Yesterday in baseball history: A Tommy John masterpiece

June 13, 1967 was my high school graduation day. In honor of the occasion, my best friend’s father took us to D.C. Stadium (now RFK) to see the last place Washington Senators play the first place Chicago White Sox.

I always sat in the cheap seats. However, my friend’s father bought us seats near the field on the first base side.

We had barely settled into those seats when the White Sox grabbed a 2-0 lead. Walt “No Neck” Williams led off the first inning with an infield single. Don Buford followed with a single and the next batter, Tommie Agee, doubled them both home. The inning ended when Agee was caught trying to steal home.

Our seats gave us a great sense of the disparity in team speed. White Sox like Williams, Buford, and Agee streaked to first base. Senators like Frank Howard, Cap Peterson, and Ken McMullen plodded their way down the line.

We had plenty of opportunities to see them plod because White Sox pitcher Tommy John had our heroes beating the ball into the ground. Fourteen Senators grounded out; nine struck out; only two hit fly-ball outs.

In the end, Washington scored no runs on just three hits. The final score was 6-0.

The box score says McMullen doubled in the fourth inning, so there probably was at least one well hit ball off of John. But that was about it.

This was as commanding a pitching performance as I’ve seen in person. It ranks alongside Mel Stottlemyre’s performance against Washington on opening day of the same year, which I also attended with my friend and his father. Stottlemyre gave up no runs and only two hits that day. He struck out six and recorded 16 outs on ground balls.

I don’t follow contemporary statistical analysis of baseball closely — not because it isn’t interesting and valuable (it is) but because I’m not that into contemporary baseball. I am aware, though, of a statistic called fielding independent pitching (FIP).

FIP measures pitchers solely on the events a pitcher has the most control over — strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs. It entirely removes results on balls hit into the field of play.

FIP will tend to favor pitchers who get their outs through strike outs. It will tend to disfavor pitchers who get them through ground balls, although these pitchers are rewarded if they don’t allow many home runs.

Tommy John ranks 310 on this list of best all-time FIP. Stottlemyre ranks 300. (Greg Maddux comes in at 246). There are plenty of pitchers ahead of John and Stottlemyre that I wouldn’t rate as nearly their equal.

But John wasn’t a strike-out pitcher. He never fanned more than 138 batters in a season. For his career, he struck out fewer than one per two innings. The same is true of Stottlemyre. Yet, John won 288 games and nine times posted an ERA of under 3.00 and Stottlemyre’s career ERA (for a much shorter career) is under 3.00.

I understand that the latest statistical trend in baseball is to focus on the “launch angle” of batted balls. The higher the angle, the better — the theory goes — because fly balls are vastly preferable to ground balls.

Indeed, we’re seeing a “fly ball revolution” led by players like Josh Donaldson and Daniel Murphy. Ryan Zimmerman is said to have revived his career (and the improvement in his numbers this year is staggering) because he has improved his launch angle (being healthy hasn’t hurt either). For some batters, “say no to ground balls” has become the mantra.

If hitters gain a big advantage by avoiding grounders, then pitchers must gain a big advantage by inducing them. I’m assuming here that the pitcher has some effect on how his deliveries are hit — surely a correct assumption.

Thus, if launch angle and the fly ball revolution become prevailing wisdom ( FiveThirtyEight says it’s hurting as many hitters as it’s helping), we should see — and probably have already seen — new respect for pitchers who induce ground balls. I have respected them greatly ever since watching Mel Stottlemyre and Tommy John pitch 50 years ago.

STEVE adds: For what it’s worth, I was at Dodger stadium at the game in the summer of 1974 when Tommy John blew out his elbow in what would previously have been a career-ending injury, but instead led to what became known as “Tommy John surgery” pioneered by the great sports surgeon Frank Jobe. I vaguely recall a cracking sound and John letting out a shout of some kind when it happened (though my attention was divided as I was flirting with a girl through the middle innings), and walking directly from the mound, but it wasn’t until the next day that the public knew how bad it had been.


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