Are Any Current Pitchers Capable of John Smoltz's Tommy John to HOF Path?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 24, 2015

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OK, folks. It's time to update your knowledge of Tommy John surgery trivia.

You already know that Tommy John was the first player to undergo the revolutionary elbow ligament replacement surgery in 1974. But are you aware that this weekend will see John Smoltz become the first Tommy John survivor to enter the Hall of Fame? It's true, and it shall be a happy occasion.

However, Smoltz's entry into Cooperstown also gives rise to a troubling thought about fellow Tommy John survivors.

"To be honest," said the longtime Atlanta Braves star to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, "I may be the last."

In addition to the first Hall of Fame Tommy John survivor, Smoltz is also the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves.
In addition to the first Hall of Fame Tommy John survivor, Smoltz is also the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves.Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press

This could read like an off-the-cuff remark, but Smoltz made it clear throughout the rest of the interview that this is a serious fear of his. When he looks out across the modern baseball landscape, he sees too many roadblocks in the way of those who would follow his particular path to Cooperstown.

It is, after all, no secret by now that Major League Baseball is going through a Tommy John epidemic. It's also becoming less of a secret that this epidemic isn't occurring randomly. Today's game is too focused on velocity. The fixation on pitch counts also doesn't help, and pitchers are entering the league as damaged goods after throwing too many pitches in their youth.

But while all this may be true, the first Tommy John survivor to make it into the Hall of Fame might also be the last? Really? There's not even one current Tommy John survivor who could prove Smoltz wrong?

One is tempted to carry on in this snarky manner. But truth be told, these are actually good questions.

Tim Hudson has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame, but the emphasis is on "outside."
Tim Hudson has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame, but the emphasis is on "outside."Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Knowing just how many pitchers have had Tommy John surgery, you'd think there would be quite a few Tommy John survivors who look like obvious Cooperstown candidates.

You'd think so...but you'd be wrong.

According to Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement, the most accomplished Tommy John survivor of the last 20 years (1995-2015) is Tim Hudson with 56.5 career WAR. To boot, he also owns a career ERA+ of 120 that ranks ahead of several Hall of Famers.

But though Hudson has a decent Hall of Fame case, it's less than ironclad. Old-school-minded voters won't be overly impressed by his 219 wins and could also ding him for his lack of hardware. More sabermetrically minded voters will notice that Hudson doesn't measure up from any WAR perspective.

After Hudson, there aren't many starters who have survived Tommy John surgery who look like Cooperstown material. Chris Carpenter (35.5 WAR) is a long shot. Adam Wainwright (33.3 WAR) is already 33 and has had too short of a peak. After them, you get into thanks-for-playing candidates like A.J. Burnett, John Lackey and Kerry Wood.

On the bright side, there are two Tommy John survivors among the relief corps who stand out.

Billy Wagner's career ERA+ is second only to Mariano Rivera among relievers.
Billy Wagner's career ERA+ is second only to Mariano Rivera among relievers.FRANK FRANKLIN II/Associated Press

Joe Nathan and Billy Wagner, who will be a first-timer on the 2016 ballot, rank among the 11 best relievers ever as measured by WAR. Even better, the two of them rank in the top eight among relievers (minimum 500 appearances) in ERA+.

But Hall of Famers? Eh, maybe not.

Nathan and Wagner were good relievers, but voters are generally averse to putting relievers in Cooperstown. And heck, if Lee Smith can't get in with 478 career saves, how are Nathan and Wagner going to get in with 377 and 422, respectively?

So if we're going to entertain the notion of another Tommy John survivor one day joining Smoltz in the Hall of Fame, we're going to have to look at more recent standouts and use our imaginations.

To that end, the good news is that the candidates are easy to spot. The bad news, however, is that it's not so easy to bank on them as future Hall of Famers.

Jose Fernandez is amazing, but will his Tommy John surgery prove to be a permanent fix?
Jose Fernandez is amazing, but will his Tommy John surgery prove to be a permanent fix?Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

If you want to get an idea of how many pitchers have had Tommy John surgery within the last few years, find the list at Baseball Heat Maps and start scrolling. Spoiler alert: You'll be scrolling for a while.

But some names will jump out more than others. The six who caught my eye are Jordan Zimmermann, Yu Darvish, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez and Jacob deGrom. Beyond all having had Tommy John surgery, the thing they have in common is that they're really good pitchers.

But Hall of Fame material? Based on what they've done so far, the best we can say is "maybe."

Zimmermann is the most accomplished starter of the bunch, as well as the furthest removed from his operation. But he's also the oldest at 29 and could therefore only have so many prime seasons left.

Speaking of which, Darvish will be 29 when we see him again in 2016. If he needs the year to shake off rust, he'll head into his 30s with the unenviable goal of trying to recapture what he was in his mid-20s.

Then you have the two 27-year-olds, Strasburg and deGrom. The former has loads of talent but also issues with consistency and durability. The latter has been outstanding for a full year now, but he is facing the possibility of a very short prime after getting a late start to his MLB career.

This leaves us with Harvey and Fernandez, who might be Smoltz's best hope for company in the Tommy John survivor wing of the Hall of Fame.

