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Back and Better Than Ever: Careers that Took Off Post-Surgery

UCL injuries were once career-ending, but with Tommy John surgery many have returned to the game. We look at exceptional players who had, or continue to experience, excellent careers after the procedure.

Tommy John surgery, named for the pitcher who first underwent the procedure, is a fairly common method of reconstructing a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow using a tendon from somewhere else in the body or from a donor. Pitchers are the most common recipient, but it’s becoming more common for position players with ligament damage, too. Over a thousand baseball players have undergone Tommy John, and while UCL injuries were once career-ending, with the surgery many have returned to the game. Below is a list of exceptional players who had, or continue to experience, excellent careers after the procedure.

Pitchers

John Smoltz

John Smoltz
John Smoltz – U.S.Air Force photo/Don Peek / Public domain

Smoltz was the first player inducted to the Hall of Fame following Tommy John surgery. He began his career as a starting pitcher, notching 157 wins a 3.35 ERA from 1988 to 1999 with a Cy Young win in 1996 before Tommy John surgery caused him to miss the entire 2000 season.

Upon his return to the Atlanta Braves in 2001, he transitioned from the starting rotation to the bullpen as a closer. In 2002, Smoltz recorded an MLB record 55 saves, met by fellow Tommy John recipient Éric Gagné but never broken. The Braves slotted him back into the rotation in 2005, where he posted a 3.22 ERA over the next three seasons and led the National League in wins in 2006 (16). Four of his eight All-Star appearances occurred post-surgery and Smoltz retired in 2010 as the only pitcher to have recorded 200 wins and 150 saves over the course of a career.

Jacob deGrom

Jacob deGrom
Jacob deGrom – David from Washington, DC / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Drafted by the New York Mets in the ninth round in 2010, deGrom underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2010 while in Rookie ball. Essentially, his entire pro career is post-surgery.

He made his major league debut in 2014 and was awarded the National League Rookie of the Year for his performance, notching nine wins with a 2.69 ERA and 144 strikeouts over 140 innings. deGrom is the only starter to win Cy Young after surgery, and he has won the award twice, in ’18 and ’19. He is a three-time All-Star (’15, ’18, ‘19) and had registered league-leading tallies for ERA (1.70) and home runs per nine innings (0.4) in 2018, and strikeouts (255) in 2019. He also holds the record for straight stars allowing 3 runs or fewer (30) and for consecutive strikeouts to start a game (8). In March 2019, deGrom signed a five-year, $137.5m contract with the Mets.

Stephen Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg – Keith Allison on Flickr / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Representing the Washington Nationals’ prized first-round draft pick in 2009, agent Scott Boras negotiated Strasburg a $7.5m signing bonus for a total of $15m before he had set foot in the pros. Strasburg’s 2010 debut was one of the most highly anticipated from a starting pitcher.

In his first major league start, he went seven innings and struck out a team record fourteen batters with no walks and two earned runs. He would last 12 starts until he tore his UCL and had surgery on September 3, 2010. Almost a year to the day, Strasburg returned and has since been one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. He is a three-time All-Star (’12, ’16, ’17), has led the league in wins (‘19), strikeouts (‘14), and pitched an immaculate inning (’19) on his way to the 2019 World Series MVP. Strasburg has a career record of 112 wins to 58 losses and is currently the most dominant pitcher in the postseason with a playoff ERA of 1.46. The Nationals have Strasburg under contract (seven years, $245m) through 2026.

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani – Erik Drost / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

“Sho Time” Ohtani is the only player on this list with a somewhat unknown Tommy John result, but his potential is so high that he deserves to be included.

Following his 2018 Rookie of the Year campaign with the Los Angeles Angels, he underwent Tommy John surgery on October 1. His first MLB season ended with numerous accomplishments, including being the first player since Babe Ruth to hit 20 home runs and appear in 10 pitching appearances, and becoming the second fastest Angels rookie to reach 20 home runs.

