Two Men Joined at the Elbow

When considering people who have made baseball better, of course the name Branch Rickey immediately comes to mind. By signing Jackie Robinson to a Dodger contract, Branch Rickey opened the door of Major League Baseball to African-Americans.  In 1974, an orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe introduced a surgical procedure of replacing a damaged ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow of the throwing arm with a tendon from the forearm of the other arm. This procedure saved the careers of many players. The ballplayer that was the first to undergo this surgery was Tommy John. This surgery became known as the Tommy John Surgery or just the TJS. When Dr. Jobe was asked why the surgery was called the Tommy John Surgery. He said, “Since Tommy and John are both first names it just flowed.” There are currently 366 pitchers among all players on active rosters of Major League Teams. Of those, approximately 25% have had the TJS. What brought me to this topic was the partial tear of the UCL suffered by Matt Harvey of the Mets.

Dr Frank Jobe was the team physician for the Dodgers. In 1974, Tommy John, a 31 year old left-handed pitcher for the L.A. Dodgers, was pitching against the Montreal Expos. After delivering a pitch he felt a tremendous pain in his elbow. He just walked off the mound toward the dugout, passing his manager Walter Alston who was coming out to see what was wrong. Besides being the Dodger team doctor, he was also a friend of Tommy’s. In those days there was no MRI. Tommy was told to rest his arm for six weeks. When the rest failed to relieve the pain, Tommy told Dr. Jobe to fix the elbow. After opening up the elbow to see the damage, Dr. Jobe said to Tommy, “I don’t know how to fix this ligament damage.” But Dr. Jobe remembered working at a hospital with polio patients who needed tendons to be removed. This previous work led him to design this new revolutionary surgery. He told Tommy it is a 1 in 100 chance you will again pitch in the Majors with this surgery but without the surgery you have zero chance of pitching again. Tommy said to his friend, “Just do it.” When asked in an interview which player was most successful after the surgery, Tommy said, “It was I.” The statistics back up his claim.

Tommy John had a 26 year pitching career from 1963 to 1989. His pre-TJS period was from 1963 to 1974; his post-TJS period extended from 1976 to 1989. The table below compares his statistics for these two periods

Tommy John's Pitching Statistics

Observe, he had more wins and pitched more innings after the surgery. In the first five years after the surgery he placed in the top four in three Cy Young votes. John built a resume worthy of consideration for the Hall of Fame. He made four All-Star appearances. His total of 4,710 innings ranks 20thall-time, and he is 26th in both wins and shutouts (46). . From 1977 to 1981 he helped the Dodgers and Yankees to four postseason appearances and three pennants. Also, looking at the website baseball-reference, of the 10 pitchers he is most similar to seven are in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, he is 12 wins short of 300 (the magic number for a pitcher to join the Hall of Fame) and he never led his league in any of the three big categories of wins, ERA or strikeouts. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years and his best percentage vote was in 2009 when he received 31.7% of the votes, far short of the required 75%.

To be continued. . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *