Thanks to the groundbreaking surgery that bears his name, Tommy John’s legacy endures as much as any pitcher from his generation. But is that legacy, combined with the breadth of his achievements on the field, enough to put him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame?
The Hall’s 16-member Modern Baseball Era electorate will vote on John and nine other players and luminaries from the 1970s and ‘80s on Sunday at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, and candidates must receive at least 12 votes to earn a spot in the Hall’s famous Plaque Gallery. You can watch the announcement on MLB Network on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.
It’s another chance for John, who lasted the maximum 15 years on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot (peaking at 31.7% in his final year of consideration in 2009) before falling short in successive attempts in front of Veterans Committee electorates for the Classes of 2011, ’14 and ’18. The Hall did honor John alongside Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgeon who performed the eponymous “Tommy John” surgery by repairing John’s torn elbow ligament and extending the hurler’s career, during its annual awards ceremony in ’13.
Before the Modern Baseball Era voters debate John’s Cooperstown merits in December, here’s a look at the cases for and against the pitcher’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020.
The case for John’s election
• While Jobe’s risky surgery helped John accumulate the years and statistics worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, the 18 months he missed to recover from the procedure actually might have kept him from reaching 300 wins -- the figure that provided the easiest path to Cooperstown for pitchers of his time.
But while John didn’t reach that magic round number, he did retire with 288 career victories. Only six pitchers -- Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry and Nolan Ryan -- won more games than John during the span of his career (1963-89), and all of them are in the Hall. So too are of four the next six pitchers behind him on that list: Fergie Jenkins (284), Bert Blyleven (271), Jim Palmer (268) and Catfish Hunter (224). Roger Clemens (354) is the only modern-era pitcher with more wins than John who is not enshrined in Cooperstown.
Pitcher wins don't carry much weight in today’s baseball climate, but they certainly did when John pitched -- and few moundsmen won more games in his day.
• From the narrative side, it’s hard to tell baseball’s story -- particularly in the late 1970s and early ‘80s -- without mentioning John. That’s because in addition to the impact of his surgery, John was legitimately a top-10 pitcher for two of the sport’s biggest franchises.
In his second season back from the operating table, John won 20 games with a 2.78 ERA and finished runner-up to Carlton in the 1977 National League Cy Young Award vote. The lefty then logged three more top-10 Cy Young Award finishes in as many years, first with the Dodgers in ’78 and then with the Yankees in ’79 and ’80, while going 80-35 with a 3.12 ERA overall in that four-year stretch. The Dodgers and Yankees squared off in three out of five World Series from ’77-81, and John pitched in all three of those Fall Classics. Unfortunately, it was always for the losing side.
• Another argument for John’s prominence in baseball history: He was a part of it for an incredibly long time. In fact, Ryan is the only pitcher who appeared in more Major League seasons than John’s 26, all the more remarkable because John tallied more campaigns after his potentially career-ending moment than before it.
• If you’re looking for the closest Hall of Fame comp for John, it might not even be a starting pitcher. Instead, it might be reliever Bruce Sutter, who earned a checkmark from many Hall voters based, in large part, because of his pioneering of the split-fingered fastball. Sutter rode that wipeout pitch to an excellent career, but he didn’t necessarily stand head and shoulders above some of the other great relievers of his era. The same could be said for John and his peers, but the impact of John’s surgery and subsequent recovery is felt much more in today’s game than Sutter’s splitter.
The case against John’s election
• It’s fair to profile John as more of a “compiler” than a hands-down dominant figure in the game. He never led his league in wins, ERA, strikeouts or innings pitched, and he was voted to the All-Star Game just four times over his 26 seasons.
• Apart from accolades like All-Star nods and Cy Young Awards, one of the best metrics for measuring a player’s peak is WAR7, a component of baseball writer Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system that looks at the total WAR from the best seven seasons of a player’s career (they don’t have to be in succession). John’s WAR7 is 34.6, per Baseball-Reference, which puts him in a tie for 164th all-time after the 2019 campaign. That WAR7 does tie John with Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, but it also puts him behind several recent pitchers who don’t figure to have a strong case in Hall voting, including Bartolo Colon (35.6), Mark Buehrle (35.8) and Javier Vazquez (36.0), who didn’t make the BBWAA ballot in ’16. Ford, of course, had far more postseason achievements on his Cooperstown resume than John.
• Adjusting John’s career 3.34 ERA for the era and league he played in leaves him with a 111 ERA+, or 11% better than the Major League average over the breadth of his career. That’s tied for 150th among pitchers with at least 1,500 innings in the Live Ball Era (1920-present), and only eight pitchers (Burleigh Grimes, Jesse Haines, Hunter, Morris, Herb Pennock, Red Ruffing, Sutton and Early Wynn) are in the Hall of Fame with an ERA+ less than or equal to that 111 mark. Only three of those pitchers -- Hunter, Sutton and Morris -- debuted after the Majors were fully integrated and expanded to 20 teams in 1962.
• Jack Morris is the only starting pitcher elected by the Veterans Committee since the Hall revised the system to evaluate eras on a rotating basis in the winter of 2010. John and Luis Tiant were the only non-elected starters who had appeared on Veterans Committee ballots at least three times this decade, and now John is the only pitcher who will receive a fourth such chance, since Tiant did not make this year’s ballot. Neither pitcher came close to the 75% threshold when they appeared before the Modern Baseball Era electorate two years ago.
After failing to gain election in any of his 18 prior auditions for Hall of Fame voters, it would seem unlikely that No. 19 will suddenly be the charm for John.