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Top 10 Tommy John success stories

Smoltz, deGrom among 10 top pitchers whose careers were saved
September 23, 2018

Like so many others, Jacob deGrom bears the trademark hooked scar on the inside of his pitching arm -- the one that's produced a Major League-leading 1.77 ERA this season and made him the National League Cy Young Award front-runner.deGrom had Tommy John surgery in 2010, long before he ascended

Like so many others, Jacob deGrom bears the trademark hooked scar on the inside of his pitching arm -- the one that's produced a Major League-leading 1.77 ERA this season and made him the National League Cy Young Award front-runner.
deGrom had Tommy John surgery in 2010, long before he ascended to the top of the Mets' rotation. He's one of well over 1,000 professional pitchers who have had their ulnar collateral ligament reconstructed since Dr. Frank Jobe first operated on Tommy John himself on Sept. 25, 1974 -- 44 years ago Tuesday.
The once-revolutionary procedure that now bears John's name has become the most famous surgery in sports. Tommy John surgery has helped save the careers of countless pitchers, from its original recipient, to some of the top aces in the game today, like deGrom.
In honor of the anniversary of the original Tommy John surgery, looks at some of the most notable pitchers who overcame career-threatening injuries after undergoing the procedure -- with help from Jon Roegele's extensive Tommy John database. Position players are not included, even though many notable ones have had the surgery, too, including: rookie sensation Gleyber Torres, MVP candidate Matt Carpenter, 14-year veteran Shin-Soo Choo, seven-time All-Star Matthew Holliday, longtime outfielder Carl Crawford and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. But because of the profound impact the surgery has had on pitchers, they're the focus here.
Here are 10 of the best Tommy John success stories.
1. Jonny Venters
Dates of surgery: 2005, 2013, 2014
Return: April 25, 2018
One of baseball's most remarkable comeback stories, Venters is the only pitcher to make it back to the big leagues after three Tommy John surgeries. The left-hander had his first procedure in 2005, in Class A. He made it to the Majors with the Braves in 2010 and was an All-Star in 2011. But he hurt his elbow and needed a second Tommy John in 2013. As he tried to rehab from that surgery, he tore his UCL again, requiring a third surgery. And as he rehabbed from the third Tommy John, he tore his UCL a fourth time.
But the way the ligament was torn allowed Dr. Neal ElAttrache to reattach it using a different procedure. Venters came back again. On April 25, more than five years after his last MLB game, Venters made it back to the mound with the Rays. In July, they traded him back to Atlanta, and now Venters has a 2.45 ERA in 25 games for a Braves team that just clinched the NL East.

2. Jacob deGrom
Date of surgery: Oct. 10, 2010
Return: May 7, 2012
No starting pitcher has ever won a Cy Young Award after undergoing Tommy John surgery. That could change this season, as deGrom appears to be the favorite in the NL ahead of Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola. (Several starters have won the award before the surgery, and one relief pitcher has won it after, but more on him later.) The Mets ace had Tommy John surgery in rookie ball; in the eight years since, he's become one of the best pitchers in the league. deGrom is a two-time All-Star, he was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2014, and he helped lead the Mets to the NL pennant in 2015 and a Wild Card berth in '16.

3. Rich Hill
Date of surgery: June 9, 2011
Return: April 29, 2012
Hill has become a valuable starter for the NL West-leading Dodgers, and he was a key piece of the rotations that helped Los Angeles make it to the NLCS in 2016 and the World Series last season. But he's taken a long, difficult road to get here. Part of that road was a comeback from 2011 Tommy John surgery -- the second major surgery of his career; he had a torn labrum in his left shoulder repaired in 2009. After his return in 2012, Hill bounced around the Majors and Minors over the next several seasons, until he found himself released by the Nationals in 2015.
With few options, Hill signed with the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Leagues. He pitched two games for them before the Red Sox made him a Minor League offer in August. Hill earned a September callup, and his success down the stretch turned into a free-agent deal with the A's that offseason. Hill was stellar in the first half of 2016 with Oakland, the Dodgers got him at the Trade Deadline, and he's been spinning curveballs in Los Angeles ever since.

4. Adam Wainwright
Date of surgery: Feb. 28, 2011
Return: April 7, 2012
When Wainwright tore his UCL in Spring Training of 2011, he was coming off back-to-back top-three finishes in the NL Cy Young voting -- the leader of the Cardinals staff had gone 39-19 with a 2.53 ERA and 425 strikeouts in 463 1/3 innings over 67 starts from 2009-10. He missed all of the 2011 season, but he was ready for Opening Day 2012. That first season, he proved he still had the arm strength to be a Major League workhorse, making 32 starts and pitching 198 2/3 innings with a 3.94 ERA. And the next season, he was back to his ace form.
Wainwright finished in the top three of Cy Young voting again in 2013 and '14. He went a combined 39-18 with a 2.67 ERA and 398 strikeouts in 468 2/3 innings over 66 starts in that span -- a stat line very closely resembling the two-year stretch he had right before the surgery. And Waino is still toeing the rubber for the Cards at age 37 as St. Louis fights for a playoff spot.

