Saturday, August 28, 2010

Meet Tommy John

Because it's placed into applicable terms, kids who some middle-school teachers would insist have trouble spelling the word "cat" can explain why their favorite NBA/NFL stars need to have knee surgery; they can differentiate between the ACL and MCL and comprehend what it means to the player and team.

On the same token there are presumably thousands of people who know the name "Tommy John" as the moniker for ligament replacement surgery on a pitcher's elbow; but they don't know that there was a person named Tommy John who crafted a borderline Hall of Fame career as a pitcher and should be in the Hall of Fame for the combination his on-field work and that his recovery from the surgery that now bears his name has become so prevalent and saved the careers of such a vast number of star pitchers and players.

With Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg the latest name to be diagnosed with the dreaded tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and requiring the procedure, perhaps it's time to give more credit to Tommy John; it was John along with surgeon Frank Jobe---who did the cut and paste----and revolutionized the game.

Years ago, when he was with the Yankees in the years after his return, his elbow was referred to as "bionic". John had been a good sinkerball pitcher with the White Sox in the 60s and was traded to the Dodgers (for Dick Allen) in 1971. With the Dodgers, John was 40-15 in nearly three seasons before blowing out his elbow. Faced with the prospect of his career being over or trying to salvage something from his career----having a ligament transferred from his forearm to his elbow----John opted for the experiment.

It took a year for him to rehab and, as is the case with something new, no one expected him to make it back. It's scoffed at; ridiculed; disbelieved....until it works.

After a 10-10 record in 1976 for the Dodgers (judging from his Gamelogs, he pitched in some hard luck), he won 20 games for the first time in his career in 1977 at the age of 34 for the National League champs. He signed with the Yankees in November of 1978 for 3-years and $1.4 million (it was a lot of money then) and became one of the top pitchers in the American League. He gobbled innings, pitched deeply into games and won. In his first go-round with the Yankees, he had a record of 62-36 and finished 2nd and 4th in the AL Cy Young voting in 1979-80.

John moved on to the Angels, Athletics and back to the Yankees in his 40s. He started on opening day in 1989 out of necessity----and not long after new Yankees manager Dallas Green questioned how much he could contribute with his diminished stuff. He won that game too.

Relying on a simple, repeatable motion and a sinker/slider repertoire (along with being accused of throwing a spitball; or a scuffball; or a spit-scuffball), John is close to the Hall of Fame without the now commonplace surgery. His comparables on Baseball-Reference are either in the Hall of Fame or will be in the Hall of Fame. The only exception is Jim Kaat whose lofty win total is due more to his durability and hanging around for 25 years than any Hall of Fame quality work.

Adding the surgery and how his desperation to continue his career led him to take part in what was then an experiment, John belongs in the Hall of Fame as something more than an objectified thing whose name is only known because of the surgery.

In the framework of importance to the game, you can make the argument that he's done as much for baseball and baseball players as Curt Flood. What he accomplished was at least as imperative and perhaps more. It was because of Flood that the free agency/reserve clause foundation began to crack and eventually broke; but judging by the money made by stars who've undergone the surgery and returned----John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Chris Carpenter and countless others----is John truly appreciated?

He deserves an honorific of greater note than having his name repeated again and again, tossed in as a meaningless footnote. The same argument that says Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame applies to Tommy John as well.

  • And now Strasburg:

Simplistic arguments against the caution taken with young pitchers (advanced by the likes of the soon-to-be-unemployed Rob Dibble) will pop up everywhere now that Strasburg is headed for "You Know Who" surgery. Of course, in all silly arguments there's a crumb of truth despite the way they're spun out of control by the agenda-driven and ignorant.

It can't be lost, however, on anyone who's witnessed Strasburg's rise and fall that nothing could've been done to prevent this injury from happening. The worst part of this----in many eyes----is the absence of blame for the ghost of fate and reality of biomechanics. Armchair experts will pop up everywhere saying, "we knew this would happen" based on a myriad of hindsight-aided signals. His motion; his 103 mph fastball; his diet; his genetics; his whatever----all will be placed in the narrative as to why this was unavoidable.

It was unavoidable, but not for those reasons.

It was unavoidable because it was unavoidable.

The Nationals, San Diego State, his parents and everyone involved with Strasburg from the time his talent began to manifest itself until now were nothing but judicious in his handling and he still got hurt. Because of the success rate in "You Know Who" surgery, Strasburg will be back; he'll be just as good as he was when he arrived in the big leagues under a spotlight that couldn't have been more glaring had he landed from Krypton; and he'll again be firing his fastballs, curves and change-ups.

But is it worth it?

Is it worth all the money they gave him just for signing his name? Is it worth all the paranoia that permeated the weapon's deployment? All the dissection, interference and fear?

