August 27, 2010
Editor's note: The Stephen Strasburg(notes) Tommy John injury news is rightfully devastating to Washington Nationals fans, but as Alex Remington pointed out in this classic Stew post from April 9, it has been far from a career death sentence for many All-Star pitchers.
Tommy John surgery used to be risky and exotic, but it has become so common that the list of pitchers with elbows made of ligaments from their feet has become long and rather undistinguished when you consider it includes such pitchers as Tim Spooneybarger, Jesse Foppert and Columbia Blowfish manager Lee Gronkiewicz.
After seeing his once-promising career fizzle after going under the knife in 2003, Foppert ranks as one of the more notable casualties of Tommy John surgery. He's often cited as a cautionary tale whenever the procedure is mentioned. B.J. Ryan(notes), meanwhile, joined Foppert's company when he experienced a similar drop in velocity after his 2007 surgery and saw his career go south with it. Tommy John is not a cure-all for everyone.
Still, Red Sox team doctor Michael Reinold claims the surgery's success rate is "close to 85-92 percent in elite pitchers" and there's no doubt that it can extend a pitcher's career for many more productive years.
Since Joe Nathan(notes) just underwent the procedure and Shaun Marcum(notes) is just coming back from it, we thought we'd show them what's possible by compiling some of the best post-Tommy John seasons and creating an all-star team of some rebuilt pitchers.
Without further delay, here is Big League Stew's roster of "Tommy John All-Stars":
Tommy John in 1979 (21-9, 2.96 ERA, 137 OPS+) (Surgery in 1974) Who else can lead this squad? Few pitchers can match the success of Tommy John himself, who was the first person to undergo the surgery he'll forever be known for. He had the surgery when he was a 12-year veteran with a 124-106 record and he returned to baseball in 1976 to win an additional 164 games over the next 14 seasons.
David Wells in 1998 (18-4, 3.49 ERA and ALCS MVP) (1985) If you're going to blow out your arm, you might as well blow it out early. Wells had the surgery as a 22-year-old minor leaguer in 1985 and went on to pitch 21 seasons and win 239 games in the majors.
Matt Morris(notes) in 2001 (22-8, 3.16 ERA, 137 ERA+) (1999) Morris had a strong rookie campaign in 1997, but he re-emerged after surgery as the Cardinals' staff ace, finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2001.
Kerry Wood(notes) in 2003 (14-11, 3.20 ERA, 136 ERA+) (1999) Kerry Wood's tragic injury history will always overshadow his often-brilliant mound work, but the best year of his career came after his surgery as he helped lead the Cubs to the NL Central title.
Tom Gordon(notes) in 2004 (9-4, 4 SV, 2.21 ERA, 204 ERA+) (1999) Gordon won 96 games as a starting pitcher before becoming Boston's closer in late August of 1997. He won the Rolaids relief award in 1998, and then recovered after surgery to become one of the best relievers for the rest of the decade, especially as a rubber-armed fireman for Joe Torre, pitching 170 1/3 IP in 159 games in 2004 and 2005 to set up Mariano Rivera(notes).
John Smoltz(notes) in 2005 (14-7, 3.06 ERA, 139 ERA+) (2000) Smoltz came back from surgery and went to the bullpen to reduce the strain on his arm. He made two All-Star teams and saved 154 games as a closer, then moved back to Atlanta's rotation and made the All-Star team two more times.
A.J. Burnett(notes) in 2005 (12-12, 3.44 ERA, 116 ERA+) (2003) Arguably, A.J. Burnett's two best seasons (and certainly his two biggest inning totals) have come in his two contract years, 2005 and 2008. He's continued to have nagging injuries since his surgery and despite his brilliant stuff and big-ticket salaries, he has never had an ERA+ better than 119. Still, he's made $137.5 million since his surgery. Thanks for the cash, Tommy John!
Ryan Dempster(notes) in 2008 (17-6, 2.96 ERA, 155 ERA+) (2003) Dempster was a talented, erratic pitcher before his surgery and the Cubs decided to try the John Smoltz route with him by moving him to the bullpen to speed up his recovery. He had one decent season there and two mediocre ones, but he's had the two best seasons of his career since moving back to the rotation and also landed a four-year, $52 million contract.
Joakim Soria(notes) in 2008 (3-2, 42 saves, 1.60 ERA, 273 ERA+) (2003) Like Wells, Soria went under the knife before he ever saw a day in the majors and that may have helped him slide into obscurity before the Kansas City Royals took him in the Rule 5 Draft. He's been one of the best closers in baseball since the moment he arrived in the major leagues.
Chris Carpenter(notes) in 2009 (17-4, 2.24 ERA, 184 ERA+) (2007) Carpenter won the Cy Young award in 2005, but he posted the best ERA of his career in 2009 after going under the knife in 2007. That made it two aces in a row for St. Louis who came back better than ever.
Eric Gagne(notes) in 2003 (55 saves, 1.20 ERA, Cy Young) (1997) Gagne also had his surgery in the minors and though the Mitchell Report suggested he might have had some additional help with his memorable 2003 season, he wouldn't have been in such a position without Tommy John.
Note: There have also been many position players who have had Tommy John surgery, but for the purposes of this article, we only considered pitchers.