Top 10 Comebacks from Tommy John Surgery
In 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe performed the very first ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, a revolutionary procedure that would become known as Tommy John surgery, named after the very first (and highly successful) recipient of the operation.
Hundreds of baseball players have undergone the surgery since, and it has been credited with saving the careers of numerous big league pitchers.
However, some recoveries have been better than others. Here is a ranking of the 10 best pitching careers post-Tommy John surgery.
Note that this list factors in only post-surgery numbers. A player’s numbers prior to the operation are used only for comparison, while future projections are not considered.
Josh Johnson (2007)
Few pitchers have recovered as quickly from Tommy John surgery as Josh Johnson, who was back in the starting rotation a mere 11 months after his operation.
A two-time All-Star who was arguably the best pitcher in the NL in 2010, Johnson has been held back by shoulder issues the past two seasons but remains one of the NL’s better starters.
Jason Isringhausen (1997, 2008, 2009)
It’s hard to imagine a player overcoming longer odds to have a long and successful MLB career than Jason Isringhausen.
A former 44th-round draft pick who has undergone the procedure on three separate occasions, Isringhausen became one of baseball’s better closers following his first surgery and remains an effective pitcher out of the bullpen with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Isringhausen needs two more Tommy John surgeries before he catches Jose Rijo as the all-time leader.
Kenny Rogers (2001)
One of baseball’s most consistent starters during his career, Kenny Rogers put together five solid seasons after going under the knife and played an instrumental role in helping Detroit reach the 2006 World Series.
Rogers is also regarded as one of the finest fielding pitchers in MLB history and even won a Fielding Bible Award for his glovework in his final season in the league.
Eric Gagne (1997)
While he is not the only Cy Young Award winner on this list, Eric Gagne is the only pitcher who managed to win it after undergoing the procedure.
Gagne’s 55-save 2003 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers is on the short list of the greatest relief pitching seasons in MLB history.
The only reason he is not ranked higher is because his greatness was basically confined to a three-year period between 2002 and 2004.
Tim Hudson (2008)
Tim Hudson is the most recent first-time recipient of the procedure on this list and also looks like one of the most seamless recoveries, having finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2010 and remaining one of the NL’s most reliable starters.
At 36 and with 188 career victories, Hudson is a reasonably good bet to make enough starts in his career to reach the magic 300-win barrier.
Chris Carpenter (2007)
Chris Carpenter is Exhibit A for how an elite-level pitcher can undergo the surgery and still return to his previous caliber of play.
A Cy Young Award winner two years prior to his surgery, Carpenter finished second in the Cy Young running in his first full year back and led the NL in starts in each of the past two seasons.
A different arm injury has kept him sidelined all of this year, but it has nothing to do with his surgically repaired elbow.
John Smoltz (2000)
One of three Cy Young Award winners in that great Atlanta Braves starting rotation that dominated the 1990s, John Smoltz converted to the bullpen immediately after his surgery and put together one of the great three-year closer runs in the history of the game.
In fact, a case can be made that Smoltz, not Eric Gagne, was the most dominant reliever in baseball during the 2003 season.
More impressively, Smoltz returned to the rotation in 2005 and spent three more years as one of the NL’s better starting pitchers.
Tommy John (1974)
Dr. Frank Jobe originally put Tommy John’s chances of recovery at one in 100 after performing what was then an experimental procedure.
It’s safe to say that the good doctor was wrong, as John earned votes for the Cy Young Award in four of his first five seasons after the surgery and was still pitching 15 years after undergoing the surgery that now bears his name.
John just missed on being voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA but is a good bet to be inducted by the Veterans Committee sometime down the road.
Tom Candiotti (1981)
Contrary to popular belief, Tommy John surgery didn’t immediately become a cure-all for pitchers suffering from dead arms. In fact, it took several years for another patient to even come close to John’s success.
That patient was Tom Candiotti, who at the time of his surgery was such a lightly regarded prospect that he had to talk his way onto the operating table and convince Dr. Jobe of his “worthiness."
Even then, Candiotti’s career took off primarily because he became one of baseball’s foremost knuckleballers.
David Wells (1985)
Holder of virtually every post-surgery career pitching record, David Wells is my personal choice for most successful recipient of the surgery.
An underappreciated starter known for pinpoint control, Wells went 239-157 over 21 seasons and finished third in the Cy Young Award race in both 1998 and 2000.
Many consider him to be the unofficial ace of the 1998 New York Yankees squad that is often regarded as the best team of the wild-card era.