Should Tommy John Be in the Hall of Fame?

Should he be remembered for more than the surgical procedure?

When one says the name Tommy John today, it can usually be assumed it will be in the context of a torn UCL and not in remembrance of the ageless pitcher whose name has been immortalized in the procedure. Tommy John the pitcher had a very successful career both before and after undergoing the surgery that bears his name, but was it good enough to earn a place in Cooperstown?

When discussing a player’s candidacy for Cooperstown, many statistics and comparisons must be considered. As a self-proclaimed sabermetrician, the first stat I typically look to is a players WAR, both in his career and over a 162 game average. John’s WAR sits at 62.3, which is only slightly below the mark of 69 for the average Hall of Fame pitcher. This is a point in his favor, but his average WAR per 162 games sits at a respectable but not overwhelming 3.4. As a point of reference, a WAR of 0-2 is a reserve, 2 is a starter, 5 is an all star, and 8-10 is an MVP candidate. From this we can infer that John’s case for Cooperstown lies more in longevity than sheer dominance.

Moving away from WAR into some traditional stats, let’s divide John’s career into two halves, the pre-Tommy John surgery Tommy John and the post-Tommy John surgery Tommy John. We will examine both career halves based on 162 game averages, then total the results and see how they stack up against the Hall of Fame pitchers of his era.

The pre-surgery half of Tommy John’s career was the more successful half. John began his career with Cleveland as a 20 year old, throwing 20 innings in his first taste of the bigs. He was traded two years later to Chicago as a part of a three team trade that brought Rocky Colavito to the Tribe. Seven years later he was traded to the Dodgers for Dick Allen where he enjoyed his most successful pre-surgery years. In the three seasons with the Dodgers, John compiled a record of 40-15 while posting a 2.89 ERA. Overall, during his pre-surgery days John had a 162 game average of a 2.97 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 3.6 WAR and a 116 ERA+ despite a low 2.01 K/BB rate. ERA+ is a measure that compares a players ERA with the league ERA while accounting for ballpark factors (useful for comparing pitchers of different eras). A 116 ERA+ means John was 16% better than the average pitcher of that era.

John missed his entire age-32 season due to surgery, a point at which the typical pitcher’s career path is trending downward. This was not the case for Tommy John. In his first six years following the surgery, he posted a 99-53 record, a 3.06 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and a 122 ERA+. In addition, during this span he made four All Star teams, finished second in Cy Young Award voting twice, and even came in 12th in MVP voting in 1977. John’s value began to fade in his age-39 season, but he still managed to stick around for seven more years, through his age-46 season. Pitching in the Major Leagues at age 46 is a great accomplishment that puts him in the company of famed ageless pitchers Satchel Paige and Jamie Moyer. Overall, John’s post surgery numbers are not as good as his pre-surgery numbers, due mostly to the inferior numbers he posted from age 39 through his retirement. His overall post-surgery statistics are a .567 winning percentage, 3.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 107 ERA+, 1.55 K/BB ratio and 31.3 WAR, which evens out to 3.2 WAR per 162 games. These are respectable numbers, certainly above average, but the ratios for this portion of his career are not Hall of Fame worthy.

One may object by hypothesizing that John’s career numbers would have been much better if he had retired following his age-38 season. This would still give John credit for his greatest asset, longevity, but also would allow his rate stats (ERA, WHIP, etc) to show what type of pitcher he really was during these 18 seasons. His numbers are indeed better during his first 18 years, where he posted a minute 3.01 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1.19 ERA+, 42 shutouts, and a stellar 223-159 record. He accumulated 51.5 WAR during this period, a 162 game average of 3.8. These numbers seem more in line with a Hall of Fame career but is this fair? No Hall of Famer to date has received a pardon for having poor seasons at the end of their career. Certainly we cannot base John’s entire Hall of Fame case on these numbers but they are useful in understanding his value during the extended peak of his career.

As we total the number of John’s career and find both his career totals and 162 game averages, it may be useful to play a game of guess the pitcher based on two single season stat lines.

Pitcher A: 13-11, 3.34 ERA, 219 innings pitched, 111 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP, 3.4 WAR
Pitcher B: 13-9, 3.40 ERA, 190 innings pitched, 112 ERA+, 1.17 WHIP, 3.4 WAR

Pitcher A is the 162 game average stat line for Tommy John and Pitcher B is the 2012 Mets pitcher Jonathon Niese. Niese certainly enjoyed a good season in 2012, but it was simply good, not great, and no one is thinking of Jonathon Niese as a potential Hall of Fame candidate. If Niese would enjoy that same season for the amount of time that John did would he be considered for the Hall of Fame? That is the question at hand.

It is also useful to compare potential Hall of Fame pitchers to other Hall of Fame pitchers of his era to see how he would rank among the all-time greats. John debuted in 1963, so for the sake of this exercise we will consider all Hall of Fame pitchers who debuted in the 1960’s to be his era. We will not consider Rollie Fingers, who was primarily a closer, so we are left with a class of ten. Five of the players on this list, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, and Gaylord Perry simply were better than John beyond a reasonable argument. This leaves five players that will serve as the best comparison. These five players are Don Sutton, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Phil Niekro, and Juan Marichal.

Sutton is the best comparison of the five, but he posted a slightly better WAR than John and slightly lower career ERA. Hunter posted a solid 3.26 career ERA but only pitched for 15 seasons, keeping his WAR at 36.6. One could make a reasonable argument that John had a more productive career than Hunter. Jenkins posted an identical 3.34 ERA but compiled almost 20 more WAR than John in only 19 seasons. Jenkins was often a league leader in many of the significant pitching categories, including his unbelievable 7.11 K/BB ratio in 1971. Nieko also posted a similar ERA at 3.35 and had only slightly better ratios than John, but totaled a far superior 97.4 WAR in his career. Like Jenkins, Niekro was the definition of a workhouse, leading the league in innings pitched four times. Marichal had a relatively short 16 year career and consequently posted a WAR similar to John at 61.9. However, Marichal’s 162 game average season of a 2.89 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 18-10 record, 3.25 K/BB ratio and 123 ERA+ are all superior to John’s average season. In my view, John would rank only ahead of Hunter in this group of Hall of Famers, though he is not very far behind Sutton or Niekro.

What about his contribution to the game in the surgery that bears his name and has saved countless careers? There are two points to make on this subject. First, John’s name will be immortalized in baseball history through the surgery and he should receive a boost for that. Second, John did not operate on himself. Frank Jobe performed the first procedure and deserves the credit for pioneering the procedure. Some boost seems necessary but deciding exactly how much is a gray area.

So should Tommy John be in the Hall of Fame? The answer is unclear. Without the surgery bearing his name, John would be a fringe candidate at best. With the boost John ought to receive for being the first to undergo the landmark procedure, his case becomes a bit more interesting. Does the Hall of Fame draw a line in the statistical sand and only vote in players who accrue a certain level of statistical dominance? Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens don’t think so. Contrarily, is the Hall of Fame a place designed to commemorate both baseball’s greatest players and those who made significant contributions to the advancement of the game? The answer to this question is likely to have the same answer as whether John should be enshrined in Cooperstown.