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The 2006 Hall of Fame ballot has been announced. We will take a look at three of the starting pitching candidates- Tommy John, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris.

If you ask a casual baseball fan under the age of 25 about Tommy John, you're likely to get a 2 word answer: "elbow surgery". If you ask someone over the age of 25 about him, you will probably hear about his eminently hittable stuff and his unimposing stature. How many will say "always good and sometimes great"?

Tommy John was signed by Cleveland in 1961. After spending 2 seasons in the minors, he arrived with the big club in late 1963, and pitched 20 capable innings. After struggling in 1964, he was traded in the off-season by the Indians with Tommie Agee and Johnny Romano to the White Sox in a 3 way trade also involving the Kansas City Athletics. So began John's run of success.

The early White Sox years- 1965-68

John pitched for the White Sox for 1965-1971. In his early 20s, he had enough zip on his fastball to strike out his share of batters (at about the American League average of 5.7 per 9 innings) during that period. From 1965-68, he had excellent control and posted ERA+ of 103, 120, 125 and 154 in successive seasons, but threw only 180 innings per season in 3 of the 4 seasons, with less than 30 starts.

John had excellent defence behind him in the early years, particularly in the outfield with Ken Berry and the wonderous Tommie Agee. The Sox led the league in defensive efficiency ratio each year from 1965-67 with marks of 729, 728 and 735 (the league averages were 715, 717 and 718). The White Sox played in Comiskey Park. At the time, the park was deep down the lines (352 feet) and short in the alleys (365 feet). Foul territory was abundant.

In 1968, Agee was sent to the Mets where future World Series glory awaited him. The Sox defence declined to league average, but John prospered. The fences in the alleys were pushed back 10 feet at the beginning of the season and this may have helped him.

The later White Sox years 69-71

The Sox defence continued its' decline during John's later years, and John's pitching followed with it. The team DER fell to 698, 694 and 701 (league averages 714, 711 and 715). Each year, it seems to have been something different- Bill Melton, as a rookie at third struggling, Jay Johnstone being stretched in centerfield, Luis Aparicio getting old- whatever it was, the defence simply wasn't what it had been. Meanwhile John was being worked harder and his control, and his strikeout rate, began to suffer. In 1970, he walked 101 batters in 269 innings, including 16 intentional walks. Was it wear and tear on the arm that led to the loss of control or did the team's less effective defence cause him to be too fine? Maybe it was a bit of both. In 1969-70, he still put up ERA+ of 119 in 1969-70, but posted miserable won-loss records.

1971 was a watershed year for John. He pitched respectably well actually, and improved his control and strikeout rate, but had neither the ERA nor the won-loss record to show. With 17 homers, 58 walks and 131 strikeouts in 229 innings, and with his fine defence and ability to hold runners and get the double play, he should have done better than a 3.61 ERA (league average). But he didn't and again posted a losing record. That probably ended up helping his career, as the Sox shipped him to the Dodgers after the season in a package for Dick Allen.

The Dodger years-1972-78

Moving to Dodger Stadium with its abundant foul territory and slow infield was one benefit of the trade for John. More importantly, he joined a consistently good offensive and defensive ballclub. With Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey on the infield, and respectable defensive and offensive outfields, the Dodgers put up an average defensive efficiency ration of 718 compared with a league average of 703 during John's tenure. John took maximum advantage of his situation by getting more groundballs and reducing his home run rate.

In 1974, he had a 13-3 record in mid-season but stopped due to elbow pain and underwent the surgery that now bears his name. He missed 1975, and continued on in 1976 as if nothing had happened. He won 20 games for the first time in 1977 at age 34, by throwing 220 very good innings in 31 starts and by being a little lucky. After a lesser year in 1978, he became a free agent and signed with the Yankees.

The Yankee years 1979-81

Yankee Stadium with its short right-field porch and expanses in left-centre and centre was tailored to John's abilities. The Yankee infield of Nettles, Dent, Randolph and Chambliss was solid (the Yanks put up a DER of 707 against a league average of 703 during John's years).

John was 36 when he joined the Yankees, and posted back-to-back 20 win seasons in an unusual way. He struck out first fewer than 4 per 9 innings in 1979 and then fewer than 3 per 9 innings in 1980, but walked fewer than ever. He pitched 540 innings over 2 seasons, by far the highest total of his career.

