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Jobe’s immeasurable impact on baseball

Mar 7, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

AP AP

They call it “Tommy John surgery,” and the left-hander who first had his namesake procedure performed on his elbow back in 1974 will forever be immortalized as a baseball pioneer.

Really, though, we should forever refer to it as “Frank Jobe surgery,” because the Los Angeles orthopedist who brilliantly conjured up the ligament reconstruction surgery and then successfully pulled it off on John and allowed the pitcher to resurrect an otherwise lost career was the true visionary.

“Baseball lost a great man and Tommy John lost a great friend,” John said in a statement Thursday night upon learning of Jobe’s death at 88. “There are a lot of pitchers in baseball who should celebrate his life and what he did for the game of baseball.”

A lot? That doesn’t do Jobe enough justice. More like a thousand. That’s how many pitchers have had Tommy John surgery over the last four decades, the vast majority of them making a complete recovery and returning to pitch effectively, and in many cases even better than before.

There isn’t a franchise in baseball that hasn’t been profoundly affected by Jobe, and the Nationals sit very near the top of that list.

What would Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann be doing today if not for Frank Jobe? They certainly wouldn’t be anchoring one of the sport’s best rotations. What about Lucas Giolito and Sammy Solis? Their careers would have ended before either prospect ever had the chance to climb the professional ladder. And what of Christian Garcia, who incredibly had the surgery twice yet still made his major-league debut for the Nats in 2012.

Tommy John surgery has been performed so many times and so perfected by those who have taken the baton from Jobe over the years — including James Andrews, Tim Kremchek and the late Lewis Yocum — that we now tend to think of it as a routine procedure. In reality, it’s incredibly complex.

When John’s ulnar collateral ligament snapped while delivering a pitch for the Dodgers in 1974, the lefty pleaded with team doctors to find a way to get him back on a major-league mound. Jobe, the club’s official surgeon, came up with a revolutionary idea: Take a healthy tendon from John’s right arm and weave it in a figure eight shape through two holes drilled through the elbow bone, creating a new (and stronger) ligament in the process.

At the time, Jobe gave John a 1-in-100 chance of making it back. John spent more than a year rehabbing, then returned to the Dodgers in 1976 better than ever.

From 1971-74, his last four seasons pre-surgery, John posted a 3.10 ERA. In his first four seasons post-surgery, John’s ERA was 3.02. Pre-surgery, he started 318 games and notched 124 wins. Post-surgery, he started 382 games and won 164 times.

And that’s when the procedure was still experimental, with no established rehab road map.

Nowadays, the surgery has been perfected and the recovery process is well-documented. Pitchers all begin throwing around the 4-month mark. They return to a big-league mound in 12 months.

Jobe gave John a 1-in-100 chance of recovery. Now, pitchers have a 92-in-100 chance.

The entire baseball world will mourn Jobe’s death over the next few days, and hopefully more people will have a greater appreciation for this doctor’s contribution to the game.

Here’s an even better idea, though: Give Dr. Frank Jobe a plaque in Cooperstown. Include on it a list of every pitcher whose career he saved with a revolutionary surgery that today is as much a part of baseball’s fabric as pine tar and batting gloves.

Think about how big that plaque would need to be.

  1. unkyd59 - Mar 7, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    Saaalute!

  2. Joe Seamhead - Mar 7, 2014 at 8:30 AM

    I agree with Mark’s idea for a plaque in Cooperstown for Dr.Jobe. I also think that Tommy John got a raw deal by not getting elected into the HOF, but that’s another story..

  3. natsguy - Mar 7, 2014 at 8:46 AM

    SJM308

    I actually did have 2 teams ripped away from me. The reason I cannot stand Espinosa is that, as a pretty good baseball player myself, teammates who cost my team games because they lie about injuries are the worst. I believe his injury contributed to the meltdown in October 2012. He was already hurt in September and didn’t tell anybody. Last year he didn’t get himself fixed and didn’t tell anybody. I love Washington baseball, and probably have for almost 50 years. But I live baseball more and I will not watch a team with a selfish liar like Espinosa on it. It is almost too much for me to bear to even watch him play (especially on MY team.

    Don’t get so high and mighty with me. I suffered terribly in September 1971 and don’t want to hear your crap.

