After hurting his elbow in 1974, Tommy John's successful 11-year career with the Indians, White Sox and Dodgers looked like it was over. But Dr. Frank Jobe and his partner Dr. Robert Kerlan parlayed a long-shot procedure (ulnar collateral replacement surgery) into 14 more productive years for John's left elbow.
Now the pitching coach for the AA Harrisburg Senators, John recently took time out from the Eastern League playoffs to chat about his career, the surgery that took on his name, and the lessons he teaches young pitchers today.
Baseball Prospectus: How did you cope with having to make high-stress decisions that balanced your career against your possible long-term health?
Tommy John: It was a no-brainer. The way Dr. Jobe explained it to me, if I didn't have (the surgery) then, I'd never pitch again. If I did have it then, there was at least a slight chance I might pitch again. If it didn't work, it wouldn't mean I wouldn't be able to use my arm. It just meant I wouldn't be able to pitch again. It was just baseball–I could have done numerous things other than pitch. But it was worth a try.
BP: What about after the first surgery caused the nerve problem, and your hand got locked into what looked like a claw? Weren't you worried your hand might stay that way?
TJ: Dr. Jobe told me it was more than likely just scar tissue growing over the nerve, they just had to reposition the nerve. He said there was a possibility I may not get back full use of the nerve. I'd still be able to pitch, but it might stay kind of numb and tingly. Of course it worked out fine.
What's interesting was that having the second surgery and knowing I didn't have a chance to pitch in '75 was the building block to getting me back to pitching well. Otherwise I would have been like any other pitcher, trying to come back in five or six months, way too early. So I wrote off '75 and worried about '76 instead.
The problem is players are so competitive, so success driven. They want to be the first ballplayer to come back in six months. John Smoltz said he wanted to do that, and he had to shut it down what, three times? I found out you can't mess with Mom and Dad, they know more than anyone else. Mom being Mother Nature, Dad, Father Time. It takes time for the body to rebuild, you can't speed the process up.
BP: We hear that when you started rehabbing, you really didn't have much of a roadmap, since it had never been done before. Is that how it went?
TJ: When they took the splints and everything off after a few months, they said now you can start throwing. I said OK, and just started playing catch with my wife.
My program was to run and throw every day. People say 'you're kidding.' I say no. They say, 'how many pitches did you throw?' I tell them I threw until I got tired. When I started throwing in spring training 1975, I threw the ball almost every day, six days a week. The worse day for me was Monday because I took Sundays off.
BP: So you had no guidance at all?
TJ: I thought about some of the things people had told me before. Early in my career I was coached by John Sain. He tried to get me to throw off the mound every day. I said no way. I'd have throw days where I'd throw batting practice, but I wouldn't throw off a mound every day.
Then when I had the surgery, I was forced into throwing every day to rebuild my arm strength. All of a sudden, my arm felt better than it had in its life. I'm not talking about throwing five minutes. I would warm up in the bullpen for 10 or 15 minutes, 15, 20 minutes of BP, then 10, 15 minutes more back in the bullpen, six days a week. On days where I wasn't throwing batting practice, I'd throw off a mound a half hour to an hour.
BP: Do you think throwing a lot helps build arm strength for pitchers who aren't rehabbing from injuries?
TJ: The manager of the Rangers, Jerry Narron, is a friend of mine. He said he had to apologize for what he did. Every day I used to get him up at Yankee Stadium throwing, and he thought I was crazy. Then he managed in the minor leagues and had to throw every day. His arm got better and stronger–he said if he had thrown in the big leagues the way he did in the minors, he would have been a better thrower as a catcher.
Look at (Jim) Morris. He threw to kids every day and his arm got stronger. It's hard for people to buy into the fact that throwing will strengthen your arm. A lot of them think rest will strengthen it. It won't. It might make it feel better but it won't strengthen it.
BP: Dr. Jobe talked about how throwing at more than 75% effort can strain an arm though. Do you mean pitchers should throw at maximum effort that often?
TJ: No. You throw at batting practice speed, then throw at max effort twice between starts. The key is that you throw off a mound though.
I'm not an advocate of long throwing. Shortstops and catchers don't long-toss, so why do pitchers do it? That's an outfielder's skill. Guys are out there throwing 200 feet. But the muscles you're trying to strengthen as a pitcher have no idea if you're throwing 60 feet or 200 feet. The speeds are all about the same from 100 or 200 feet if you put some paste on it.
I asked (Dr. James) Andrews this–if you get back there 100 feet and you're throwing 82 miles an hour, why not just go off the mound and do the same thing instead? That way you can throw at that speed, but also practice throwing at the outside corner and inside corner. Catchers, outfielders, shortstops, they all have practice specific throws. Pitchers are the only ones who do the majority of their throwing without practicing the specifics of their job. And pitching is the practice of specificity. Throwing in four- or five-inch corridors, changing speeds–how can you do that unless you practice it all the time?