On some level, there might be a bit of relief on the part of Strasburg, the Nationals and everyone else that his elbow blew. No one will own up to that of course, but like a hopelessly ill and dying loved one whose existence is a war of attrition amid the knowledge that it's not going to get better; or like the relief that's exhibited by one who is living a lie when they're finally found out, it happened. All the protection and scrutiny didn't help. Now he's gone for at least a year. What we'll now have is one side (the Dibbles) ranting and raving about the babying of pitchers; and the other side (the Verduccis) citing research indicative of how injuries occur because of whatever numbers pop out of a computer.

If I were Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, manager Jim Riggleman and pitching coach Steve McCatty, it would be comforting to know, on a personal level, that I'm not going to get roasted for Strasburg getting hurt. He'll be back; perhaps the expectations and spotlight will be tempered and he'll function as a human being rather than a freak of nature whose body couldn't hold up to the stress placed upon it by circumstances on and off the field.

  • Why MLB should allow the trading of draft picks:

Another aspect of the Strasburg injury and the litany of number one draft picks (many of whom were pitchers) who've failed is the money. The Nationals gave Strasburg a guaranteed $15.1 million to sign on the dotted line. The value of the pitcher will be known in retrospect. He's raised ticket sales; brought attention to a team about whom no one cared or noticed; and still will have the potential for greatness once he gets back. Eventually, he could front a championship rotation.

But in a business sense, was it worth it? For a team that's cold-blooded and fearless, could they have taken the advantage inherent with holding the first pick in a year where the best available player was so clear cut and spun it into a bounty of other players and down-the-line picks to craft a championship team more quickly and inexpensively?

It's difficult to transfer the NFL and NHL to baseball, but could the Nationals have decided that it would behoove them to trade the pick and accumulate a stack of players and draft picks as the Dallas Cowboys did when they traded Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings and laid the foundation for three Super Bowl champions? Or the Quebec Nordiques who dealt Eric Lindros to the Philiadelphia Flyers and acquired the players, money and picks to build a long term contender in Quebec and after they moved to Colorado?*

*I'm not sure who it was, but when discussing the anti-Lindos sentiment in Quebec, someone from the Nordiques----a player----said something like, "I dunno why Quebec hates the guy so much; look how good we are because of him," and he was right.

So, what would've happened if the Red Sox, Yankees or Mets were after Strasburg and anted up players and picks to get him? If the Red Sox packaged Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, other low-level prospects and say 3 subsequent first round draft picks? Or the Yankees gave Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova, Jesus Montero, draft picks and cash? Or the Mets Jenrry Mejia, Jon Niese, Ike Davis, picks and money? Wouldn't the Nationals have been better off in the long and short run?

MLB is trying to drum up interest in the draft. People with no discernible skills at evaluating talent are treating the draft as their ticket to notoriety and becoming the next Mel Kiper Jr. in turning those few days into a lucrative career. Commissioner Bud Selig ambles out to the podium in the empty, echo-chamber studio, with his ill-fitting suit, floppy $5 haircut, cheap glasses and non-existent personality to announce the names as if there's supposed to be a passionate reaction around the world as they're called.

It hasn't worked.

Trading the picks would work. It would create buzz. And it would give the smarter and more gutsy teams a better chance to compete.

If the Strasburg injury spurs such a consideration, maybe it can evolve into what they hope it will be. You want to turn the draft into an event? That's how to do it. Knowing MLB, they'll eventually acquiesce to the suggestion----in 2030. In this case, it won't be better late than never; it'll be, "Oh? Really? Whatever."

  • Viewer Mail 8.28.2010:

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE Stephen Strasburg:

Strasburg is having Tommy John surgery??? That's horrible news for him, for the Nationals and for baseball. So much hope was placed on his shoulders (literally), but he got people excited about the game and not just in the DC area. Very sorry to hear that.

A negative can be turned into a positive. It wasn't fair to place all the hopes of the Nationals franchise and baseball in general over the head of a 23-year-old kid. If he hadn't gotten hurt, it could've degenerated into a Todd Marinovich/Tiger Woods-style disaster of off-field acting out. Now maybe he can relax a bit and be a human being instead of this "thing".

Joe writes RE Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran:

Beltran was also a much better player than Bay.

Exactly my point. Beltran's a better player and more was expected from him, especially after the coma he was in as he ripped everything in sight in the 2004 playoffs for the Astros. Bay, had he not gotten hurt, would've ended up with something close to the 16 homers; 76 RBI; .266 BA; .330 OBP that Beltran posted in 2005. Bobby Bonilla----with all the off-field incidents with the Mets----did produce in later years after a nightmarish 1992. I'd expect a similar correction from Bay.

