The best Tommy John success stories

August 24th, 2023

Tommy John surgery is the most famous medical procedure in all of sports, and even though the road to recovery is long for the players who have it, the surgery has a lasting legacy because it has saved countless careers.

Well over 1,000 professional pitchers have had the ulnar collateral ligament in their pitching elbow reconstructed since Dr. Frank Jobe first operated on Tommy John himself on Sept. 25, 1974. Tommy John surgery has made it possible for many pitchers to come back from UCL tears and do great things in Major League Baseball.

Here's a look back at some of the most notable pitchers who overcame career-threatening injuries thanks to successful Tommy John surgery, with help from Jon Roegele's extensive Tommy John database. We're not including position players (with one notable two-way exception), even though a lot of big names have had Tommy John surgery, like Bryce Harper, Matt Holliday, Carl Crawford, Paul Molitor and more. But Tommy John surgery has had an especially profound impact on pitchers.

Here are 12 of the best Tommy John success stories.

1) Jacob deGrom 
Date of surgery: Oct. 10, 2010 
Return: May 7, 2012 

No starting pitcher had ever won a Cy Young Award after undergoing Tommy John surgery -- until deGrom. The Mets ace broke the barrier with his back-to-back NL Cy Young-winning seasons in 2018 and '19. (Several starters have won the award before the surgery, and one relief pitcher has won it after, but more on him later.)

deGrom had Tommy John surgery in 2010, all the way back in Rookie ball, long before he ascended to the top of the Mets' rotation. By the end of the decade, he was one of the elite aces in MLB. Even before he made Cy Young history, deGrom was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2014, and he helped lead the Mets to the NL pennant in '15.

In 2023, in his first season with the Rangers, deGrom had to undergo a second Tommy John surgery. Hopefully he'll come back to dominate again and make this list twice.

2) Justin Verlander 
Date of surgery: Sept. 30, 2020
Return: April 9, 2022

There's now a second pitcher to return from Tommy John surgery and win a Cy Young Award. Verlander, remarkably, did it in his first season back from Tommy John -- and at age 39.

Verlander had already won two Cy Young Awards before his Tommy John surgery (not to mention his MVP trophy and World Series ring). And the 3,000-strikeout club member was already headed for the Hall of Fame before he returned from the procedure in 2022.

What he did that season only added to his legacy. Verlander went 18-4 with a Major League-best 1.75 ERA and 185 strikeouts, then led the Astros to a second World Series championship. His third Cy Young made him one of 11 pitchers ever to win the award three times.

3) Shohei Ohtani  
Date of surgery: Oct. 1, 2018
Return (as pitcher): July 26, 2020 

From Tommy John to MVP. And not just MVP, but one of the most unique seasons in MLB history. As always, Shohei Ohtani is one of a kind. 

The two-way superstar tore his UCL late in his rookie year. That ended his season on the mound, but not in the lineup. The very same day he learned he would need Tommy John surgery, Ohtani blasted two home runs. He completed the year as a hitter before undergoing his surgery at the end of the season. And he was named AL Rookie of the Year.

But the reason Ohtani is on this list is what happened after he finally returned to the mound: his unprecedented two-way MVP season in 2021. Ohtani finished the season 46 home runs, 26 stolen bases and 100 RBIs as a hitter ... and a 9-2 record, 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts as a pitcher.

Then, in 2022, he did it all again: 34 home runs, 11 stolen bases and 95 RBIs as a hitter and a 15-9 record, 2.33 ERA and 219 strikeouts as a pitcher. Only Aaron Judge's historic 62-homer season stopped Ohtani from winning a second straight MVP Award.

4) John Smoltz
Date of surgery: March 23, 2000
Return: May 17, 2001

Smoltz is the first Hall of Famer to be enshrined in Cooperstown after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Before his surgery 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 alongside Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

When he returned in 2001, Smoltz 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.

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 he's a World Series champion and one of the most dominant postseason pitchers of all time. The 2019 World Series MVP has a 1.46 career playoff ERA.

6) Eric Gagne
Date of surgery: 1997
Return: 1998

Gagne is the only reliever to win a Cy Young Award after coming back from Tommy John surgery, and he was the only pitcher, period, until deGrom joined him. Gagne had the surgery when he was still a starter in the Dodgers' Minor League system, missing all of 1997 following his first professional season at Class A. He recovered, reached the Majors in 1999, and after three years as a starter 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 during 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.

7) Jonny Venters
Dates of surgery: 2005, 2013, 2014
Return: April 25, 2018

One of baseball's most remarkable comeback stories, Venters is one of the only pitchers 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 needed a second Tommy John in 2013, and as he tried to rehab, he tore his UCL again, requiring a third surgery.

Even crazier: 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, 2018, 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, where he helped his original team win the NL East.

Jason Isringhausen is really the only other comeback story similar to Venters. The longtime A's and Cardinals reliever began his career in 1995 as a starter with the Mets and finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. But the right-hander went to the bullpen after the first of his three elbow reconstructive surgeries in 1998, and went on to be an All-Star closer in Oakland and St. Louis, where he led the NL with 47 saves in 2004. Isringhausen came back from his later operations to finish up a 16-year career.

8) 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 NL Cy Young voting. The leader of the Cardinals staff had gone 39-19 with a 2.53 ERA and 425 strikeouts from 2009-10. Wainwright 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 year, he was back to his ace form. Wainwright finished in the top three of Cy Young voting again in 2013 and '14.

Beloved by the St. Louis fans, Wainwright was still throwing postseason gems in 2019, at age 37, and even in 2021, at age 39. He's a Cardinals icon, spending his entire 18-year MLB career with the franchise.

9) Rich Hill
Date of surgery: June 9, 2011
Return: April 29, 2012

Hill had a long journey to become a valuable arm for the Dodgers' pennant-winning teams in 2017 and '18. Part of that was a comeback from 2011 Tommy John surgery, the second major surgery of his career after he had a torn labrum in his left shoulder repaired in 2009. Following his return from Tommy John in 2012, Hill bounced around the Majors and Minors until he was released by the Nationals in 2015.

With few options, Hill signed with the independent-league Long Island Ducks. 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 that's when he started spinning curveballs in L.A.

Years later, he's still going at age 43.

10) Seunghwan Oh
Date of surgery: 2001
Return: 2003

Tommy John surgery has helped pitchers across the world, not just in U.S. baseball. Oh made it to the Major Leagues as a lockdown reliever, 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.

Oh 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. He returned to the KBO and rejoined the Lions in 2019.

11) 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 titles -- one each 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.

12) 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. Dr. 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).

John pitched until he was 46, and the only start he ever missed after the surgery was because he had the flu. Most importantly, 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.