BP: Have you seen any teams with training regimens you like?
TJ: The Braves, they throw a lot. Leo Mazzone believes you have to command the low and outside part of the strike zone. Until you can command that aspect, you're destined to be an average type pitcher. Those guys have bought into it. I know Leo is a student of John Sain.
BP: Are you able to apply some of your training philosophy to your current work with Harrisburg?
TJ: We have a regimen that my boss, Brent Strom, sends down, and that's what we follow. I have my opinions. I try to get my guys to throw off the mound every day if they want to, even just 15 pitches if they want to. The more you practice throwing strikes, the easier it is to throw strikes. You have to work on a specific endeavor often and pitchers right now don't do it.
BP: What are some of the techniques the team works on?
TJ: The pitchers are taught to block with the left side, much like a golfer blocks with his front knee. We work on late rotation, getting out over the front leg to throw. The guys that do it are the guys that can keep pitching. The farther you can get your arm out in front, the closer to home plate it'll be. If one guy's release point is 55 feet, another guy throws from 54 feet and they both throw 85 miles an hour, the guy at 54 feet gets the ball on the batter faster. Whitey Ford was good at that, I used to be good at that. It's not throwing hard, it's being sneaky fast.
That's what we do from AAA ball all the way down to rookie ball. Teams spend a lot of money on these kids in the draft–you need them to be mechanically sound.
BP: How have the Harrisburg pitchers responded? Have you seen guys making positive strides under the program you teach?
TJ: What I try to get across is the importance of changing speeds. I'll take a radar gun down to the bullpen. I don't want to see kids throw as hard as possible–I think the gun is a major cause of injuries, kids won't get drafted unless they light up the gun. I want them to see what a 75 mile-an-hour change looks like, or 72. If the fastball's between 85 and 90, the slider has to be some place lower than 85. You want the curve ball to be a different speed, the change–whatever you throw, you need to mix it up.
It's easier to change speeds than it is to throw a curve ball or slider on the outside corner. I'd like to see batters have more to adjust to. Slow their bats down, then throw the fastball.
BP: How much emphasis does the team place on pitch counts?
TJ: We have a limit in our organization. Here, it's 100 pitches. It depends who the pitcher is, how young he is and everything, but that's usually it. We also have a three-game limit of 280 total pitches. This year, we've had one pitcher older than the rest of the guys (Julio Manon), and he can throw 110 or so pitches. He's strong, he's 28 years old, that's a whole lot different than kids who are 20 or 21.
Other than that, we've hit 100 pitches twice all year. One was 100, the other one was 101. We've had Josh Karp here. One game he went 99 pitches, the next game 97 or 98. So the next game we bumped him down to 85.
BP: One of the complaints you hear comes from teams who impose pitch counts on pitchers in the minors. Then when those pitchers get to the majors, they sometimes have trouble going longer. Is there a way to create a gradual, healthy progression for pitch counts?
TJ: In the minor leagues we're teaching them mechanics and low pitch counts. In the big leagues, you pitch to win. Brent Strom and I have talked about this a lot. I just read where Mark Redman has a tired arm. 200 innings isn't a lot of innings necessarily, but it is if you haven't done it before. It's like a marathon, you can't go out the first time and run 26 miles. Redman threw (58) innings last year, this year he jacked it to 203, now he's gassed.
No matter how much you work on pitch counts, some pitchers are going to get sore. But at the same time, if guys are only going to go five or six innings, you'll need a 13- or 14- man staff. It's tough. Guys like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling become staff savers.
BP: You talk about pitching to win in the majors. But how do you balance that with someone like Mark Prior, who's clearly talented enough to pitch in the majors, but only 22 years old and barely out of college?
TJ: I remember when I was in the Eastern League, we never had a pitching coach. Hal Newhouser would come around once in April, then again in August. He'd say, 'kid, you really threw the ball well last night.' That was it. You had a manager, maybe a veteran mentor, but mostly you had to learn by yourself.
A guy like Prior has had serious instruction since he was 8 or 9 years old. We've got films and technology now that are able to spot bad mechanics right away. You can always train yourself to throw 120 pitches, especially if you've got all that working for you.
Throwing 120 pitches isn't necessarily a lot. It is if from age 10 you're told you can't do it though. That doesn't mean you want 10-year-olds throwing that much, of course, but you don't want to put limits in pitchers' heads too early either. Then it becomes like the four-minute mile, this barrier that no one feels they can achieve. Until someone comes along and does it.