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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #65 Tommy John

The sinkerballer is more than just a surgery namesake.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Name: Thomas Edward “Tommy” John Jr.
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: May 22, 1943 (Terre Haute, IN)
Yankee Years: 1979-82, 1986-89
Primary number: 25
Yankee statistics: 1,367 IP, 214 G, 91-60, 3.90 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 112 ERA+, 53 CG, 12 SHO, 483 K, 24.0 fWAR, 19.9 rWAR

Biography

Outside of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, there may be no name more ubiquitous in baseball than Tommy John, although that’s most often in the context of a ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery that’s become endemic to the game. There’s a man behind the procedure, however, and his career is about more than his surgery and return to the game.

Fittingly, John ended up being one of the longest-tenured MLB players ever, appearing in 26 seasons with six clubs, tied for the third-most MLB campaigns in history. Seven and a half of those years came with the Yankees in two stints, where he averaged 3.5 fWAR/200 innings pitched, a strong-to-great presence in the rotation, garnering Cy Young votes despite playing for a team that was in a topsy-turvy decade after two World Series victories.

Armed with a curveball learned on suburban Indiana sandlots, John signed with Cleveland as an 18-year old, turning down a basketball scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky. While his curve was already considered major league caliber, the risk in the signing was the lack of a real plus fastball, and an attempt at building velocity contributed to dreadful command in his professional debut season with Class-A Charleston.

We’re pretty used to the concept of “pitching backward” in 2023, but John’s path to the majors, driven by a curveball-heavy approach and mixing in a fastball better known for its sink than its velocity, was fairly novel for the time, especially when contemporaries like Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton were changing fans’ minds on the value of a hard fastball. It took Tommy less than two full minor league seasons before he was added to Cleveland’s MLB roster, debuting on September 6, 1963.

As you can guess from the abovementioned six MLB clubs, he wasn’t long for the Forest City, becoming a piece in a three-way trade with the White Sox and Kansas City Athletics and breaking onto Chicago’s roster as a swingman. In the Second City, John began to blossom into a strong rotation piece, putting up 25 fWAR, almost a third of his total career value, in his seven seasons with the Pale Hose. If you prefer rWAR, three of his last four seasons in Chicago were worth more than five wins apiece.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

A December 1971 trade to the Dodgers brought about another change in philosophy for Tommy John, as pitching coach Red Adams encouraged a contact-oriented approach rather than trying to fool hitters with a breaking ball. Adams and John hit it off immediately, and in his first three seasons out West he threw 557.2 innings with a 2.89 ERA. And then, midway through 1974, came the surgery.

Medical Innovation

Pitching is really quite a gross thing. If you’ve ever looked up slo-mo video of pitchers’ deliveries, it’s easy to see the pressure and stress their elbows fall under. The ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, runs along the inside crook of the elbow, the exact place where most rotation and thus most stress are in delivery.

It’s at this point in the story that Tommy John’s baseball legacy becomes inextricably tied up with Frank Jobe, an orthopedic surgeon and the Dodgers’ team doctor. In the third inning of a night game on July 17th, John tore his left UCL, describing the sensation later thusly:

“It felt as if I had left my arm someplace else. It was as if my body continued to go forward and my left arm had just flown out to right field, independent of the rest of me”

Ligament tears have been a part of the game since we first picked up a ball and started hucking it, but so much of the history of these injuries had been undocumented because no concrete treatments were available. We simply don’t know how many pitchers at the minor or major league level blew their elbows and were forced out of the game, or how many established veterans saw their careers nosedive because they tried to pitch through this kind of traumatic injury. Indeed, after being yanked from that July 17th start, Tommy was advised by Jobe to rest and ice his elbow, with the expectation he’d maybe miss a single start before rejoining the rotation. In reality, he wouldn’t pitch again until 1976.

