Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Keltner List: Tommy John

Tommy John was a pitcher at one point, not a surgical procedure. Let's take a look at his career via James' Keltner List.

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball?

In the late 1960s, Tommy John was considered quite a good pitcher but was never thought to be the best in baseball. In the 1980s, he was considered to be a medical marvel, but not the best pitcher in baseball.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

John played for quite a few teams. With the White Sox from 1965 to 1971, he was part of a team that included Wilbur Wood, and an aging Luis Aparicio. In any given year on those teams, John could have been the best pitcher. After the 1971 season, the Sox traded John and another player to the Dodgers for Dick Allen. Allen won the 1972 MVP for the Sox; John went 40-15 over the next three seasons. He was not the best player on those 1970s Dodger teams, nor was he the best pitcher on the early 80s Yankees, nor the mid 80s' Angels.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Throughout his career, John was never considered to be the best pitcher in baseball and was not in the discussion of the best pitcher in his league. Considering the length of his career, I find this strange. That he was a good starting pitcher, and considered as such, is beyond doubt.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

John pitched quite well in the playoffs. In league championship series, he posted a 2.07 ERA over 47 2/3 innings. He won four of five decisions. In the 1981 World Series John was excellent (with a little help from Greg Nettles) and had an ERA under one in two starts and a relief appearance. He was pulled after the 4th inning of game 6 by Bob Lemon and the Dodgers proceeded to club George Frazier and Ron Davis for seven runs.

5. Was he good enough to contribute past his prime?

In 1963, Tommy John made his first start against the Angels and lost to Dean Chance. Starting for the Angels that day at shortstop was Jim Fregosi. In 1988, John started three games against the White Sox, managed by Jim Fregosi.

Tommy John made his last start on May 25, 1989. The last two home runs he gave up were two Bill Schroeder. Schroeder was not yet five years old when Tommy John first appeared in a major league game. John won 51 games after the age of 40, but he did lose 60. More impressive is that he threw 1000 innings after he was 40.

6. Is he the best player in history not in the hall of fame?


7. Are most players with similar statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Eight of the highest 10 players comparable to John are in the Hall of Fame. Of the other two, Tom Glavine probably will be and Jim Kaat should be. Kaat is the most comparable to John in many ways. Both were tall, graceful lefties. Both threw good sinking fastballs. Both were productive pitchers into their late 30s and less so in their 40s. The big difference was Kaat was perhaps the best fielding pitcher in the history of baseball.

Before his elbow injury, John was most similar to Slim Sallee, a mainstay of the Cardinal rotation in the Dead Ball era.

8. Do the players number meet hall of fame standards?

John scores a 112 on the hall monitor and 44 on the standards. He is right on the border.

9. Is there evidence to suggest he was much better or worse than his statistics?

John got a ton of ground balls and lived and died by his ability to get a double play. He did tend to give up hits, and on teams where his infield defense was suspect he got hit hard. Look at the 1983 California Angels and their Total Zone Rating; the team is at -46 runs, including the +8 from Bob Boone. John's infield (Rod Carew, Bobby Grich, Rick Burleson and Brian Downing) were 21 runs below average.

If the defense behind him was exceptional John was a killer. When he first got to the Dodgers, John had a young Ron Cey and Bill Russell to field ground balls on the left side and he posted a 29-10 record. In winning 43 games between 1979 and 1980 in New York, John had Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles, not to mention Willie Randolph.

10. Is he the best player eligible who has not been inducted?


11. How many Cy Young type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an Cy Young Award? If not, how often did he come close?

John never won a Cy Young but did finish second in the voting two times and in the top ten four times overall. In 1977 he was beat out by Steve Carlton. In 1979 he was fairly even with Mike Flanagan, but Flanagan's Orioles won the division over John's Yankees. John may not have been the best pitcher on his team that year, as Ron Guidry finished third in the CY voting.

12. How many all star type seasons did he have? How many All Star teams did he play for? Did most other players selected to that many All Star games get elected to the Hall of Fame?

John was named to four all star teams, a low number for a hall of famer. There are a few seasons (1969-1970) with the White Sox that John was worthy of an all star berth but did not receive one.

13. If this man was the best player on his team, could his team win the pennant?

I would say no.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history?

In September of 1974, John went under the knife of LA Dodgers team physician Dr. Frank Jobe for a procedure called "ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction". Jobe replaced the UCL in John's left elbow with a ligament from John's wrist. John had pitched most of his career to that point with a damaged ligament. Jobe put his chances at a full recovery to pitching form at 1 in 100

John did not return to pitching until 1976 at age 33. He won 10 games that season. John won 164 games post surgery and enjoyed all three of his 20 win seasons after the procedure now commonly called "Tommy John surgery." The impact of this on baseball over the last 30 years has been incalculable, having extended or saved dozens  of careers. Jobe was honored by the hall of fame this last summer.

It should be remembered that the decision to do this was John's, something that Dr. Jobe has always pointed out. At that point, Tommy John could have walked away. He was 31 years old, a 12 year MLB veteran with 124 wins, 28 shutouts and an all star berth to his credit, a very respectable career for any player. He didn't, and we are all beneficiaries to his decision and Dr. Jobe's steady hands. Jobe and John (sounds like a theater candy) have been very good friends ever since.

The surgery was not performed again on a pitcher until 1985. In 2012, there were over 40 of these procedures performed.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of the Hall of Fame?

 I have not heard or read anything bad about him. In other words, I believe so.

I am on the fence about Tommy John's playing career as being hall of fame caliber. I would select Jim Kaat over him, but he deserves some sort of recognition for the surgery which bears his name. Not because it prolonged his career, but because it gave so many other ballplayers (over 450) a chance to extend their careers. This act enriched the game greatly and advanced medical science along the way. Bob Costas recently mentioned on the Dan Patrick Show that a Buck O'Neil award would be possible for John, and I agree. He didn't have to do the surgery and the intense and gut wrenching rehab at a time when his own doctor thought he had a 1% chance of pitching again.  He did,  by extension allowing us to enjoy Eric Gagne's changeup and Stephen Strasburg's overall brilliance to name a few. That kind of courage is laudable, especially when he could have walked off with something 99.8% of people do not have, a successful major league career.

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