Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a daily series looking at players on the Modern Era Hall of Fame ballot, which will be voted on Dec. 10. We’ll look at the cases of all 10 people on the ballot and offer our takes on their candidacy.
Tommy John is still one of the most fearful phrases in baseball today. Fans cross their fingers every season hoping their favorite team’s best pitcher keeps his ulnar collateral ligament intact. Those who aren’t so fortunate are lost to a grueling year-long rehab before they are able to return to the mound.
In the 1970s, things were even more bleak. A UCL tear meant retirement. A number of legendary careers were cut short due to arm trouble. Countless others didn’t even have the opportunity to get started.
That is, until Tommy John decided to take a big risk.
Rightly or wrongly, that’s John’s legacy. John underwent the controversial procedure in 1974, missed all of 1975 while rehabbing and pitched for 14 more seasons before retiring in 1989. The surgery that now bears John’s name still makes fans cringe, but it’s also saved hundreds, if not thousands, of careers.
That makes John one of the more intriguing candidates on the Modern Era Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. While John’s contributions extend beyond the stat sheet, it’s worth noting that he was pretty effective on the field as well.
Over 26 seasons, John posted a 3.34 ERA while winning 288 games. Pretty good for a pitcher whose career nearly ended before he turned 32.
Let’s examine his case a little further and see whether the Big League Stew writers give John their unofficial yay or nay.
LAST TIME ON THE BALLOT
John last appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot in 2009. He received just 31.7 percent of the vote. That’s a far cry from the 75 percent needed for induction. It’s also the highest vote total John received in his 15 years on the ballot.
• It’s strange, but the pitcher known for one of baseball’s most devastating surgeries had a surprisingly long career. John pitched 26 seasons, compiling steady totals in some counting stats voters seem to value. He falls short of the magical 300-win threshold, but not by much. John won 288 games during his career. Over that period, John ranked seventh in innings pitched. That’s partially due to pitching for so long, but it’s tough to blame him for wanting to hang on as long as possible after his career was nearly over early.
• John’s career 3.34 ERA was good for a 111 ERA+, which means he was 11 percent better than the league-average when he pitched. That’s not elite, though it’s comparable to some other players in the Hall of Fame. Early Wynn, for example, had a 107 ERA+. Don Sutton clocked in at a 108 ERA+.
• Let’s face it, John’s off the field contributions play a huge role here. His decision to have his ulnar collateral ligament repaired changed baseball history. Without John, we may not have had the opportunity to experience some exceptional careers. While you can argue another pitcher would have eventually had the surgery, John had the courage and determination to try it first. Not only that, but he proved pitchers could come back and last 14 seasons. That’s an incredible accomplishment.
• John’s counting stats are fine, but not elite. He falls short with 288 wins and his 3.34 ERA makes him more of a borderline guy and not a slam dunk.
• John never led the league in any significant statistical categories. He never had the most innings pitched, or wins or strikeouts. He led the league in winning percentage and shutouts twice. And he once had the best walk rate in the majors, but that’s it. He never won the Cy Young award. He made four All-Star teams. He never threw a no-hitter or perfect game, and doesn’t have a signature on-field performance.
• John’s longevity makes him look like more of a compiler. He was consistently above average, but rarely great. Looking primarily at his stats could be misleading.
The comps actually make John look pretty good. According to Baseball-Reference, John’s career was similar to Robin Roberts, Early Wynn, Fergie Jenkins and Bert Blylevan. All four of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. The first three made it in after three or four tries. Blylevan had to wait 14 seasons before getting the call.
John’s best comp, however, is not a Hall of Famer. Jim Kaat had the most similar career to John and he didn’t sniff the Hall. His vote totals were roughly the same as well. He topped out at 29.6 percent of the vote in 1993. He was another pitcher who hung around a long time, pitching for 25 seasons. His 3.45 ERA is also eerily similar, and good for a 108 ERA+.
OUR TAKES: SHOULD JOHN BE IN THE HALL OF FAME?
YES: John’s stats make him a borderline candidate. Based on that alone, I would say no. But his contributions away from the game are enough to push him over the edge for me. Tommy John changed the baseball. I think that matters. (Chris Cwik)
NO: I think you need to separate the man from the surgery for this. The surgery is revolutionary and impactful for baseball, but he wasn’t the doctor who pioneered it. He was just the person to whom it happened. While that’s an important story, it doesn’t make John a Hall of Famer. (Mike Oz)
YES: There are a lot of factors that should determine whether a player belongs in the Hall. John’s stats might not be as shiny as other players in his era (his strikeout rate especially), but stats aren’t the only thing the Hall of Fame is about. John was a brave pioneer who changed baseball — his contribution will continue to be felt for years and years. Pair that with his stats, and to me, he absolutely belongs. (Liz Roscher)
NO: When baseball season is in full swing, not a day goes without Tommy John being mentioned or at least thought of because of having name attached to a game-changing operation. That tells us his place in baseball history will always be secure, but at the same time his playing career simply wasn’t worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown. (Mark Townsend)
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