The long tail end of John's career

Normally, striking out so few batters, particularly at age 37 will presage a quick end to a career. Not so for Tommy John. He threw for 10 more seasons with the Yankees, California and briefly Oakland as basically an average pitcher, with fluctuations from season to season, despite a very low strikeout rate. His modus operandi was simple- keep the ball down and in the strike zone. He didn't really fool anybody, but kept batters off-stride sufficiently to be effective despite having uninspired defences behind him.

John was an excellent fielder, and a fine post-season performer (6-3 with a 2.65 ERA). He was an above average pitcher every year from age 22 to age 39 and sprinkled in 5 excellent seasons there and 5 good ones. So, how does he stand up against his comparables, Robin Roberts, Red Ruffing, and Jim Kaat?

Here's the chart:
Pitcher     IP(seasons)   ERA+   K/9IP(Lg)   W/9IP(Lg)  HR/9IP(Lg)  Team DER(Lg)  W-L

John        4710.3(17.2)  111    4.3(5.4)    2.4(3.3)   0.6(0.8)    708(706)      288-231
Roberts     4688.7(17.7)  113    4.5(5.0)    1.7(3.4)   1.0(0.9)    715(710)      286-245
Ruffing     4344.0(16.1)  109    4.1(3.3)    3.2(3.5)   0.5(0.5)    695(689)      273-225
Kaat        4530.3(16.5)  107    4.9(5.3)    2.2(3.4)   0.8(0.8)    707(708)      283-237

Those ERA+ numbers may look really unimpressive, but that is just the way it is for pitchers with long careers. 120 is very, very good. For perspective, Seaver's was 127, Palmer's 125 and Carlton's 115. The scale is nothing like the career OPS numbers that we saw last year.

Should Tommy John be in the Hall of Fame? I think so. He slides nicely in between Red Ruffing and Robin Roberts, and is comfortably better than Kaat. He was obviously not among the very best starters in baseball during his time; those spots were taken by Koufax, Gibson, and Marichal, and then Palmer, Seaver and Carlton and later the likes of Ron Guidry and Dave Stieb. But, he was close enough and he pitched long enough at that high level, as Ruffing did, to merit induction.
2006 Hall of Fame ballot-Tommy John | 12 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Craig B - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 10:00 AM EST (#139283) #
With the ballot being a little weaker this year than in years prior, Tommy John was solidly on my ballot this time around (I usually "vote" for 8-10 guys). This was an excellent analysis of his career, thanks Mike.

One thing I would add about Tommy John, though it's unrelated to his Hall candidacy, is that John's peculiar success profile in the tail end of his career led Bill James to coin the phrase "the Tommy John Family of pitchers". He expands on it some in his Pitchers bok he wrote with Rob Neyer.

The Tommy John family is a group of lefthanded pitchers (always lefties) characterized by having few strikeouts, few walks, few home runs allowed, lots of base hits, lots of double plays, and being tough to run on. Typically these guys have a mediocre fastball, decent breaking stuff, excellent control, and keep the ball down at all costs. Not every lefty soft-tosser is in the Tommy John family, though.

John at the end of his career exemplified these guys, as he could win regularly without having the stuff you associate with consistent winners.
CeeBee - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 11:19 AM EST (#139292) #
Thanks for the great piece on T.J. I remember having his baseball card as a kid. Always did like his name as a youngster and I also feel he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
John Northey - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 04:27 PM EST (#139322) #
I've felt for a long time that TJ was HOF worthy. Lets check what kills him for HOF voters though...

1) 3 20 win seasons in an era where they were common for HOFers
2) Never had 140 K's in a season, let along 200
3) All Star 4 times, good but not great
4) Never lead the league in wins or ERA
5) Pitched good, but had losing record in post season, including 0 WS rings (lifetime 4-5 in postseason with 2.65 ERA)
6) Peaked at 16 wins pre-surgery, had probably his best 2nd year after surgery - put questions into older voters minds about 'is it the doctor who should be put in instead'
7) viewed as hanging on at the end (didn't crack 15 wins in last 9 seasons, above 10 just 3 times, ERA below league average 5 of last 7 seasons)
8) Known for surgery done on him more than for pitching skills

It is funny how pitchers after TJ will not be knocked for having the surgery then doing great, but he probably has been. 12 wins from 300 and being a lock.

