The Hit List: 11 best ever Tommy John surgery comebacks
Last week, Through the Fence Baseball memorialized a man who has easily had one of the biggest impacts on baseball — Dr. Frank Jobe, the progenitor of the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction while using the palmaris longus tendon. Otherwise known as “Tommy John surgery.”
This brilliant idea, created in 1974, has resurrected the careers (and arms) of countless pitchers in America’s Game. Imagine if Dr. Jobe hadn’t had the guts to take a tendon from a good arm, make a figure-eight configuration around a damaged elbow and oversee rehab for the next 18 months. Moreover, what if the Los Angeles Dodgers ace hadn’t had the temerity to tell Dr. Jobe, “Whatever you got, I’ll do it.”
While there are some active players still on the shelf (Neftali Feliz, damnit) or awaiting their big huzzah (e.g., Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Brian Wilson), I knew immediately some folk who have inspired legions of others who have had this surgery, including Jose Rijo who has been under the same knife five times.
Ergo, my muse for another edition of The Hit List: What were the 10 biggest Tommy John surgery comebacks in major league history (aside from Tommy John himself)?
11. Francisco Liriano. In 2005, this lefty 21-year-old scared the hell out of everyone. The next year — his first full one in Minnesota — he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA. Every time he came to Texas, the ballpark was packed to watch this guy deliver some nasty over home plate. For seven years in Minnesota, Liriano remained dominant (save for a bad 5-13, 5.80 ERA year in 2009). Oh yeah, he had Tommy John surgery in 2007, which is why 2009 was excused. Following rehab, he led the Twins to the AL Central in 2010, was named the AL Comeback Player of the Year and then pitched the “Liriano-no” hitter in 2011.
10. Josh Johnson. It was considered in 2007 when Johnson was sidelined with Tommy John surgery that Dr. Jobe put a little extra stink on it. Possibly, replaced his snapped twig with a monkey tendon because Johnson came back to the Marlins in only 11 months. The year prior to surgery, Johnson hurled a 12-7, 3.10 ERA season. In July 2008, Johnson comes back with a stunning 7-1 record. In 2009, he earned his first All-Star nod with 15-5, .323 ERA and a career-high 191 strikeouts. The next year, another All-Star in 2010, led the league with a 2.30 ERA and was robbed of nods for the NL Cy Young (which Doc Halladay won unanimously).
9. Tom Candiotti. He was a scrub in the Brewers organization when he needed Tommy John surgery two years into his career in 1985. He literally had to convince Dr. Jobe that he was worth the work. In 1986, the “Candy Man” came back to the Indians with a new elbow and sweet knuckleball to become one of the best with that pitch in MLB history. Following his surgery, Candy played 12 more seasons with 151 career wins and a 3.73 ERA; third-most wins post-surgery (Wells 239, John 164). Oh yeah, he threw 68 complete games in career, including 17 in 1986 — the first full year after Dr. Jobe, and he pitched until he was 41 years old.
8. Kenny Rogers. Although he was one colossal douchenozzle (he attacked a TV photographer in 2005 for kicks), he is still considered one of the best fielding pitchers in MLB history, and that was post-Tommy John surgery because he went under the knife during his stint in the minors in 1987. He didn’t reach the majors until 1989, mostly with the Texas Rangers, where he pitched a perfect game in 1995. He had surgery again in 2001 (diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, same as No. 5 on this list) but came back to help Detroit win a ring in 2006. Kenny Rogers earned four All-Star bids, pitched 20 years for 219 wins and earned a respectable 4.27 ERA.
7. A. J. Burnett. In 1999 with the Florida Marlins, Burnett was drawing up comparisons to Pedro. Two years later against the San Diego Padres, Burnett throws a no-hitter. A year later, he struck out 203 batters. A year after that, he pitched only four games and left to have Tommy John surgery. That year, the Marlins won the MLB Championship (so that sucked). Burnett came back the following June and looked as good as advertised with 113 Ks in only 120 innings. In 2006, he goes to Toronto with limited fanfare, and then in 2009, he goes to the Yankees and helps the team win a ring. However, it was in Pittsburgh where Burnett hit a renaissance striking out more than 180. Twice. Nice comeback indeed.
