The Art of Pitching, the Science of Arms

The Art of Pitching, the Science of Arms

“Three men have changed the face of baseball,” 288-game winner Tommy John tells Breitbart Sports. “The three men are Jackie Robinson, for breaking the color barrier; Marvin Miller, for creating free agency; and Dr. Frank Jobe for Tommy John surgery. When you change the face of baseball, you should be in the Hall of Fame.”

Dr. Jobe, who died at 88 in March, nevertheless remains without a plaque in Cooperstown. The careers of more current major league pitchers owe a direct debt to Frank Jobe than owe a direct debt to Jackie Robinson. Since Tommy John went under the knife for a ligament tear forty years ago, hundreds of other major leaguers have followed him to the operating table. The nineteen Major League Baseball players requiring Tommy John Surgery this young season threatens to surpass the record 36 procedures in 2012. In the wake of Jobe’s death, and star pitchers Jose Fernandez and Patrick Corbin requiring the surgery he pioneered, chatter increases for enshrining the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers team doctor in Cooperstown.

 “The Hall of Fame last summer honored him for what he’s done for baseball and sports medicine,” John explains. “The Hall of Fame gave me four minutes to talk. I said, ‘You don’t have Chuck Barris on the sideline to pull me off stage with the gong?'”

John can talk forever about Jobe because he pitched forever because of him. In 1974, the veteran lefthander figured to garner Cy Young Award votes with a 13-3 record and a 2.59 earned-run average on a team on its way to winning the National League pennant. John’s best year suddenly became his worst, as a ruptured tendon suffered on the mound against the Expos forced him out of the regular season, the World Series, and the following year’s campaign. “I knew I couldn’t pitch with my elbow like it was,” John recalls. “Dr. Jobe said, ‘Let’s just rest it and see if it will heal on its own.'”

After weeks of rest, the arm still couldn’t perform anywhere close to what it could before the injury. “There’s a procedure,” the Dodgers’ team doctor informed. “It’s never been done on an MLB pitcher. But I’ve done it before on polio patients. The procedure is sound. We don’t know if it’s going to be sound with someone who throws a baseball violently.”

John, facing the fate of Sandy Koufax and other greats who had succumbed to similar injuries, naturally listened to any idea that might salvage his arm. “I think less than five percent,” Jobe guessed of the prospect of the surgery’s success. “Maybe two, three percent. Maybe less because it’s never been done.” On September 25, 1974, the doctor operated on his patient.

John returned to the big leagues in 1976 posting a respectable record of 10-10. More significantly, he progressed as the season did. The following year, he finished right behind winner Steve Carlton in Cy Young Award balloting. From a career on the verge of collapse just as the Nixon presidency did, John, whose first appearance in the majors happened prior to the Kennedy assassination, continued a career into the George H.W. Bush administration. Does this longevity make him an effective posterchild for the operation that bears his name? “I would think so. I pitched thirteen years after the surgery, and I never missed a start in thirteen years. I think that says a lot about the surgery.”

So does a March 2014 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that puts the odds of returning to play after the procedure at nearly automatic. Of the 179 MLB pitchers studied, 174 returned to the professional ranks, and 148 to the majors, after undergoing the operation. They pitched more impressively post-procedure, too. The typical pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery throws fewer innings but compiles a lower earned run average, allows fewer hits and walks, and enjoys a higher winning percentage. “The surgery doesn’t make you throw better,” the Dodgers, Yankees, and White Sox great points out. “The surgery corrects a defect in your arm. That makes you throw harder.”

It also made Tommy John throw smarter. “When you have the surgery and you do the rehab,” the sinkerballer points out, “you don’t jump back into pitching the way you did. You have to relearn the art of pitching. The art of pitching is not throwing 100 miles an hour. It’s pitching deep into the ballgame when you have nothing or less than your best stuff. That’s the art of pitching.”