Thanks, Frank Jobe: The five best post-Tommy John surgery careers for pitchers
Dr. Frank Jobe, the inventor of the graft reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow, better known as Tommy John surgery, died on Thursday at the age of 88. Since that experimental procedure was performed on Dodgers pitcher Tommy John in 1974, more than a thousand major league players, most of them pitchers, have had the surgery, and in the vast majority of those cases, the procedure was career-saving. Jobe's impact on the game from that groundbreaking procedure alone is tremendous.
His impact runs deeper than that. Beyond his miracle cure for the elbow, he greatly advanced his colleagues' ability to repair shoulders, and his biomechanical research led to great leaps in the collective understanding about the ways in which pitching stresses the arm. That research did almost as much to help pitchers avoid surgery as his surgeries did to restore their careers.
Still, Tommy John surgery will be the thing Jobe is best remembered for, and for good reason. That innovation alone changed the face of the game, turning what was formerly a career-ending injury, the tear of the UCL in the pitching elbow, into one from which a pitcher could experience a complete recovery. In recognition of that, here is a look at the five pitchers who had the greatest post-Tommy John surgery careers (measured by Baseball-Reference.com's wins above replacement) comprised of pitches that never could have been thrown before Jobe, at the urging of the injured John, invented the procedure.
1. David Wells, 53.5 bWAR
Surgery date: July 1985
Performed by Dr. James Andrews, Wells' Tommy John surgery was just the third ever performed on a professional pitcher (the second was on the Padres' Brent Strom in 1978). Wells had the surgery at the age of 22 while a minor leaguer in the Blue Jays' system and thus would never have thrown a major league pitch if not for the surgery Jobe invented. Instead, he threw 15,830 between the regular season and playoffs over 3,564 innings, winning 239 regular season games, making three All-Star teams, finishing third in the American League Cy Young voting twice, throwing a perfect game in 1998—a season during which he was arguably the ace of one of the greatest teams in major league history—and played on three pennant winners and two World Series champions (the 1992 Blue Jays and '98 Yankees).
What's more, although Wells did have a subsequent elbow surgery to remove bone chips from the joint in 1994, he developed a reputation for having a rubber arm later in his career. Despite failing to keep himself in shape, resulting in multiple back surgeries and various lower-body ailments, Wells never had another arm injury after that 1994 surgery despite pitching another 13 seasons.
2. Tommy John, 31.3 bWAR
Surgery date: Sept. 25, 1974
Strom often jokes that it's a good thing John had the surgery first: Strom never pitched in the majors again after being the second pitcher ever to have the surgery. But John, already 31 and a 12-year veteran the time of his landmark surgery, famously went on to win another 164 over 14 more major league seasons. Like fellow left-hander Wells, the post-surgery John developed a reputation for having a rubber arm. It has often been said that, when John retired in 1989 at the age of 46, it was not because his arm gave out, but because of concerns about his own safety as a groundball pitcher who, at his advanced age, could no longer field his position. John's best years came in the first six seasons after he returned from his surgery. In that span, he made three All-Star games, won 20 or more games three times, finished second in the Cy Young voting twice and fourth once, and won three pennants, though he was on the wrong-side of a Yankees-Dodgers World Series all three times.
3. John Smoltz, 23.2 bWAR
Surgery Date: Mar. 23, 2000
Eligible for the first time this December, Smoltz is likely to become the first pitcher to have had Tommy John surgery to be inducted to the Hall of Fame. Smoltz, like John, had the surgery well into a very successful career, having already won 157 games and a Cy Young award as part of the Atlanta Braves' legendary 1990s rotation trio before having the surgery at the age of 32. After his return, he spent three years as one of the most dominant closers in baseball, making two All-Star games and finishing third in the 2002 Cy Young voting after leading the majors with 55 saves that season. He then returned to the Braves' rotation in 2005 and had three more seasons on par with his pre-surgery peak (3.22 ERA, 135 ERA+, averaging 15 wins, 222 innings pitched, and 192 strikeouts), making two more All-Star teams, the last in his age-40 season. Other than having some scar tissue removed after the 2003 season, he never had another problem with his pitching elbow.
