The Hall of Fame Case for Tommy John

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On Sunday, December 8, the Modern Baseball Era committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which includes candidates whose primary contributions to baseball came between 1970-87, will vote on candidates for the 2020 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.

Next up: Tommy John

 

The case for his induction:

He had a long career — 26 seasons! — in which he was almost always an above average pitcher. In the end that led to some pretty impressive numbers: 288 wins, a 3.34 ERA, 4,710.1 innings pitched and a WAR of 62.1 WAR. Only Nolan Ryan pitched in more seasons than John and the only pitcher of the modern era with more wins than John who isn’t in the Hall of Fame is Roger Clemens who, as we know, is a bit of a special case for Hall of Fame purposes.

Beyond his pitching stats John is obviously notable for being the first recipient and namesake of Tommy John surgery. The procedure has revolutionized baseball, has saved countless pitching careers, and John was proof of concept.

It certainly revitalized John’s career. In his second season back from the surgery John won 20 games with a 2.78 ERA and finished second in the 1977 National League Cy Young Award vote. He’d win 20 games two more times in the next three years, meaning that all three of his 20-win seasons came after he went under the knife. This was, such as it was, his career peak, as he went 80-35 with a 3.12 ERA in that four-year stretch. He’d start for the Dodgers in the 1977 and 1978 World Series and for the Yankees in the 1981 World Series.

 

The case against his induction:

That peak wasn’t much of a peak as far as Hall of Famers go, especially in the very pitcher-friendly era in which John pitched. By today’s standards 288 wins and a 3.34 ERA looks pretty snazzy, but he paled in comparison to the top pitchers of the 1960s and 70s. He was no Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton, Vida Blue and, well, a good number of others. He never led his league in wins, ERA, strikeouts or innings pitched, and he was named an All-Star Game just four times over his 26 seasons. John was simply not dominant in any way — his ERA+ was a not-very-Hall-of-Famer–111 — even if he was pretty darn dependable and even if he ate innings like crazy.

 

Would I vote for him?

Can’t say that I would. He was a good pitcher for a long time, but it’s hard to point to any “great” on his resume. I like to see some great.

 

Will the Committee vote for him?

John spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot and only topped 30% once. This is his fourth time on some version of the Veterans Committee and he never got much support there either. That’s made him pretty cranky. I suspect he’ll continue to be cranky after Sunday.