Tommy John Surgery: 10 Pitchers Who Came Back Better, 10 Who Didn't
The baseball world got a dose of disappointing news with word that Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will need Tommy John surgery.
The now famous ligament replacement procedure has been performed on seemingly a countless number of baseball players. Yet, the surgery is no guarantee.
Since former big leaguer Tommy John had the surgery, superstar pitchers and minor leaguers alike have gone under the knife. While some have recovered to enjoy lengthy, successful careers, there are a number of hurlers who were never the same after going under the knife.
Here is a look at 10 pitchers who made it all the way back and 10 tougher tales when it comes to the most famous surgery in baseball.
Made It Back: Josh Johnson
Johnson, a fourth round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2002, enjoyed a very positive first full season in the big leagues when he posted a 12-7 record and 3.10 ERA for the Marlins in 2006.
However, early in 2007 it was determined that Johnson needed Tommy John surgery after just four starts into the season.
Surprisingly, Johnson made it back by July of the 2008 season and had since become one of the best pitchers in the National League.
Since his surgery, Johnson is 33-11 with a 2.98 ERA and 434 strikeouts to go with his rise as the ace of the Marlins staff.
Failed Comeback: Kerry Wood
Kerry Wood blitzed the baseball world when he struck out 20 batters in a one-hit effort in his fifth big league start in 1998. Wood finished the year with a 13-6 record, but missed the end of the season with elbow soreness.
That soreness eventually led to Tommy John surgery during spring training and Wood's career was never the same again.
Oh he came back from the surgery and was a very solid, if not good, pitcher and actually led the National League in strikeouts in 2003 with 266 punchouts. However, after that his career began to spiral before he ceased starting games in 2005.
Now, Wood's comeback is not as tragic as it is publicly made out to be, but it is obvious that his elbow never stood the test of time and degradation following the surgery. By 27 years old, Wood's abilities and career were in serious doubt.
It's actually a great testament to him that the now 33-year-old Wood has carved his niche in the game.
Made It Back: John Smoltz
Smoltz was already 12 years into his career before Tommy John surgery sidelined him for the 2000 season. Upon his return in 2001, Smoltz moved to the bullpen and eventually became the Braves closer. In that role, Smoltz saved 154 games from 2001-2004 before moving back into the rotation in 2005.
Even after 2005, the then 35-year-old Smoltz still managed to lead the NL in games started and wins one more time before he retired.
Failed Comeback: Scott Williamson
In 1999, no pitcher in the Reds organization had more upside than Scott Williamson. Williamson went 17-15 with a near-3.00 ERA serving as a swingman in 1999 and 2000 with an eye on becoming either a front line starter or a franchise closer for Cincinnati.
However, Tommy John surgery was required just two relief appearances into his 2001 season and his career was never the same. Williamson became a journeyman reliever, saving only one game since 2003 before slipping to the minor leagues in 2007 where he has remained since.
Made It Back: Joakim Soria
There is an adage associated with Tommy John surgery than sometimes pitchers actually come back stronger than before the surgery.
That may actually be true with Joakim Soria who underwent TJ while a member of the San Diego Padres organization in 2005.
Soria, later selected by the Royals in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft, has since developed into one of the best closers in baseball and a two-time All-Star.
Failed Comeback: Pat Hentgen
Hentgen averaged nearly 15 wins per season from 1993-2000 including a 20-10 mark in 1996 that earned him the American League Cy Young Award.
In 2001, Hentgen, then 31, underwent Tommy John surgery and was never the same. He won just 11 games over four seasons from 2001-2004 before retiring following a one-year contract with the Blue Jays.
Made It Back: Billy Wagner
Wagner was one of the best closers in baseball during his peak years spent with the Astros, Phillies and Mets from 1997-2008. That was already a very long, dominant time for any closer.
However, at the end of 2008, Wagner needed Tommy John surgery which knocked him for most of 2009 minus 15 appearances at the end of the season for the Boston Red Sox.
Wagner, now 38, signed a free agent contract with the Braves before the 2010 season and is one of the best closers in the National League this season. He is 7-2 with a 1.68 ERA and 30 saves, showing he did in fact make it back despite the surgery at such an advanced pitching age.
Failed Comeback: B.J. Ryan
Ryan was one of the best setup man in baseball during his time with the Baltimore Orioles from 2001-2004 before ascending to the closer role and having a great year in 2005 with 36 saves.
That motivated the Blue Jays to sign Ryan as their closer for the 2006 season and beyond. Ryan had a great first season in Toronto, posting 38 saves and a 1.37 ERA. However, early in 2007 Ryan underwent TJ. He had a good first full year back in 2008, notching 32 saves with a 2.95 ERA.
However, 2009 was an abject disaster for Ryan whose command was all over the place and his fastball suffering from a serious drop in velocity. Ryan was figuratively hit out of baseball and hasn't been back.
Made It Back: David Wells
Wells had the fortune of having the surgery while a minor leaguer in 1985, but keep in mind the technology then cannot match how the procedure is done today.
Nevertheless, Wells—who is celebrated for having a rubber arm—went on to win 239 games during his 21-year career.