5. Stephen Strasburg
Date of surgery: Sept. 3, 2010
Return: Sept. 6, 2011
Strasburg made one of the most anticipated MLB debuts in recent memory for the Nationals on June 8, 2010, and he was electric from the start, striking out 14 batters in that first game. But just 12 starts into his career, he tore his UCL, putting everything on hold. Strasburg returned from his Tommy John surgery late in 2011, and now over nine big league seasons, he has a 3.14 ERA and has struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings. He's been an All-Star three times, led the league with 242 strikeouts in 2014 and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting last season. Strasburg also has a 0.47 ERA and 24 strikeouts in three postseason starts between 2014 and '17.

6. Seunghwan Oh
Date of surgery: 2001
Return: 2003
Tommy John surgery has helped pitchers across the world, not just in U.S. baseball. Oh is in the Major Leagues now, but he had the surgery when he was in college at Dankook University in South Korea. Oh was drafted by the Korea Baseball Organization's Samsung Lions in 2005, and he soon became their star closer. The Final Boss saved 277 games in nine seasons in the KBO, before jumping to Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball in 2014, where he saved 80 more in two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers. He finally came to the Majors in 2016, and posted a 1.92 ERA in his first year with the Cardinals, winning their closer job midseason. This year, he's bolstered the Rockies' bullpen as they chase a playoff spot.

7. John Smoltz
Date of surgery: March 23, 2000
Return: May 17, 2001
Smoltz is one of the most famous Tommy John success stories, the first Hall of Famer to be enshrined in Cooperstown after undergoing the surgery. Before his Tommy John in 2000, Smoltz was a Cy Young winner (1996) and four-time All-Star as part of arguably the greatest starting rotation in Major League history, along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. When he returned in 2001, he converted into a reliever -- and he was just as dominant. In Smoltz's first full season as closer in 2002, he led the Majors with 55 saves, and he saved 40-plus games in each of the next two seasons. Smoltz then transitioned back into the Atlanta starting rotation in 2005, at age 38, and was an All-Star two of the next three years.

8. Eric Gagne
Date of surgery: 1997
Return: 1998
Gagne is the only pitcher to come back from Tommy John surgery and win a Cy Young Award. He had the surgery when he was still a starting pitcher in the Dodgers' Minor League system, missing all of 1997 following his first professional season in 1996 at Class A. He recovered, reached the Majors in 1999, and after three years as a starter he moved to the bullpen in 2002.
The move was a huge success. Gagne had 52 saves for Los Angeles that season, then 55 in 2003 to win the NL Cy Young, then 45 in 2004. He was an All-Star all three seasons, and as part of his run converted an MLB-record 84 straight saves. Gagne was the first closer with multiple 50-save seasons, and he's still one of just three to accomplish that feat, along with Mariano Rivera and Jim Johnson.

9. David Wells
Date of surgery: April 10, 1985
Return: 1986
Boomer was one of the earliest players to have Tommy John surgery, and one of the earliest success stories. He had the surgery as a Blue Jays Minor Leaguer in 1985, and two years later, the big lefty was making his Major League debut. Wells went on to pitch 21 seasons in the big leagues, winning 239 games and a pair of World Series -- one apiece with Toronto (1992) and the Yankees (1998). Wells was a three-time All-Star, the ALCS MVP in 1998 for a Yankees team that was one of the greatest of all time, and he pitched a perfect game for New York on May 17 of that season. It all came after Tommy John.

10. Tommy John
Date of surgery: Sept. 25, 1974
Return: April 16, 1976
Finally, the man himself -- the pioneer of the surgery that's had such a far-reaching impact on baseball. Jobe gave Tommy John a 1-in-100 chance of pitching again after the surgery, and John took it. Not only did he pitch again, he pitched for more than a decade. John won 164 games over 14 seasons after undergoing his eponymous surgery. That's more than half his career (which spanned 26 seasons), and more than half his career wins (288). He pitched until he was 46, and the only start he ever missed after the surgery was because he had the flu. Most important, though, John was a trailblazer for all the pitchers who have had the surgery since and been able to return to the mound. His legacy reaches far beyond his numbers on the field.

David Adler is a reporter for based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.