Something interesting happened a few years ago when Bruce Sutter was on the Hall of Fame ballot. Sutter was a fantastic relief pitcher, but there did not seem much about his career that separated him from other fantastic relievers like Dan Quisenberry, Tom Henke, Sparky Lyle, Kent Tekulve or John Hiller, ones who got almost no Hall of Fame support at all.
Still, the Hall of Fame voters were intoxicated by Sutter, and when you asked people individually why this was so, many of them said this: In addition to his greatness, Sutter popularized the split-fingered fastball, a pitch that had a huge impact on the game.
I think this is a fascinating thought, and one that probably doesn't get enough consideration when everyone votes for the Hall of Fame. Beyond the stats, the production, the performance in big moments, the impact on teams, is there something extra about the player? Did the player, in his own way, fundamentally change the game of baseball?
Enter Tommy John, our fifth player on the Modern Baseball Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot.
John's career statistics put him right on the Hall of Fame cutline. He won 288 games -- only Roger Clemens has more among non-Hall of Famers. He is 20th all-time in innings pitched (4,710 1/3), eighth in starts (700) and 26th in shutouts (46).
John's advanced statistics are not quite as gaudy, but his ERA+ is solid enough (111) and he does rank top 50 in career Wins Above Replacement (62.3). Then, there's my absolute favorite John statistic: Nobody in baseball history is even close to him when it comes to forcing double plays.
Top 5 pitchers in career induced double plays
- Tommy John, 605
- Jim Kaat, 462
- Gaylord Perry, 451
- Phil Niekro, 431
- Greg Maddux, 422
The reason I love that statistic so much is that in order to force a double play, you generally need to do two things. One, you need to somehow put a runner on first base. And two, you need to force a ground ball at a fielder. These two things perfectly reflect the genius of John, who survived and then thrived without the stuff that we normally associate with great pitchers.
John came to professional baseball with a curveball and a lot of faith in himself. He learned the curveball from a friend of his father's while growing up in Terre Haute, Ind. The faith was something he was born with.
The Indians signed John out of high school, while making it abundantly clear that they were pretty unimpressed with his fastball. John was a big guy, 6-foot-3, and Cleveland's coaches and scouts wanted to believe that he could throw hard. There was no real evidence of that.
John showed up to Class D Dubuque throwing as hard as he could, and he struck out 99 in 88 innings in his first professional season in 1961. But he also walked 59 and sensed that his future wasn't as a power pitcher. Instead, John developed a sinking fastball.
John probably never threw a 90-mph fastball his entire career, but he could certainly make it drop. His pitch already had natural sink, but he worked on his delivery to get even more. The Tribe was unimpressed by these efforts and traded John and the young Tommie Agee for 31-year-old Rocky Colavito. The Indians did a lot of things like that in the 1960s and '70s.
John ended up on the White Sox, and his sinker was good enough to make him a solid starter. He was an American League All-Star in 1968 (he missed part of that year after getting into a fight with Detroit's Dick McAuliffe). Few noticed him, generally. John went 82-82 from 1965-71. The White Sox then traded him away to the Dodgers for Dick Allen.
"It's just super," John said when he learned of the trade. "If one could pick the place he wanted to play baseball, there's no better one than Los Angeles."
Things improved immediately for John. He led the National League in winning percentage in 1973, going 16-7. Johnwas having his best season in '74, leading the NL in victories, when it all went wrong.
It was July 17, 1974, Dodgers vs. Expos, and John was (as usual) trying to coax a double-play ground ball. He threw a pitch to Hal Breeden and felt his arm go numb.
"It felt as if I had left my arm someplace else," John later said. "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."
John threw one more pitch, felt the deadness in his arm again, and came out of the game.
All of this leads to what is so obvious now: John had blown out his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and what he needed was, well, Tommy John surgery. For months, nobody knew what was wrong, and John had to listen to people say the pain was in his head. Then, he had to hear people say that he hurt his arm because he overthrew in an effort to prove a point (he had not been named to the All-Star team earlier that day). Then, John had to hear again and again that if he attempted to actually repair his elbow, his career was over.
Frank Jobe was the doctor John trusted. Years before, Jobe came up with a way to repair a pitcher's elbow using a ligament from another part of the body, but he did not believe a pitcher would ever actually let him do it. The surgery would be dramatic, and if it didn't work, it would be career-ending. Even if it did work, the recovery would be grueling. But Jobe believed that it would work. And John had the surgery done, even as doubts and protests rang all around him.
It was not an easy recovery. Jobe had taken a ligament from John's right wrist and used it to replace the elbow ligament. That part worked, but there was some nerve damage, and at first, John could not feel the baseball. John worked relentlessly to come back. He often talked about Spring Training in 1975 when he taped two fingers together and threw a baseball against a wall again and again, looking like a kid throwing tennis balls against a front stoop.
After months of work, John regained the feeling in his hand. His elbow felt strong. By October, John pitched in Fall League games. He was the Dodgers' No. 5 starter in 1976 and made his first start on April 16, 21 months after the injury. John gave up three runs and took the loss -- saying afterward that he threw one bad pitch, a hanging curve that Darrell Evans bashed for a three-run homer -- but his arm felt great.
And for the next five years, John was better than ever. In 1977, he won 20 games for the first time and finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting to Steve Carlton. In '79, John signed a free-agent deal with the Yankees and won 21 games, finishing second in the AL Cy Young Award voting, this time to Mike Flanagan.
The year after that, John won 22 games. In the first eight years after having the surgery, he went 124-78 with a 3.31 ERA, notching three 20-win seasons and three All-Star Game appearances. And John just kept on pitching, all the way until he was 46 years old.
The Baseball Writers' Association of America took 15 years to determine that John was close but not quite a Hall of Famer. He got 31.7 percent of the vote in his final year on the ballot. But now that John is on the Modern Era ballot, maybe we can talk about more than his baseball career.
Sutter had a big impact on baseball by making the split-fingered fastball a popular pitch. But that pales in comparison to the impact of Tommy John surgery. You could make an argument that John's name appears in more baseball stories, conversations and arguments throughout a baseball season than the name of any former player, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds included.
It is true that John did not invent the surgery (there is a powerful argument that Jobe belongs in the Hall of Fame). But it was John's audacity to have the surgery done, his drive to work through the brutal rehab process and his amazing post-surgery success that inspired a new generation of athletes to have it done. If he had failed to make it back, the idea of Tommy John surgery might not have taken off in the same way.