6. Tim Hudson. At age 32, Hudson had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery and had a near-seamless rehab and transition. Although it was a longer rehab than most (he didn’t return until the All-Star break in 2009), he still earned a three-year extension from the Braves, who know a little something about pitchers and TJS (see No. 2). The following year, Hudson makes the All-Star team and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. Many believe this flamethrower will surpass 300 wins, considering his age and already at 205 with a 3.44 ERA. After his surgery, he’s still winning, still a workhorse and still mowing down opponents. Anyone betting against him?
5. Chris Carpenter. In 2007, Carpenter had to get Tommy John surgery and missed 465 days of baseball. He was a Cy Young Award winner two years prior to his surgery, and then finished second in the Cy Young running in his first full year back in 2009 (when he won Comeback Player of the Year). Unfortunately, the guy has always seemed fragile (e.g., shoulder issues in Toronto, other shoulder and arm injuries in St. Louis), which is sad considering this ace can so bring it when healthy. And yeah, he had a little something to do with the Cardinals winning the World Series against a team close to my heart, so screw Chris Carpenter anyway.
4. Billy Wagner. He was single-handedly the reason Houston Astros had a chance to win a game. His arm was a flamethrower, and it made him one the best closers in baseball for more than a decade (1997-2008). Following that run, Wagner couldn’t delay the inevitable — he had to get Tommy John surgery, which caused him to sit out the remainder of 2008 and most of 2009, when he threw for the Red Sox. Although he experienced TJS at a late age for a pitcher, Wagner was still able to sign on with the Braves (there they go again) and earn his 400th save … and 22 more before retiring as one of the best closers in the game.
3. David Wells. The man known as “Boomer” made being a slob look fashionable, as well as being an MLB journeyman playing for 12 teams. That notwithstanding, dude could pitch. He holds more post-Tommy John surgery records than any pitcher in major league history. Like Rogers, he went under the knife while in the minors (in 1985) and still played 21 years. And then, he pitched a perfect game in the Bronx … drunk, won 239 games and earned a 4.13 ERA. Wells is highly underrated for his control and accuracy. Greg Maddux got the praise because he was Greg Maddux. Wells didn’t because, well, he wasn’t. Still, his numbers are without equal following TJS.
1a. John Smoltz. The 1990s were legendary because of three guys named Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz — all three Cy Young winners. What made Smoltz so amazing is he was just as imposing as a closer, which is where he went after Tommy John surgery 12 years into his career, chalked up 154 saves and earned three straight All-Star nods. Then, Smoltz came back to the rotation in 2005 for three more years and didn’t miss a beat or a game. He even led the NL in games and ERA once each in that return. He retired in 2009 at the ripe age of 42. P.S. Maddux and Glavine earned their golden tickets to Cooperstown this year. Smoltz is up for bid in 2015, when he will become the first Tommy John pitcher to make the Hall of Fame.
1. Mariano Rivera. So dominant. So clutch. So amazing. Easily, the best closer in MLB history. And yet, many people in baseball forget the Sandman had Tommy John surgery in 1992. Well, kinda. You see, he never had the ligament officially replaced, although it was the actual surgical procedure. The Yankees media guide states that Mo had “elbow surgery,” which is why many in MLB think it’s just East Coast bias. Regardless, he did go under the knife. He did have his tendons and ligaments inspected. And he did come back. You know, only to earn a salty 2.21 ERA and 652 saves. And he played 17 years following “the procedure.” If that’s not a testament to his greatness, many young Yankees fans believe that Jackie Robinson also wore Rivera’s number. I’d say that qualifies for a good comeback, wouldn’t you?