4. Kerry Wood, 22.8 bWAR
Surgery Date: Apr. 8, 1999
Wood was a sensation as a 21-year-old rookie in 1998, striking out 12.6 men per nine innings, a single-season record for a qualified pitcher that has since been surpassed only twice. That season included 20 strikeouts in one game in his fifth major league start, one of the most dominant pitching performances in major league history (Wood allowed just one hit and walked no one, posting the highest nine-inning game score on record). It wasn't his elbow surgery that kept him from fulfilling his promise, however. Wood came all the way back before unrelated injuries derailed his career. From 2001 to 2003, he posted a 122 ERA+, averaging 200 innings and 233 strikeouts a year, and in the last of those seasons, he led the majors with 266 strikeouts at a rate of 11.3 per nine innings, posting a career-best 136 ERA+ and making his first All-Star team. Rather, it was Wood's shoulder (and, later, a tragicomic sequence of non-arm injuries) that derailed his career. Still, he made a successful conversion to relief in 2007 and wound up pitching 14 major league seasons, retiring at the age of 35 with a career rate of 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings that stands as the second-best mark in major league history among pitchers with 1,000 or more innings pitched.
5. Anibal Sanchez, 21.2 bWAR
Surgery Date: June 2003
Like Wells, Sanchez had Tommy John surgery in the minor leagues, enduring the procedure at the age of 19 before making his professional debut in the United States (though he had signed with the Red Sox out of his native Venezuela in 2001). Traded to the Marlins in November 2005 in a blockbuster trade that sent Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota to Boston for Sanchez, Hanley Ramirez and two others, Sanchez threw a no-hitter as a rookie in 2006 but had labrum surgery in 2007. Since then, he has steadily improved, first harnessing his control, then improving his strikeout rates, yielding a breakout 2013 season in which he led the American League with a 2.57 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young Voting. Still just 30, Sanchez could finish the coming season ahead of Wood and Smoltz on this list and could ultimately pass John as well.
Speaking of active players moving up the list, here are the next seven active leaders on this list after Sanchez (not counting Ryan Dempster, who has accumulated 20 wins above replacement since his August 2003 surgery but is, effectively, retired):
Josh Johnson, Padres, 20.4 bWAR (Aug. 3, 2007)
Soria had the surgery twice. His bWAR total is that following the first of those two surgeries.
Also, here's a list of other notable active Tommy John survivors who could work their way up this list over the course of the next decade: Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harvey, Dylan Bundy, Adam Wainwright, Francisco Liriano, Brian Wilson, Grant Balfour, Jason Grilli, Fernando Rodney, John Axford.
Mariano Rivera, 56.6 bWAR career
Contrary to since-debunked reports, Rivera did not have Tommy John surgery in the minor leagues. However, he did have elbow surgery performed by Jobe on Aug. 27, 1992 that cleaned up a frayed, but not torn, UCL in his pitching elbow. One could argue that, had Tommy John surgery not been invented, Rivera's elbow never would have been operated on at all and that his career, as a result, may have been very different. Still, he did not have Tommy John surgery.
Kenny Rogers, 51.1 bWAR career
Rogers is often listed as having had Tommy John surgery in the minor leagues in 1987, but further research suggests that he, too, merely had his elbow cleaned up. Indeed, his playing time in the 1987 and 1988 seasons is a strong indication that he did not miss enough time to have had and rehabilitated from Tommy John surgery.
Jimmy Key, 49.4 bWAR careerKey is another pitcher who has been listed among Tommy John recipients, but when he missed the entire 1995 season, it was because of rotator cuff surgery. The elbow surgery he had in 1988 was merely to remove bone chips and only cost him two and a half months of that season.