Jeff (Acting Boss) at Red State Blue State writes RE Strasburg and the Cardinals:

Even I'm upset by the Strasburg news. Watching him pitch this season has been a real joy. Now I have to wait over a year? NO!!!

And you're right about the Cardinals. Watching them every day has become a real chore; not only do they baffle with inconsistency, but they just don't look like a team with a purpose. They look like zombies.

The Cardinals had better get themselves together. The Reds are not going away.

Joe writes in response to Jeff's use of the word "zombie":

They look like zombies, Jeff? They must really know their baseball then :)

There's a difference between a stat zombie and a regular, run-of-the-mill walking undead zombie; there are also the 28 Days Later, running, rage-fueled zombies. One day, I'll need to compartmentalize zombies and their hallmarks.

The Brooklyn Trolley Blogger (Brooklyn Capo) writes RE Dusty Baker, Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman:

Dusty Baker is working with a new dynamic; a very young hungry team taking the lead with smart vets (Scott Rolen etc) in support. That wasn't always the case with Dusty in S.F. and ChiTown. It's a new wrinkle for him.
Girardi? Hmmm. Ever get the feeling it's Cashman who isn't necessarily sold on Joe and wouldn't mind seeing him walk away?
I do. Cashman has gotten colder and bolder since he was able to delete Team Tamper in Tampa and convince BOSS his plan should be followed. I look at Cashman and Hal, and then I see Girardi being the odd man out.

Baker likes his veterans, but he has used youngsters when necessary. The Giants were constructed under the premise of "Build around Barry" with Barry Bonds and that's what they did. And they won.

The Cubs were slapped with a mandate of "win now" and they came close. This is why it's unfair to blame Baker for what happened with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. It was either try to win and push them to make the playoffs, worrying about their arms later; or develop pitchers and make winning secondary. What was he supposed to do?

To hold him up as responsible for an organizational decision is the essence of passing the buck to a convenient target.

My hunch is that Cashman wants to keep Girardi; will offer a fair 3-year contract and have people in mind if negotiations break down or Girardi tries to use the Cubs as a lever to get a longer, more lucrative deal. I'd put the chance of Girardi leaving at about 30%. (Everyone else pulls percentages from their behinds; why not me too?)

I was a guest a week ago Thursday with Sal at SportsFan Buzz. You can click the link to Sal's site to download the Podcast or listen directly here. Also, check Sal's Facebook page here.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


kcourtsclayton said...

The news about Strasberg is very sad. It is sad in the way that any athlete needing Tommy John (or any other type) surgery would be unfortunate. For some reason, I have some bitterness about Strasberg--but he is completely blameless for my negative feelings. My issue is the overwhelming praise that was heaped on Strasberg before he ever threw a big league pitch. I can't figure out why "sports writers" at ESPN (and elsewhere) feel the need to hype a player like Strasberg to such a nauseating degree. I it because they don't want to be late in identifying a future Hall of Famer? Do they worry that they may be caught behind the times? Or could the reason be that they find current sports--current ahletes--so boring that they have to create a story where there may not be one?
It's almost like you said in your post--MLB is trying to be like the NFL or NBA. The problem is, while it's easy to predict the NFL potential of a college player, baseball is totally different. So many variables will affect the success of a baseball player. There are no sure things in the MLB. The "experts" don't seem to get this.

Anonymous said...

Sweet site, I hadn't come across before during my searches!
Continue the wonderful work!

She-Fan said...

I'm glad you wrote about Tommy John, the player. So many people have no clue that the surgery was actually named after a human being.

Anonymous said...

Как говорилось на Третьего сентября я увидела во дворе котёнка, мне стало его очень жалко, и я привела его домой с надеждой выходить. Он был очень худой, бессильный, истощённый, еле ходил, ничего не ел, не пил, я кормила его из пипетки, для того у него было немного сил, мы с мамой делали всё вполне вероятное для того его спасти, мы так надеялсяи его выходить, но не сумели, Бог забрал его себе. Такой милый котёнок был, гулял по квартире со своими слабыми ножками, и очень умненький был, я всего один раз показала ему лоток, и с тех пор он ни разу не испачкал в квартире, ходил в свой лоточек. Мы с мамой думали, как же его назвать, хотели назвать Ушастик, так как у него уши были большие, но Ушастиком не назвали, мама назвала его Котя. Не знаю, был ли у него шанс или же он с самого начало был обречен. Нам с мамой его очень жалко. Пожил у нас всего 4 для, и в течении этих дней мы к нему очень привыкли, я тоскую по нему. Его с нами уже нет, но он буквально каждый день будет жить в нашей памяти. Котёнок умер сегодня утром на моих глазах, мы похоронили его в парке.
Спи спокойно мой ангелочек.