Btw, of those who are able to be in only Bobby Mathews (1800's pitcher) has more wins and isn't in. Players with 250+ wins not in adds contemporaries Bert Blyleven and Jim Kaat to the list plus 1800's players (Jim McCormick, Tony Mullane, Gus Weyhing) and Jack Morris. So, to make the Hall do not play the bulk of your career in the 1800's or the 1980's. OK, those guys (outside of Morris) peaked in the 70's but I kind of like the '8' theme going here.
Mike Green - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 05:08 PM EST (#139326) #
Tommy John pitched well in the post-season going 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA. His teams' record in the series he participated in was 4-5.

I think that his lack of support has to do with images. We just don't see him as a great pitcher. Nolan Ryan in the 70s was not a great pitcher, but he seemed to be one to the casual fan, and consistently got more support in Cy Young voting than Blyleven or John even though he wasn't as good. Jack Morris seemed to be a great and clutch pitcher even though he really wasn't (7-4 with a 3.80 ERA in the post-season; he was great in 1991 and terrible in 1992).

Alexander - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 05:48 PM EST (#139333) #

I was 13 when he wrapped his career up. I remember wondering how in the world he managed to get people out at all. Looking back at his did he? Those K ratios are almost unbelieveable.

Magpie - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 08:15 PM EST (#139341) #
how in the world he managed to get people out at all.

Groundball after groundball after groundball. Everything he threw was at the knees, and sinking.

I think John is being penalized in the same way knuckleballers are penalized. Sure, he won all those games, but he didn't look very impressive while he was doing it. He didn't throw the ball by anybody, he didn't have any knee-buckling breaking balls. Just one groundball out after another.

In his own way, he was as unique as Nolan Ryan. Well, he was probably better than Ryan.

Craig B - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 08:55 PM EST (#139345) #
In his own way, he was as unique as Nolan Ryan.

I beg to differ!

Tommy John was a very good pitcher for a long time, almost as long as the Ryan Express (he threw about 700 fewer innings and was marginally less effective). You could say "he was as good as Nolan Ryan" and not draw my ire.

But there is no way Tommy John is as unique as Nolan Ryan. Tommy John's MO is common as dirt, which is why the phrase "Tommy John family" had to be invented in the first place. Right now, there are probably twenty or thirty pitchers in the majors, and twice that number in the minors, trying to use the Tommy John formula to win games. On the other hand, no one was ever like Nolan Ryan, and no one has ever been like him since, and I'm not sure anyone wants to be like him either. If after due consideration Ryan isn't one of the eight or ten most unique players in major league history, I'd be shocked.

Magpie - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 09:19 PM EST (#139348) #
Hmm. I never thought of Ryan as a particularly unique kind of picture. I always tended to think of him as a modern Bob Feller - a zillion K's, a zillion BBs, not very many hits. Ryan's numbers, granted, are more... what shall we say? Extreme? But I do think some of that has something to do with the difference between the 1930s and 1940s and the 1970s and 1980s. Without having really studied the matter, I admit.

The fact that Ryan was still the exact same kind of pitcher when he was 45 years old... OK, that's seriously unique. Big time. It's one of those inexplicable things science has so far been unable to explain, like the true nature of black holes...

Magpie - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 09:22 PM EST (#139351) #
Or a particularly unique kind of pitcher, either. Definitely not a unique kind of picture - he actually looked like Erik Hanson out there (or perhaps I mean Erik Hanson looked like him.)

Results aside, of course!

Craig B - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 09:43 PM EST (#139352) #
Ryan and Feller aren't a bad comparison, actually, so maybe I'm not entirely right. Both fastball/curveball pitchers with no real third pitch, both with some control issues. Feller got his control under control, Ryan never particularly cared to although he got somewhat better.

Feller for his career gave up 5% more walks than the league average, had 60% more strikeouts, 20% fewer hits allowed, and was 28% better for ERA.

Ryan for his career gave up 45% more walks than the league average, had 80% more strikeouts, 33% fewer hits allowed, and was 16% better for ERA. The numbers are altogether weirder and more extreme. Not just the numbers though... Nolan Ryan used to throw way, way more pitches than anyone else. His approach to hitters was as strange as the numbers were (you remember this, I know you must).
Craig B - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 09:54 PM EST (#139353) #
Allie Reynolds was a little like Ryan as well, and back in the days of proto-baseball Amos Rusie was probably very much like Ryan.