Failed Comeback: Darren Dreifort
Dreifort is often cited as one of the most notorious big money busts of the modern era. Tommy John surgery had a big part in that. Dreifort signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the Dodgers prior to the 2001 season.
However, Dreifort barely made it to the All-Star break that season before he went under the knife which kept him out through the end of the 2002 season.
Dreifort went 5-8 with a 4.21 in 70 appearances (10 starts) combined between 2003 and 2004, exiting the game after that season having not even finished his contract.
Made It Back: Tim Hudson
Hudson underwent Tommy John surgery towards the end of the 2008 season when he was 32 years old. The thinking was Hudson may not be same given his age and the amount of innings logged on his arm.
Well, Hudson returned to the Atlanta rotation after the All-Star break in 2009 and went 2-1 with a 3.67 ERA in seven starts.
So far in 2010, Hudson is 14-5 with a 2.28 ERA in 26 starts. He has shown no ill-effects from the surgery and is seemingly back to his workhorse status.
Failed Comeback: Kris Benson
Yes, the husband of Kris Benson's wife did actually play baseball.
Benson was the number one overall pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1996 and made his debut in 1999. Benson went 21-26 with a roughly 4.00 ERA combined in 1999 and 2000 before undergoing TJ in 2001.
The right-hander return in 2002, but won just 47 games over the next five seasons with an ERA that hung around 4.50. He returned to the big leagues in 2009 and 2010 as a reliever, but is nothing more than a Four-A player at this point.
Made It Back: Mariano Rivera
Rivera underwent Tommy John surgery (though he never actually had the ligament replaced) in 1992.
Greatest closer in the history of the game? Fair to say he made it back.
Failed Comeback: Phil Humber
The Mets selected Humber with the third overall pick in the 2004 draft. Humber held out for a long time before finally signing for $3.7 million in January 2005. Humber pitched in High-A and Double-A during his first professional season in 2005.
However, after just one start in Double-A Humber needed Tommy John surgery. He returned in the second half of the 2006 season and made 13 starts, but his career was sent permanently off course by the surgery.
He pitched for the Mets Triple-A team in 2007 before he was included in the trade for Johan Santana. He spent two years as a Four-A pitcher for the Twins before signing with the Royals in 2010, earning his first big league victory just last week.
Made It Back: Francisco Liriano
Liriano had people thinking he was the next Johan Santana when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a 22-year-old in 2006.
However, Liriano needed Tommy John surgery late in the season which forced him to miss all of the 2007 season.
Liriano was shaky in 14 starts with the Twins in 2008 as he bounced back and forth from Triple-A. Things got worse for Liriano in 2009, his first full season with the Twins. He went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA.
2010 looks like a far different story. Three years removed from the surgery, Liriano is 12-7 with a 3.41 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 25 starts this season.
Failed Comeback: Jaret Wright
Jaret Wright came up as a young fireballer who did much of the water carrying that helped the Indians reach the 1997 World Series. However, shoulder and elbow issues forced him to miss much of three seasons between 1999 and 2001, derailing his development.
Wright posted a 15.71 ERA with the Indians in 2002 before he was handed his walking papers. After being traded to the Braves in 2003, Wright had more positive season in 2004. He went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA which landed him a three-year, $21 million contract with the Yankees the following season.
However, further arm injuries popped up in New York which sent his career into his fatal spiral.
Made It Back: Chris Carpenter
The Cardinals ace won the Cy Young Award in 2005 before undergoing TJ in 2007. Since then, he's only gone 31-10 with a 2.62 ERA with 298 strikeouts while remaining one of the best pitchers in the National League.
Failed Comeback: Mike Hampton
Mike Hampton won 73 games with the Astros and Mets from 1996-2000 before signing his now infamous $123 million contract with the Rockies prior to the 2001 season.
Yes, he was bad in Colorado. He went 21-28 with a near-6.00 ERA in two seasons before he was shipped to Atlanta. He had somewhat of a rebirth in Atlanta from 2003-2005 as he went 32-21 with a high-3.00s ERA.
Even though his numbers were shaky, Hampton was healthy. He made at least 29 starts in every season from 2001-2004 before undergoing TJ in late 2005 which--along with setbacks--forced him to miss two whole seasons in 2006 and 2007.
Since then, Hampton's career has been one rehab stint after another, leading him to the Diamondbacks system in 2010.
Made It Back: Tommy John
Tommy John was a 12-year veteran coming off a 13-3 season in 1974 before undergoing the surgery that will carry his name in infamy in the annals of baseball.
John missed the 1975 season, but returned in 1976 and proceeded to win another 164 games before retiring after the 1989 season with a career record of 288-231 over 26 seasons.
Failed Comeback: Bill Pulsipher
Before Humber, there was left-hander Bill Pulsipher who was part of the Mets now infamous "Generation K" of pitchers in the mid-1990s.
Pulsipher tallied over 200 innings with the Mets Triple-A club in 1995 before they brought him up. In his first crack at the big leagues, Pulsipher went 5-7 with a 3.98 ERA before his season ended early due to elbow soreness.
He underwent Tommy John surgery during spring training in 1996. His career was never the same. Pulsipher bounced around numerous big league systems and independent leagues before his playing days ceased in 2009.
His Major League record stands at 13-19 with a 5.15 ERA.