In the days following that one fateful pitch, John’s left elbow began to spasm and ache to the point that sleep became difficult. Pain persisted for a month before Tommy informed the Dodgers his season was over. It was no easy decision, as LA was en route to winning its first pennant in eight years and John had never experienced postseason play. But he ended his campaign with a sterling 2.59 ERA, and began his offseason with a critical conversation with Jobe. The doctor took the concept of a ligament replacement — taking a tendon from the opposite side of the body and grafting it into the injured area — which had been widely performed on hands and wrists. This approach had never been undertaken with the elbow, nor with the expectation that the repaired ligament would be subject to the stress of overhand throwing.

Jobe himself gave John a one-percent chance of returning to the majors, but staring down the alternative — quite literally selling used cars back in Terre Haute — Tommy took that chance. The initial four-hour surgery successfully replaced the ligament, however John struggled with sensation and grip due to the damage to the ulnar nerve. A follow-up surgery in November rerouted the nerve, giving him the ability to grip a baseball again and provided an important note for future surgeries, as nerve rerouting is now done at the same time as the UCL replacement.

Comeback

So, you’ve come through a first-of-its-kind surgery. Now how do you rehab when nobody really knows the path to recovery?

In a cast until January 1975, John began a workout regimen seven days a week to restore strength to his then-shriveled left arm, and enlisted the help of teammate Mike Marshall. Marshall, who held a graduate degree in kinesiology, claimed to have a better understanding of pitching mechanics than contemporary pitching coaches, and rebuilt John’s delivery to assuage some of that stress and pressure.

Still, the entire 1975 campaign was devoted to rehab. By the end of the year Tommy was taking the mound in instructional league, and while he was in essence relearning to pitch, the proof of concept was there. Pitchers could work through catastrophic UCL failure, and the Tommy John surgery began to enter popular lexicon. For his part, Jobe refused to perform another such surgery until 1976, waiting for two full years of recovery and observation before feeling confident the procedure could be repeated in others.

April 16, 1976 should have been an unremarkable day in the baseball calendar. The fifth day of the major league season, all the Opening Day festivities were in the rearview mirror, but perhaps the season’s most important moment came at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, where Tommy John took the ball for the Dodgers after 639 days of injury, rehab, and speculation. It wasn’t a great outing — five innings, three earned runs and a loss — but it was a pioneering moment in the game. John went on to throw 202 more innings that season, another three and a half win year as he re-established himself as a dependable arm, albeit one experimented on like none before.

The Peak

With the press dubbing him the Bionic Man, you’d be forgiven for looking at the next run of seasons and thinking that Dr. Jobe really did add some sort of cybernetic component to Tommy’s elbow. He reached the 20-win plateau in 1977, a five-win season that saw him finish second in Cy Young voting. Facing off twice against winner Steve Carlton in the NLCS, John’s first taste of postseason action, the lefty managed to outpitch Carlton in both outings as LA won the pennant.

The Dodgers were eventually dusted by the Yankees in the World Series, but not far removed from his lowest moment, Tommy John was close to the peak of the sport.

1978 saw John garner Cy Young votes once more, and he was named to the All-Star team for the first time in a decade. The Dodgers’ run in October would be eerily similar to the previous season however, as they beat the Phillies only to lose to the Yankees in the Fall Classic. At the end of his contract, John would leave the Dodgers and indeed the Senior Circuit itself, heading east as the Yankees’ newest free agent acquisition.

It was a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” as both the Reds and Royals offered more than the three-year, $1.4 million terms John agreed to. In his own words, “I like to play for a winner.”

1988 Tommy John Photo by Steve Crandall/Getty Images

The great irony of that statement is the Yankees were entering that downturn period of the 1980s, where they would field good teams but never great ones, and go 18 seasons without another championship team.

Atop the rotation with reigning AL Cy Young winner Ron Guidry, John was arguably the best pitcher in the American League, finishing second in the Cy Young race once again. The season kicked off with Tommy winning his first nine decisions, and while Gator struck out 90 more batters in 40 fewer innings, the two ended with remarkably similar years in terms of ERA, FIP, and indeed Cy voting.

