These players all returned to the mound after undergoing the serious—and potentially career-ending procedure. Some managed to get even better.
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Tommy John, Los Angeles Dodgers
The pitcher who gave this surgery its name was pegged with a "one in 100 chance" of returning to baseball after he injured the ulnar collateral ligament in his left arm during the 1974 season. John was 13-3 for the Los Angeles Dodgers that year and had already won 124 games in his career before Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers' team physician, performed what was then an “experimental” procedure: He replaced the ligament in the elbow of John’s pitching arm with a tendon from his right forearm—and the Tommy John surgery was born.
John continued to pitch for over a decade following the surgery, winning 164 games while making three All-Star teams and finishing as the runner-up in Cy Young voting two times. The surgery, of course, became a revolutionary procedure for pitchers who injured their ulnar collateral ligaments, and has been performed thousands of times since then. And while a successful comeback isn't always the result, John created the blueprint for a positive outcome.
Strasburg was one of the most hyped prospects ever—the San Diego State product had a 100-mph fastball and had just won the National Pitcher of the Year Award—when he was selected first in the 2009 MLB Draft. The right-hander made his MLB debut in June 2010, striking out 14 batters in seven innings to set a new team record, and giving Nationals fans hope they could make the playoffs for the first time since moving from Montreal. In what shaped up to be a promising rookie season, Strasburg posted a strong 2.91 ERA over 12 starts.
But in late August 2010, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery. Strasburg missed most of 2011, but returned from the surgery just as strong—he won 15 games in 2012 and in 2014 he struck out a whopping 242 batters in 215 innings pitched. Strasburg’s comeback has been a hugely successful one: In 2016, he signed a seven-year, $175 million extension with the Nationals.
The Cuban pitcher broke out as a rookie in 2013, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts for the Miami Marlins. Hailed as one of the next young stars in baseball, Fernandez won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finished third in Cy Young Award balloting. The next season, though Fernandez suffered an elbow injury after just eight starts—but once he came back in late 2015, Fernandez was stellar once again, posting a 2.92 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 11 games that season.
Zimmermann was one of the top prospects in the Washington Nationals system when he made his MLB debut in 2009, but after pitching in just 16 games, he tore his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. The righty returned for the Nationals on the exact day that the team found out that Stephen Strasburg would need to undergo the same surgery. After having the procedure, Zimmermann led the National League in wins (2013), made two All-Star teams (2013-14), and also tossed the first no-hitter in Nationals history. Zimmermann marked a major milestone when he signed with the Detroit Tigers before the 2016 season—he became the first pitcher in history to sign a $100 million-plus contract after having Tommy John surgery earlier in his career.
“The Dark Knight” was annointed as the face of the New York Mets franchise after making his debut in 2012 with a near-100 mph fastball in his arsenal. Harvey became a fan favorite in Gotham and he basically hit superstar status when he was picked to start the 2013 MLB All-Star Game, which was held at the Mets' home ballpark, Citi Field. Later that season, though, fans were heartbroken when Harvey suffered an elbow injury, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery after hoping to avoid the procedure through rehab. The North Carolina Tar Heel product returned in April 2015 and had a stellar season—going 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA while winning NL Comeback Player of the Year and helping the long-suffering Mets make it to the World Series.
The right-hander won the National League Cy Young Award in 1996 and led the Atlanta Braves to numerous division titles while forming a fantastic pitching trio with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Smoltz was one of the best starters in baseball when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2000, but the procedure didn't stop him from pitching—he ended up staying in baseball until 2009. The eight-time All-Star bounced from the bullpen to the starting rotation and back while pitching for the Braves, Boston Red Sox, and St. Louis Cardinals, finishing his career as the only pitcher in history to record 200 wins and 150 saves. Smoltz was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015 and was one of the best postseason pitchers ever, going 15–4 with a 2.67 earned run average (ERA) in 41 career playoff games.
Hudson started his career as part of the “Big 3” pitching rotation alongside Barry Zito and Mark Mulder for the Oakland Athletics—and he was the standout of that group. A few years after leading the American League in wins, the A’s traded Hudson to the Atlanta Braves, where he continued to perform like one of the best pitchers in baseball. In August 2008, Hudson injured his elbow and needed to undergo Tommy John surgery—but because he was 32, many wondered if the Auburn University product would be the same pitcher after the procedure. Astonishingly, Hudson turned out to be even better, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting and winning NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2010. Hudson won a World Series with the San Francisco Giants in 2014 and retired the following year.
As a rookie, Wainwright helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the 2006 World Series by pitching out of the bullpen, but the Brunswick, Georgia native was always destined for the starting rotation. Wainwright was a top pitcher in the Atlanta Braves system when he was traded to the Cardinals, and during his time in St. Louis he showed why, making the All-Star team and finishing second in the NL Cy Young voting in 2010. Before the 2011 season started, Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery, forcing him to miss the entire year—including the World Series win against the Texas Rangers. But the righty returned from surgery and looked as strong as ever, leading the the NL in wins in 2013 and making the All-Star team twice in 2013 and 2014.
Two years after winning the 2005 National League Cy Young award for the St. Louis Cardinals, Carpenter began dealing with elbow issues and underwent Tommy John surgery. The right-hander rehabbed with some massive determination and returned to the mound a little over a year after having the procedure—most pitchers need more than 12 months to recover. Carpenter quickly returned to his pre-surgery form, finishing second in the Cy Young voting in 2009 and winning NL Comeback Player of the Year. The three-time All-Star went 31-10 with a 2.62 ERA in his first 41 decisions after the surgery and also won the 2011 World Series with the Cardinals.
“Boomer” underwent the procedure when he was in the minor leagues in 1985. Nowadays, technological aids have improved the recovery prospects for major-leaguers who receive Tommy John surgery, but back then, a comeback was no certain thing.
Someone forgot to tell David Wells, though. The pudgy lefthander ended up pitching for 21 years in the major leagues after having surgery, winning World Series titles with the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees. While pitching in pinstripes, Wells threw the 15th perfect game in MLB history and also led the American League in wins in 2000.
Born a righty, Wagner taught himself to throw southpaw and eventually developed into one of the best relievers in baseball. “Billy the Kid" made the All-Star game six times for three different teams (Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets) and also helped pitch a combined no-hitter before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2008. Despite the procedure, Wagner remained one of the top bullpen arms in baseball, saving 37 games in his first full season after coming back from surgery. Wagner finished his career as one of just five relief pitchers to have at least 400 saves in his career.