Ohtani returned to the majors on May 7, 2019 as a designated hitter. He hit for the cycle on June 13 against the Rays and finished his comeback 2019 season batting .286/.343/.505 with 18 home runs, 62 RBI and 12 stolen bases.

Angels manager Joe Maddon has indicated that he intends to keep Ohtani in the rotation and in the designated hitter role, despite having not throwing a live inning since returning from Tommy John. Ohtani is a player to watch with a powerful arm, ability to hit for power and for average, and an above-average 3.8 seconds home to first speed. He’s arguably one of baseball’s rising stars and could become the most dangerous two-way weapon in the league if he stays healthy. Ohtani will be eligible for free agency in 2024.

Position players

Paul Molitor

Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor – Paul Morse / Public domain

Molitor was plagued by injury for the first few years of his professional career, which culminated in Tommy John surgery in 1984. He played seven seasons (’78 -’84) pre-surgery and fourteen seasons (’85-’98) post-surgery, as primarily an infielder and DH. Six of his seven All-Star appearances were post-surgery, in addition to his 1993 World Series MVP performance with the Blue Jays.

In 1987, Molitor’s 39-game hit streak ranked fifth longest all-time, and the longest since Pete Rose’s all-time record of 44 in 1978. In 1996 he became the second 40-year-old to have a 200 hit season and is one of five players to reach the 3000-hit plateau with a lifetime .300 batting average, and 500 stolen bases; one of two (Ichiro) to do so after 1930. He went on to a first ballot election to the Hall of Fame in 2004.

Shin-Soo Choo

Shin-Soo Choo
Shin-Soo Choo – Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Choo had Tommy John surgery September 2007 after the outfielder missed much of the season to injury, five years into his pro career in the Cleveland organisation. To that point, he’d hit .282 in the majors and a fielding percentage of .980 over all outfield positions. Following Tommy John surgery, Choo returned to Cleveland and posted the most hits (98) and RBI (66) by a Korean player in the majors and was named AL Player of the Month in September 2008. He went on to maintain a batting average of over .300 for three of the next five seasons and was fourteenth in MVP voting in 2010. In 2013 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, he ranked twelfth in MVP voting, then was named to the American League All-Star roster in 2018 with the Texas Rangers.

Gleyber Torres

Gleyber Torres
Gleyber Torres – Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Torres is a young star infielder of the New York Yankees whose 2017 injury in AAA led Tommy John surgery before his debut in the majors. Torres contravened a Yankees sliding rule (requiring feet-first slides whenever possible due to the lower risk of injury than head-first) and dove into home, tearing the UCL in his non-throwing elbow.

He returned to play in time for 2018 spring training ranking fifth in MLB prospect rankings. After starting the year in AAA, he was promoted to the majors on April 22. Torres slashed .275/.338/.511 over two seasons with the Yankees and became the only Yankee other than Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle to have two 20+ home run seasons before the age of 23. He was rewarded with a selection to the 2018 and ’19 American League all-star teams and was third in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Notables

Tommy John

Tommy John
Tommy John – Unknown author / Public domain

John has his eponymous surgery, the first of its kind, in 1974. His career spanned 26 years, 14 of which came after the surgery along with more than half of his 288 career wins (164). Following the procedure, the only start he missed was for the flu. John pitched until he was 46.

Jonny Venters

Jonny Venters
Jonny Venters – Thomson200 / CC0

Venters has had the unfortunate experience of undergoing Tommy John surgery three (and a half) times, in ’05, ’13, and ‘14. Even more surprisingly, he has come back to pitch in the majors each time.

He ranked eighth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2010 and made an All-Star appearance in 2011, five and six years after his first surgery, respectively, and was named the 2018 National League Comeback Player of the Year after his third surgery. The reliever boasts a lifetime ERA of 2.71 and overcame a fourth injury just seven pitches into his latest rehab stint and its subsequent surgical repair. He appeared in twelve innings split between Atlanta and Washington in 2019.

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