Unfortunately John’s own words about a winner came back to bite the Yankees. Plagued by an underwhelming offense — only the second-year Toronto Blue Jays scored fewer runs in the AL East — New York finished fourth in the division and after back to back shots at a title, Tommy John found himself sitting at home in October. It hurt on a far deeper level than the playing field could offer, too, as the man he thought he’d be pitching too on a regular basis from then on, Thurman Munson, tragically passed away in an early-August plane crash.

Character Hire

The 1980 season was more of the same, another 23 wins and leading the league with six shutouts. Tommy John was fourth in Cy Young voting this time, but bounce-back campaigns from the likes of Reggie Jackson, and Willie Randolph’s breakout season, brought the Yankee offense back into the limelight. With 103 wins, the Yankees were the best team in baseball. Unfortunately, they ran into that old nemesis in the Kansas City Royals, who finally notched some revenge in the two teams’ fourth postseason meeting in five years.

John was tasked with avoiding the sweep, getting the ball for Game 3 at home.

Up 2-1 in the seventh, John retired the first two Royals in the inning before surrendering a double to Willie Wilson, bringing Dick Howser out to swap in Goose Gossage. A batter later, up stepped George Brett, who effectively ended the Yankees’ season and though he couldn't have known it at the time, the prime of John’s career.

1981 may be considered Tommy’s annus horribilis, as the season was bifurcated by a strike but more importantly, John’s two-year-old son Travis fell from an open window, striking his head on the fender of a parked car. The Yankees were in Detroit, where Tommy received a panicked phone call from his wife. He left the team that very day, holding vigil in Travis’ hospital room while the toddler lay in a 19-day coma.

Incredibly, John made two starts at home while Travis was in care, including a 9.1 inning, two earned run effort against Minnesota that rendered a no decision. Tommy John is rightfully admired for his determination and sheer willpower returning from an experimental surgery, but I think this moment is the signature of his career. In similar ways to CC Sabathia a generation later, he understood that some things are more important than baseball, even at a time the Yankees were run under the very iron fist of George Steinbrenner.

Traded to the Angels midway through the 1982 campaign, John would have a second stint with the Yankees in the twilight years of his career, putting up 7.5 fWAR in those final four seasons. More than WAR, though, his greatness is measured in those two indelible challenges. The same determination and work ethic that took a probable Kentucky basketball star to the major leagues on the strength of a curveball was what guided a hellacious, unprecedented rehab.

The same daring and analytical thinking that allowed Tommy John to carve out a terrific major league career while topping out at 85 mph drove the decision to go under the knife in the first place. The perceived futile efforts, being a real star in his first turn for the Yankees in what’s seen today as a dark period for the franchise, is such a significant driver in him never getting more than a 31-percent vote share for the Hall of Fame, despite a numbers case that if nothing else should get him in the conversation. Subsequent Veterans Committee votes have also left John on the outside looking in.

But moreover, the self-awareness and grit that a pitcher must possess to last 26 seasons at the game’s highest level is the same that would drive a man to walk away from his team in the middle of a playoff race, because his son needed a father more than the Yankees needed a pitcher. Tommy John’s name is etched into the book of baseball forever, but the highlight of his career may be him choosing, for two weeks in August, not to play at all.

Staff Rank: 65
Community Rank: 65
Stats Rank: 62
2013 Rank: 61

References:

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

Retrosheet

SABR Bio

“Biologic Augmentation of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in the Elbow of a Professional Baseball Pitcher”, Hoffman, Protzman et al, 2015

“Frank Jobe, Surgeon Who Saved Pitchers’ Careers, Dies at 88” New York Times, 2014

“Tommy John: The Most Famous Baseball Player Not In The Hall Of Fame” Sports Illustrated, 2020

Previously on the Top 100

66. Orlando Hernández
Full list to date