    • sjm308 - Mar 7, 2014 at 9:05 AM

      Fair enough, we will just root in different ways

      • natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:11 AM

        natsguy might be a mind-reader. Only Espi knows whether he was or wasn’t concealing an injury. Guys play with pain all the time.

        As was mentioned at the trade deadline of 2012, will the Nats get Marco Scutaro or even Jamey Carroll at the time or another 2nd baseman as Espi’s 2012 stats into July were .232/.309/.374/.683 and a K rate of 31.5% and a 33% K rate with RISP and the real killer was his choke rate with a runner on 3rd where he K’d at a 42% rate which was worst in the Majors.

        The blame to me goes on management even though Espi had a better 2nd half until mid September and then of course the .067 post-season happened.

        The amazing thing to me was Rizzo had him penciled in for 2013 Opening Day and outside of Lombo didn’t have a Plan B unless you were smart enough to forsee Rendon making the switch to 2nd.

        Now this year they tell us 2nd base is a competition between Rendon and Espi. It’s a good thing Rendon has a sense of humor.

      • sjm308 - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:21 AM

        A good way not to “hear” my opinions (different word then you used) is not to read them or respond because I will continue to write what I think and hope its not “high & mighty” but just how I feel.

    • masterfishkeeper - Mar 7, 2014 at 9:50 AM

      How can you say that Espinosa didn’t get himself fixed and didn’t tell anyone? From reports, the Nats medical staff examined his hand/wrist and didn’t realize it was broken. As to his shoulder, from all reports, everyone is on board with not having surgery.

    • Hiram Hover - Mar 7, 2014 at 9:55 AM

      natsguy

      I hear you. I just think we’re better off not projecting our personal dramas on our understanding of the team, esp. when we can’t really be sure we know what’s going on behind the scenes.

      I read about and watch baseball for enjoyment and escape, and all this drama around Danny provides me neither.

      But as sjm says, to each his own.

      • Joe Seamhead - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:09 AM

        I saw Espinosa in one of his first games with the Nats in 2010 against the Mets when he hit 2 HRs , one from each side, and had 6 RBI’s, and he also had a couple of fine plays at 2nd base. I was excited as a Nats fan. Then his gold got tarnished with me when I saw an interview with him regarding the impending promotion of Lombardozzi. Then over the past couple of years it’s been frustrating watching him stubbornly refuse to shorten his swing, not to mention improve on chasing stuff out of the zone. All that said, I’m stilling pulling for him to succeed, for his own good, and for the good of the team that I live and breathe.

  4. nationalsprospectsdotcom - Mar 7, 2014 at 8:59 AM

    Because it’s a common misnomer that TJ improves a pitcher’s velocity, let me quote from a team doctor on this subject (bolding mine):

    There is an urban myth that “Tommy John” surgery will increase a thrower’s velocity and improve control. No studies have ever clearly shown that to occur. Most likely, these injured throwers have had a progressive, subtle decrease in velocity and control as the UCL has become slowly injured. And so after full recovery from the surgery, these athletes may feel like they are throwing faster and more accurately. Also, the rehabilitation after this surgery includes full reconditioning of not only the elbow, but also the shoulder, back, core/abdominal muscles, hips and legs—all of which are vitally important to throwing successfully with maximum velocity and control. All too often, the injured thrower was not fully conditioned prior to the UCL injury.

    • Doc - Mar 7, 2014 at 9:37 AM

      Amen, bro!

      However, urban fantasy will always have more suasion than reality.

      On another point concerning Dr. Jobe, it was interesting to read in his obit that he stated that Koufax had the same condition with his arm, but the orthopedic procedures had not yet been developed.

      Plaque? Dr. Jobe deserves his own wing at Cooperstown!

    • therealjohnc - Mar 7, 2014 at 4:34 PM

      Luke, is that you?

      If I understand your point correctly, the problem is attributing any increased velocity post-surgery to the surgery itself, when in fact it may be the result of many factors including: (a) no longer pitching with a slowly degrading UCL; (b) reconditioning of core strength during the rehab process enabling greater velocity and control; and (c) (not mentioned) mechanical improvements due in part to (a) and (b) above.