Magpie mentioned Ryan's longevity, which was indeed weird and impressive, but what makes it infinitely more weird and impressive is that if you lined up the 50 best starting pitchers since 1970 :

1 Pedro Martinez 173 2.58 4.46
2 Randy Johnson 140 3.10 4.35
3 Greg Maddux 140 2.89 4.05
4 Roger Clemens 138 3.19 4.39
5 Kevin Brown 136 3.16 4.29
6 Jim Palmer 133 2.82 3.75
7 Mike Mussina 130 3.53 4.59
8 Tom Seaver 126 2.96 3.72
9 Curt Schilling 126 3.33 4.18
10 Bret Saberhagen 125 3.34 4.17
11 Ron Guidry 123 3.29 4.05
12 Jimmy Key 122 3.51 4.29
13 David Cone 122 3.46 4.23
14 John Smoltz 122 3.29 4.00
15 Kevin Appier 121 3.72 4.49
16 Tom Glavine 119 3.43 4.07
17 Al Leiter 119 3.69 4.38
18 Dave Stieb 118 3.44 4.06
19 Jon Matlack 118 3.18 3.74
20 Nolan Ryan 117 3.18 3.74
21 Gaylord Perry 117 3.18 3.73
22 Don Sutton 116 3.26 3.78
23 Chuck Finley 115 3.85 4.43
24 Bert Blyleven 115 3.31 3.81
25 Orel Hershiser 115 3.48 4.00
26 Steve Rogers 115 3.17 3.64
27 Catfish Hunter 115 3.18 3.64
28 Vida Blue 114 3.22 3.68
29 Dennis Eckersley 113 3.50 3.96
30 Dwight Gooden 113 3.51 3.96
31 John Candelaria 113 3.33 3.76
32 Steve Carlton 112 3.30 3.68
33 David Wells 111 4.06 4.50
34 Bob Welch 111 3.47 3.84
35 Tom Candiotti 111 3.73 4.13
36 Ken Forsch 111 3.37 3.73
37 Tommy John 110 3.51 3.87
38 Jamie Moyer 109 4.07 4.44
39 Frank Viola 109 3.73 4.05
40 Wilbur Wood 109 3.32 3.60
41 Ferguson Jenkins 108 3.46 3.75
42 Rick Reuschel 108 3.37 3.65
43 Frank Tanana 108 3.66 3.96
44 Dennis Martinez 108 3.70 3.99
45 Burt Hooton 108 3.38 3.65
46 Kenny Rogers 108 4.23 4.56
47 Rudy May 108 3.43 3.70
48 Mike Boddicker 107 3.80 4.08
49 Mark Gubicza 107 3.96 4.25
50 Jerry Koosman 107 3.52 3.77

at the age of 25, and watched them all for two starts, I suspect that you'd come to the conclusion pretty quickly that Ryan was the MOST likely to come down with the Total Catastrophic Arm Falling Off Injury Supreme with Cheese.

(Mark Gubicza?)

How a guy who is a prime candidate for a dead arm hardly ever missed a start in a 300-year career is simply baffling to me. Nolan Ryan probably expended twice the physical (and mental) effort in a typical nine-inning game than someone like Ron Guidry or Catfish Hunter did. His durability is really one of the oddest things we've seen in baseball in my lifetime.
Magpie - Monday, January 09 2006 @ 10:21 PM EST (#139358) #
From that group... Ryan and Appier. I expected Appier to disintegrate every time he threw the ball. He reminded me of an out-of-control Gossage. Which is quite the concept, you must admit.

Ryan had problems with blisters early on, in his Met days. And I believe he had a lingering elbow problem for... oh, the last ten years of his career. Until it finally snapped on him, just after he turned 47.

No one who ever saw Ryan pitch in person will ever forget the sound he made every time he delivered a pitch. An enormous grunt of exertion, that you could hear loud and clear in the third deck. On every single pitch. No one else remotely like him. It was weird...

Allie Reynolds... actually, some other Yankees from that era were a little like this. Lots of Ks, lots of walks. Joe Page, Tommy Byrne, Vic Raschi. I did notice that Feller and Ryan both led the league in Ks 7 times in their prime (and after turning 40, Ryan suddenly got a second wind and led the league four more times. Feller just declined like a regular human being.)

Feller led the league in Ks 7 times from 1938 to 1948 - that's all seven years he was actually pitching (he lost four years to the war) - but not once during those seasons did he ever strike out a batter per inning (he did earlier, when he was still a teenager, but in considerably fewer innings.) When he struck out 348, he pitched 371.1 innings.

2006 Hall of Fame ballot-Tommy John | 12 comments | Create New Account
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