Even as he's looked rusty in his return in 2015, Harvey has still been better than average with a 3.19 ERA.
Even as he's looked rusty in his return in 2015, Harvey has still been better than average with a 3.19 ERA.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

In putting together a 2.65 ERA in 54 starts, Harvey, 26, has demonstrated a rare combination of power stuff and plus command. And with a powerful 6'4" and 215-pound frame, he might be able to carry this style deep into his 30s. If he can, he could one day have both the prime years and the longevity of a Cooperstown-worthy pitcher.

As for Fernandez, he's put up a 2.30 ERA in 40 starts thanks to a power fastball, an unhittable curveball and increasingly sharp command. And with eight years to go until 30, he has a real chance of putting together a Cooperstown-worthy prime before his breakdown comes.

But while Harvey and Fernandez may be the two best bets today's game has of adding some more Tommy John survivors to the Hall of Fame, they're no sure thing.

For starters, the elephant in the room is that Tommy John surgery isn't necessarily a permanent fix. There's a long line of guys who have undergone multiple Tommy John surgeries who can vouch. Further, former B/R writer Will Carroll found in 2006 that there may be a five-year "Tommy John honeymoon" period. In that period, things are relatively safe. After that, all bets are off.

Regarding Harvey and Fernandez specifically, the fact that they're both high-velocity pitchers raises another concern. Among those who have warned that high velocity puts elbows at risk is famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. And according to another of those, this may be especially true of pitchers coming off Tommy John.

Pictured: The heart, the soul and the bane of modern pitching.
Pictured: The heart, the soul and the bane of modern pitching.David Goldman/Associated Press

"For every one mile per hour a pitcher adds, there's an exponentially higher force applied to the [surgical] graft," Dr. Neal ElAttrache told Grantland's Jonah Keri. "You can put in the graft perfectly, but the team and the sport put pressure on you to get back to throwing mid-90s on a piece of tissue that might not have its properties fully back yet."

Since neither the Mets nor the Marlins are likely to ask their respective aces to scale it back with their fastballs, the best either team can do is properly monitor the health of their elbows.

But sure enough, therein lies another concern.

Most clubs are still relying on pitch counts to keep pitchers safe, a strategy that doesn't have a proven track record of success and indeed may increase risk rather than decrease it. The fewer pitches a pitcher is allowed to throw, the harder he may be inclined to throw those pitches. Hence, the velocity problem.

All told, the chips are stacked against not just Harvey and Fernandez, but any talented pitcher who tries to respond to Tommy John surgery by going on to have a Hall of Fame career. Whether we're talking before or after surgery, today's MLB just isn't conducive to keeping elbows healthy.

As such, the best hope of a Tommy John survivor or two one day joining Smoltz in Cooperstown may rest on the arms of pitchers who aren't yet a part of the big leagues.

Maybe Lucas Giolito is the answer.
Maybe Lucas Giolito is the answer.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

With too many pitches at the youth level being one of the contributing problems to the Tommy John epidemic, it's no wonder that there are quite a few Tommy John survivors among MLB's top prospects. To name a few, the list includes Lucas Giolito, Brady Aiken, Dylan Bundy, Nick Kingham and Jameson Taillon.

And yet, it might be one of these guys who has the best chance of being the Hall of Fame's next Tommy John survivor. Because by the time they're well into their major league careers, they could be pitching in a much smarter and safer environment.

For now, teams are still relying mostly on the pitch-count approach to keeping pitchers healthy. But the winds of change are upon MLB. In the coming years, we should see teams start to rely on much less arbitrary means of keeping pitchers healthy.

For example, there's the mThrow. It's a wearable sleeve that can track things like arm speed and release point, allowing it to measure how much force is being applied to a pitcher's elbow with each pitch. Sam Miller of ESPN the Magazine recently highlighted how it's nearly ready for everyday application:

A year ago, the mThrow was nothing but a prototype, set to be tested on a handful of Little League fields. Now it's in use by 27 major league teams, worn by hundreds of major and minor league pitchers for bullpen or long-toss sessions. Odds are it will be approved for use in major league games before long.

With the mThrow, teams are soon going to have a legit weapon for the fight against elbow injuries. And it may not be the only one.

As Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported in June, the Tampa Bay Rays are set to be the first team to install Kinatrax in their home ballpark. It's a system that uses high-speed cameras to track the kind of biomechanical data that could previously only be tracked through wearable tech in a controlled setting. This means it can track pitchers' mechanics in games, potentially allowing for early injury warnings.

Knowing that baseball tends to be resistant to change, it's a good bet that it will take some time before teams fully embrace such innovations. They'll be capable of changing things for the better, but their influence is likely to spread more slowly than their application. Because of that, these innovations may not do much for baseball's current generation of star pitchers.

But the next generation? Innovations like these should not only prevent many pitchers from having to undergo Tommy John surgery in the first place, but also help save pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery from further injuries.

That means guys like Giolito, Aiken, Bundy and all the rest. By the time they're well into their major league careers, they could be putting their outstanding talent to work in an environment that's better suited to protecting pitchers than any environment that came before it.

Bottom line: No, Smoltz probably won't be the last Tommy John survivor to make it into the Hall of Fame.

Maybe he won't be joined by a fellow Tommy John survivor anytime soon. And maybe the guy who joins him isn't somebody who's an established major leaguer right now. But if it's not one of them, it could be one of the guys next in line.

Because moving forward, the path that Smoltz had to take to the Hall of Fame is bound to become considerably safer.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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