      To which I say that’s merely semantics. If the pitcher is throwing 90mph a month before being diagnosed with a UCL tear and is throwing 92mph 18 months later, it’s OK in my book to say TJ improved the pitcher’s velocity, because all of those things happened, directly or indirectly, because of the surgery and rehab. If that simply means the pitcher came closer to achieving a full potential that was already there prior to the injury, hey I get it. The world is a complex place. But from a practical perspective it is merely splitting hairs.

  5. Hiram Hover - Mar 7, 2014 at 9:46 AM

    This is an excellent tribute, Mark. Thanks, and RIP to Dr. Jobe.

  6. masterfishkeeper - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    Speaking of Tommy John surgery, fangraphs has an article on the top ten Nats prospects:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/2014-top-10-prospects-washington-nationals/

    • natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:26 AM

      They put both new Rays in the Nats top 10 that came along in the Lobaton trade.

      Purke is the name that has to get back in there. To go from the nation’s top 3 pitcher through his shoulder injury you’d hope he could regain at some point his pitches. That’s a guy I want to see make it back. If any system can fix him, it’s the Nats. Even if his ceiling is the bullpen, that’s fine if hes highly productive.

      Treinen sure did open eyes yesterday. Keep an eye on him.

  7. natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:19 AM

    Speaking of TJ, what the beck is wrong with Cole Hamels arm/shoulder.

    Doesn’t sound good.

  8. sjm308 - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    It has always been interesting to me that all the years before 1974 I wonder how many pitchers suffered and failed without this surgery. Of course, I can’t remember what happened yesterday but I really don’t remember hearing about Camilio Pasqual or Pedro Ramos having shoulder/elbow problems. They might have, but it just wasn’t talked about back in the 50s.

  9. NatsLady - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:26 AM

    Here is Matt Williams’ quote for today. “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

    Yeah, maybe. And maybe it’s a warning signal that something’s wrong, and maybe you should play through pain? At least, not always?

    • Hiram Hover - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:31 AM

      That’s interesting. My fortune cookie said, “Weakness is pain’s point of entry into the body.”

      • Section 222 - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:48 AM

        Zing!

    • natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:38 AM

      I could do without that quote after reading natsguy bringing Espi 2012 back from our memories. Not pleasant memories make it worse.

  10. unkyd59 - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Fister resting for a few days…elbow inflammation, did MRI, told Williams he’d pitch, if in season-no worries…
    (Glad it’s not in season)
    Saw this on BR TeamStream

    • natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:40 AM

      Stuff you don’t want to hear considering RZim has muttered those exact words many times before.

      Let us hope and pray Fister is fine and it’s just ST ramp up inflammation.

      • Doc - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:46 AM

        Say it ain’t so, Doug!

    • NatsLady - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:44 AM

      I’m always worried about pitchers’ elbows. Nevertheless, I bet most of them have some inflammation, soreness, achiness or whatever right around now. No matter how careful you are with a “throwing program” it’s not the same as an actual game–even a spring training game. The trick is to know when it’s a symptom of a serious problem.

      • natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:47 AM

        Yes and glad the MRI was already done. Better now than in the season. You have to wonder if he will be able to be ready for the start of the season and his projected Opening Day start on April 4.

    • Section 222 - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:50 AM

      To see this info as a comment on this particular post causes me great pain.

      • natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 11:00 AM

        WaPoJo just posted in Fister. Says the MRI showed a little inflammation.

        Matt Williams said “We’re not concerned about it”.

        I guess we shouldn’t be concerned then.

  11. NatsLady - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    Also, I put up the week’s results, comments and pushup totals. A commenter suggested “Sun Salutations.” Apparently that’s a yoga thing, anyone know about it? Sun Salutations to the Sun Monster?

    http://ladyandthenats.blogspot.com/2014/03/one-weeks-work.html

    • Section 222 - Mar 7, 2014 at 11:10 AM

      Really cool post NL. Entertaining, colorful, and smart.

      • NatsLady - Mar 7, 2014 at 11:44 AM

        Thanks, it took a while to get all those photos and I hope I gave proper credit. I’m SO happy there is fake baseball.

  12. sjm308 - Mar 7, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    Interesting to me how quickly they did the MRI – how things have changed and lets hope they actually read this correctly

    • natinalsgo - Mar 7, 2014 at 11:02 AM

      Rizzo said no structural damage so they looked and that’s great news. Probably the fastest they’ve ever ordered a MRI.

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