COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — John Smoltz became the first pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, and he used his induction speech as a platform to address baseball’s pitching-centric issue.
The former Atlanta Braves star, who underwent surgery to repair his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament in 2000, labeled the rising number of Tommy John surgeries as an "epidemic" affecting baseball, one that needs to be addressed first and foremost at the youth level.
"I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14- and 15 years old. That you have time, that baseball’s not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports," Smoltz said. "Don’t let the institutions out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses (tell you) that this is the way. We have such great, dynamic arms in our game that it’s a shame that we’re having one- and two- and three(-time) Tommy John recipients.
"I want to encourage you, if nothing else — know that your children’s passion and desire to play baseball is something that they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t go outside, they don’t have fun, they don’t throw enough, but they’re competing and maxing out too hard and too early and that’s why we’re having these problems."
Tommy John surgeries have become more common in baseball at both the amateur and professional levels in recent years.
At the youth level, elbow surgeries have nearly doubled since 2000, according to records from the American Sports Medicine Institute. In terms of minor-league and major-league arms, a 2012-13 survey of active players found that 25 percent of major-leaguers and 15 percent minor-leaguers have undergone Tommy John surgery, which often requires a rehabilitation process that lasts 12 months or longer, at some point in their career. The list of MLB pitchers to undergo the procedure now regularly surpasses 20 every year, including young aces like Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey and Yu Darvish.
Smoltz is not the first former pitcher to address the issue.
Former players and doctors alike have pointed to youth specialization (playing only one sport year-round), overexertion, pitch counts, inning limits and other various factors that have led to the rise of arm problems. As more and more organizations react by micromanaging workloads on young starters, complete games and 20-game winners have become rarities in the modern game.
"It is something that is affecting our game," Smoltz said. "It’s something that I thought would cost me my career."
Smoltz still owes the procedure for finalizing his Hall of Fame credentials. After rehabbing throughout the 2000 season, he transitioned into the bullpen in 2001, rattling off an impressive stretch in Atlanta’s closer role from 2001 to 2004. He became the first MLB pitcher to log at least 200 wins and 150 saves, a career calling card that made him the lowest-round draft pick enshrined in Cooperstown.
Without a successful surgery performed by noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, Smoltz is a 150-game winner with one Cy Young Award and a strong postseason track record on his Hall of Fame resume.
Smoltz kicked off his speech by listing four phone calls that defined his career, including the one he received from Tommy John himself, encouraging him to give the surgery a chance.
"The phone call at the age of 34 years old meant the world to me," Smoltz said. "Emotionally, I had given up. I thought that no one would wait for a pitcher of my age on the last year of my contract. That was a pivotal part of my career, to push through what I thought might be a career-ending (surgery)."
The timing of the speech was fitting given that Smoltz’s fellow Hall of Fame inductee Randy Johnson could be baseball’s last 300-game winner, at least for the foreseeable future. Johnson, who pitched until he was 46 years old and remained healthy for the vast majority of his career, hit the milestone in his final season in 2009.
There are only four active pitchers with 200 or more wins. Former Braves pitcher Tim Hudson, 39, remains baseball’s active leader with 219 wins, trailed by Bartolo Colon (213), CC Sabathia (212) and Mark Buehrle (210). Sabathia is the youngest of the group at 35 years old, but his chances are slim to none: He’s 88 wins shy of the 300 plateau and he’s posted a 4.70 ERA or worse in each of his last three seasons.
Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez — 29 years old, 137 career wins — might be the sport’s best bet as the next 300-game winner, and he hasn’t even hit the halfway mark.
"That’s hard for me to say. It all depends on how durable pitchers are these days," Johnson said when asked if he’s the last 300-game winner. "I pitched until I was 46 years old. I pitched through a lot of aches and pains and didn’t really have much of a pitch limit either. I was able to go seven, eight innings — maybe have a better opportunity to secure a win by going seven or eight innings. Where now starting pitchers come out after five or six innings because they’ve thrown 110 pitches and they’re on a pitch limit. There could be six or nine outs still left, a third of a game."