By Jay Jaffe
Dr. Frank Jobe changed baseball for the better. In 1974, the orthopedic surgeon pioneered a method of replacing the damaged ulnar collateral ligament of a pitcher whose career might have otherwise been over by grafting a tendon from the wrist of his non-throwing arm. After an arduous 18-month rehab, that pitcher not only returned to the majors, but won more games and threw more innings after the surgery (164 and 2,544 2/3, respectively) than before (124 and 2,165 2/3); in his first five years back, he placed in the top four in three Cy Young votes. That pitcher, of course, was Tommy John, and the procedure pioneered by Jobe quickly became known as Tommy John surgery.
Since then, the careers of hundreds of ballplayers have been saved by the procedure; in November, the Beyond the Boxscore website tallied the names of 488 players who had undergone TJS, and now the list is over 500. The MLB Depth Charts site lists over 60 players on 40-man rosters who have undergone the surgery sometime since late 2010. The procedure has become so routine that teams can plan their rosters around it, knowing that it takes around a year to recover, and that there's a strong likelihood a pitcher will regain his lost effectiveness.
I'm among the many who have suggested that Jobe and John deserved to be honored by Cooperstown in some form, and nearly 40 years after the landmark procedure, it appears that we're going to get our wish. On Thursday, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced that it will honor the pair on Saturday, July 27, at the awards presentation during the Hall of Fame Weekend in Cooperstown. “The ground-breaking work of Dr. Frank Jobe to conceptualize, develop, refine and make main stream Tommy John Surgery, a complex elbow procedure that has furthered the careers of hundreds of ballplayers, is a testament to the positive role of medicine in our game’s growth," said Hall president Jeff Idelson in the announcement.
The honors will accompany the annual presentation of the J.G. Taylor Spink and Ford C. Frick Awards, which this year will go to writer Paul Hagen and the late broadcaster Tom Cheek, respectively. Also receiving special recognition along with Jobe and John is Thomas Tull, the founder and CEO of Legendary Pictures, whose forthcoming movie 42 will pay tribute to Jackie Robinson.
Over the course of a 26-year major league career that ran from 1964 through 1989 (when he was 46 years old), John built a resume worthy of Hall of Fame consideration even apart from the surgery. He notched 288 wins and four All-Star appearances, not to mention the aforementioned Cy Young placements within a five-year span in which he helped the Dodgers and Yankees to four postseason appearances and three pennants. His total of 4,710 1/3 innings ranks 20th all-time, and he's 26th in both wins and shutouts (46). Alas, he never led his leagues in any of the big three categories (wins, ERA or strikeouts), and in 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, he never received more than 31.7 percent of the vote from the BBWAA. While the early iterations of my JAWS system showed him to be slightly above the standard for enshrined starters, more recent iterations put him farther away. In the newest Baseball-Reference.com set, his 56.3 career WAR, 32.3 peak WAR and 44.3 JAWS are all well below the standards for the average enshrined pitcher (68.1 career, 47.7 peak, 57.9 JAWS). He ranks 84th among starters in JAWS, just below the much higher-peaking Sandy Koufax but above Whitey Ford and Dizzy Dean, with more recent pitchers like Tim Hudson, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte ranking in the vicinity but likely to surpass him soon. It's probably asking a bit much to apply enough of a bonus to his role in what may be the most important sports medicine procedure in baseball history to give him a bronze plaque, but it's very cool to know that both he and his surgeon will get their day in the sun.