The guess here is that Trammell has the best chance, considering his similarity to Barry Larkin, a shortstop who sailed in on his third try on the writers’ ballot, in 2012. Morris nearly made it the next year, with 67.7 percent, and now a different group considers him.
But let’s not forget John, who had a 3.34 earned run average and 288 career victories — his first at age 20, his last at age 46. Only two pitchers have more wins without a plaque in Cooperstown: Roger Clemens, whose ties to performance enhancers cloud his candidacy, and Bobby Mathews, who was born in 1851.
“I was talking about metrics with a writer, and I said, ‘I won 164 games after my surgery — that was two less than Sandy Koufax won in his entire career,’” John said, his math off by one (Koufax actually won 165).
“And he said, ‘Oh, but his were better wins.’ Why were his better? A win’s a win. And Sandy said the same thing. I told him about it and he said, ‘You went out to win a ballgame, I went out to win a ballgame.’ Sandy’s game was to strike guys out, mine was to throw ground balls. We both did what we set out to do, but I was being held back because I didn’t strike people out. That’s not fair.”
The surgery John referred to, of course, is the one that bears his name, the one that could have saved Koufax’s career, which ended prematurely in 1966. John became the pioneer eight years later, when Dr. Frank Jobe replaced a torn ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from John’s wrist.
When he returned to the Dodgers, in 1976, John had the same uncanny command he had learned as a boy in Indiana, when his father built him a strike zone with strings in the backyard. He lasted 14 seasons after the operation, and never missed a start.
For most of his career, John rarely competed against others who also had the surgery. When a rookie and former patient, Tom Candiotti, beat him with a shutout in 1983, John arranged a meeting in the dugout the next day.
“He spent an hour and a half with me — nicest guy in the world — and that conversation meant more to me than anything,” said Candiotti, who would last 16 seasons and now broadcasts games for the Arizona Diamondbacks. “He talked to me about what he had to do, finger exercises, rubber bands, shampooing your hair; ‘O.K., you can throw now, but you’re not out of the woods; this is what happened to me and what you need to do.’ It was unbelievable. He was the trailblazer of the whole thing.”
The surgery has saved so many careers, from amateurs to All-Stars, that it’s hard to tell the story of the game without it. You could walk through the Hall of Fame gallery with your son or daughter, look at Tommy John’s plaque, and know what to say about him. That alone should not put him in, but the combination of performance and impact makes a compelling case.
The makeup of this ballot seems to prioritize stories over statistics. Some players from that era — Buddy Bell, Bobby Grich, Rick Reuschel — compiled more wins above replacement than the candidates on the ballot. But these nine probably made more of an impression, through awards, memorable moments or, in John’s case, a distinction all his own.
The word “fame” is etched atop the building in Cooperstown, and by any measure, John’s name is now famous. It’s funny, though: If more kids pitched the way he did, fewer would need his surgery.
Nobody pitches like John anymore. In his last All-Star season, for the Yankees in 1980, he was 22-9 with a 3.43 earned run average, while averaging 2.65 strikeouts per nine innings. No pitcher since 2004 has qualified for the E.R.A. title with such a low strikeout rate. As velocity rises, John’s best pitch has gone out of style.
“Well, it doesn’t have speed,” he said. “To throw a sinker, if you throw it 96, 97 miles per hour, the ball gets to home plate before the spin has a chance to make it sink. They don’t want that. The metrics people want speed, speed, speed, and the harder these kids throw when they’re younger, it means they’ve got a better chance of having to have Tommy John surgery.”
John said he could have thrown in the low 90s, but his pitches would have been straight. He was much more effective getting grounders at 86 or 87 m.p.h. According to MLB.com, John induced the most ground-ball double plays in history, 605, far ahead of Jim Kaat, who is next with 462.
In his early years, with the Chicago White Sox, John had extra incentive to pitch that way. His manager, Eddie Stanky, would buy pitchers a Hart Schaffner Marx suit if they got 20 ground balls while pitching a complete-game victory.
“We didn’t have a good-enough team then to go nine innings, but I did get three suits of clothes off of him,” John said. “And a ground ball didn’t have to be an out. It could be a ground-ball base hit. He wanted you to look at it and say, ‘Ground balls don’t go for home runs.’”
Hitters have aggressively built on that principle lately, tailoring their swings to lift balls into the air. Pitchers have tried to counter by baiting them with high fastballs that stay above their bat path.
The game, increasingly, is a contest of brute strength. John would be up for the challenge.
“I couldn’t pitch to these guys today because I’m 75 years old,” he said. “But I would take my chances with ’em.”