Luis Tiant and Tommy John for the Hall of Fame

Two former Yankee pitchers Tommy John and Luis Tiant are candidates on this year’s Hall of Fame Modern Era ballot. Both these players made strong impressions on Yankee fans through their work with Yankee rivals before donning the pinstripes. Tiant was the ace of the Red Sox pitching staff through much of the 1970s including during the historic 1978 battle  for the American League East championship. John was a stalwart pitcher on Dodger teams that lost the 1977 and 1978 World Series to the Yankees.

Tiant pitched two pretty undistinguished seasons for the Yankees in 1979-80, posting a 21-17 record and very pedestrian 4.31 ERA during the course of those two seasons. If Tiant makes it to Cooperstown it will not be for anything he did with the Yankees. John is a different story. In his first stint with the Yankees that lasted from 1979 to late in the 1982 season, John was a solid to excellent pitcher, winning more than twenty games in both 1979 and 1980 while being selected to the All Star team and finishing in the top five in Cy Young voting in both those years. John was traded away in August of 1982 and rejoined the Yankees as a free agent in May of 1986. This second go around with the Yankees began when John was 43, but he still managed decent numbers, 29-24 with a 4.26 ERA while being a regular member of the pitching rotation in 1987 and 1988. Although many probably think of John as a Dodger, he won more games, started more games and threw more innings as a Yankee. However, he had more games started and innings pitched with the White Sox than with either the Yankees or the Dodgers.

In addition to having different experiences with the Yankees Tiant and John are very different kinds of candidates for the Hall of Fame. In some respects, this is obvious to anybody who saw them pitch. Tiant, a righty, had a wide range of pitches, deliveries and arm angles. He was fun to watch even when he was beating the Yankees. The closes contemporary comparison might be Johnny Cueto, but Tiant was better. John was a sinker ball specialist. When he was with the Yankees watching him pitch a game was an almost soporific series of ground balls to Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles. It sometimes felt almost boring, but John was extremely effective. 

Tiant at his best was a better pitcher than John. John’s best seasons were 1968 and 1979. In the former he posted a very impressive ERA+ of 168, but pitched only 177.1 innings. Injuries shortened his season, but he still had 5.6 WAR. His 1979 season with the Yankees was a 5.5 WAR season, but he threw 276.1 innings with an ERA+ of 137. These are both excellent seasons, but they suggest that John’s peak was never as high as the best pitchers of his time. 

Tiant’s record is very different. He had four seasons where he exceeded 6 WAR including 1968 when he accumulated 8.4 WAR. His best season was 1968 when he had a 21-9 record and an ERA+ of 186. Tiant’s Hall of Fame candidacy rests on his three strongest seasons 1968, 1972 and 1974 and, in general, on his work with the Red Sox from 1972-1978 when he resurrected his career and was an either excellent or solid starting pitcher for seven years.

John was an accumulator. At his best, he was a good, but not great, pitcher, but he pitched, and was effective, into his late 40s. John is 25th on the All Time win list. Of those ahead of him on that list only Roger Clemens, due to steroid related issues and Bobby Matthews, an obscure 19th century pitcher, are not in the Hall of Fame. Of the 25 below John on the list only two, Jim Kaat and Jamie Moyer, are not in the Hall of Fame and no longer either active or on the ballot. John was better than both of them. 

Despite being a very good pitcher for a very long time, John’s most lasting contribution to baseball comes from his 1975 season when he didn’t throw a pitch. During that year, John had experimental surgery to fix a torn UCL in his left arm. The survey worked and the following season John returned to being a top pitcher. In the forty years since then, many careers have been saved by the surgery that now bears John’s name. One result of this is that many young players and fans know the surgery, but do not know that Tommy John was a real pitcher and a very good one at that. Electing him to the Hall of Fame would be a good way to change that.

The Cooperstown case for John is based on having had a long and very good, if never quite great, career and for the larger impact he had on baseball. For Tiant, his very impressive peak, relative longevity, including 229 wins and just short of 3,500 innings pitched, are a big part of his case, but there is more to Tiant than that. He was a reliable big game pitcher and one of the first great Cuban stars to make it to the big leagues. Starting pitchers are not well represented in Cooperstown. Tiant and John are among the best of their era who are not in yet, so electing them would begin to rectify that and perhaps open the door to even more qualified pitchers, like longtime Yankee Mike Mussina, from later eras. And, for what its worth, both were better pitchers than Jack Morris who may just get in on some kind of strange sympathy vote this year.

Photo: cc/Steven Carter