilson to pitch 18 innings of scoreless post-season play?

These are the pieces that make up the tapestry of baseball’s history.

But Tommy John did succeed. He recovered from his surgery and did something no baseball veteran has outdone, accumulating more WAR after his surgery than any other established major league player ever.

One of the strange parts of this story is that neither John nor the late Jobe showed much passion for the fame their mutual experience gave them. When visiting the Hall of Fame in 2015, John recalled how Dr. Jobe would react when John or others praised him for the surgery. According John, the doctor often refused the praise.:

I’m honored, seriously, that this surgery changed the face of baseball as we know it. I’m honored to have my name put on it. A lot of people think it should be called Frank Jobe surgery, but Dr. Jobe said, “No, I just did the surgery. He did all the rest.”

And the rest is history.

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4 years ago

Interesting article Bradley. Couple of minor points:
1) TJ did pitch in the World Series (in ’77, ’78, and ’81) compiling a 2 -1 record w a 2.67 ERA.

2) Not mentioned is how his career was impacted by the ’81 strike. After winning 20+ games 3 of the 4 prior seasons, he won only 9 in 1981. Without the strike, he almost certainly would have reached the 300 win milestone, and been able to join his longtime teammate Don Sutton in the HoF.

3) One of the problems about his peak was that it was interrupted by his TJ surgery. He had led the NL in ’73 and was leading the league in ’74 w a 13 – 3 record with a 2.59 ERA when his arm gave out. After missing the rest of ’74 and all of ’75 (certainly would have won 300 without that time off) he then had a tough (10 – 10) first year back but then won 20+ games 3 of the next 4 seasons, finishing second in CY voting twice. His peak would therefore have been ’73 to ’80, but he missed 1.5 seasons because of the surgery.

4) Lastly, assumed to be a “compiler” by many voters, consider instead if he had retired after the ’82 season. He would have had 51 fewer wins, but 60 fewer losses. He still would have had 3,800 innings, and a lower career ERA. Is he being “punished” for being a compiler?

Barney Coolio
4 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

You’re being very generous. The 1981 Yankees lost 55 games to the strike, hard to imagine John wins 12 games that year. Al

Barney Coolio
4 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Also, if you meant John might have picked up 4 wins in 1981, and then lingered on in 1989 to win 8 more, that also seems unlikely. People tend to overlook the 1981 strike. I think Tim raines and Andre Dawson might have been earlier inductees with a full 1981.

4 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Actually Barney, he had 36 starts in ’80 and 37 starts in ’82 but only 20 starts in ’81. While possible he would have gained 12 victories in the 16 starts lost by the strike, my thinking is he probably lost 8 victories, which would have given him 17 wins in 1981, the lowest total of wins he had post-surgery to that point. I figure an additional 8 wins would have allowed him to linger a bit more in ’89 (he did have winning records in ’86, ’87 and ’88) to pick up the additional 3-4 required victories to get him to the magical 300 threshold.

4 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

Note I didn’t even mention the ’72 strike which cost a few additional starts. My case is that TJ did not make the HoF because he didn’t quite reach 300 wins ala Sutton and Glavine. However, he was probably impacted by player strikes from reaching personal milestones more than any other near HoF players.

He has more wins, a lower WHIP, a lower ERA and lower ERA+ than Jack Morris, a better ERA+ than Don Sutton and a better WHIP than Tom Glavine.

tramps like us
4 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

“Is he being “punished” for being a compiler?” Yeah, I suppose he is. When you choose to hang on too long after your skills diminish, your averages suffer. Mickey Mantle didn’t even hit .300! If you’re a compiler but still fail to hit the 3000 hits or 300 wins magic numbers, you’re not going to the HOF based on compiling 288. Would Biggio be in without the 3000? Harold Baines was oh so close, what if he had the 134 extra hits? Is he a HOF without them? I give TJ zero points for getting surgery at a point where he had nothing to lose by trying. It required no skill on his part. And I give him no points for the (presumed) missing stats he would have accumulated had he not been hurt. Lots of guys fall into that category. Just the breaks. If Ted Williams (5 years!) or Willie Mays hadn’t of been drafted, they would probably have been first to break Ruth’s 714. Bad luck. He was a good pitcher (very good for a number of seasons) and there are lots of them. I’d rather get behing Curt Schilling for inductment. We all know why HE’S not there and it has nothing to do with accomplishemts between the lines.

Barney Coolio
4 years ago
Reply to  tramps like us

I also don’t want to disregard John’s final 7 years, which I still believe help his case more than hurt it. Has any player ever truly played his way out of the Hof? I can’t think of anyone. That said, I would love to see a true compiler reach the ballot. 20 years of 140-160 hits, middling power, bad defense and no speed. Sounds like a juicy Hof case to me!

Dennis Bedard
4 years ago

If Bert Blyleven is in then so should Tommy John. And if Tommy John is in, so should Jim Kaat. And then you look at guys like Milt Pappas whose record looks a lot like Don Drysdale’s. We could play this game all day. Anytime you hear the word “vote,” think of the word “politics,” and then think of the word “subjective,” and then think of the phrase “life is unfair.”

tramps like us
4 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Why are you leaving out Jamie Moyer? If all those guys are in, then he’s in. No, a line has to be drawn SOMEWHERE.

Barney Coolio
4 years ago
Reply to  tramps like us

I really think Dennis bedard thinks few or none of those guys should be in the Hof.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

I’d probably put Kaat in over John, more of a discernible peak. Blyleven and Drysdale had HOF-type peaks, unlike the others. But honestly I’d be fine with John and even Pappas and Moyer going in, it’s more fun to celebrate players than to not, and I think “compilers” are generally unfairly looked down on and longevity is an underrated component of greatness.

Las Vegas Wildcards
4 years ago

John had a very good career, but like Jim Kaat, hung on too long. I only give small credit for the surgery, it was more timing than anything. Had John not had the procedure, someone else would have had the operation.

4 years ago

The dude who performed the surgery should be in the Hall of Fame

Frank Jobe is the man’s name

“I think there should be a medical wing in the Hall of Fame, starting with him.” – Tommy John