10 MLB Pitchers Who Were Never Supposed to Throw Again — But Did
Pitching is one of the worst stresses a person can put on their arms. Yet that hasn’t stopped thousands of players—both amateur and professional—to pursue a career in it.
Unsurprisingly, most pitchers endure an injury or two in their respective careers. For instance, one of the most common repair procedures is Tommy John surgery, which replaces the damaged ligament in the elbow with a tendon from the forearm. As mad scientist as this sounds, countless pitchers have undergone the procedure, including longtime pitcher Tommy John, who was the surgery’s first test monkey.
Whether it’s Tommy John surgery or any other pitching-related injury, it’s simply amazing that anyone could come back and pitch again.
Without further adieu, below are 10 of the most productive MLB pitchers who were never supposed to throw again.
From 2004 to 2010, Johan Santana was one of the game’s best pitchers. The left-hander captured two Cy Young Awards during that span and finished within the top five for the voting three other times. But in 2010, after experiencing discomfort in his left shoulder, Santana was diagnosed with a torn anterior capsule.
Few pitchers have ever returned from a torn anterior capsule, but Santana took the hill after just sitting out one full season.
Unfortunately, Santana re-tore his shoulder prior to the 2013 season. As a result, his career is likely over.
Rick Ankiel seemed en route to becoming the next St. Louis Cardinals ace. In 2000, his rookie season, Ankiel hurled a 3.50 ERA with 194 strikeouts over 175 innings. However, in the postseason, Ankiel endured control issues of historic proportion and was never the same pitcher.
Two years later, the pitcher underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his left elbow. Ankiel would return to the Cardinals in 2004, but decided to quit pitching to pursue a career as an outfielder.
A.J. Burnett has now been a major league pitcher for 15 seasons, but in 2003, the hurler received a bit of a career scare. After pitching just 23 innings in 2003, Burnett was shutdown with a bum elbow. The right-handed required Tommy John surgery and returned more than a year later on June 3, 2004.
Burnett seemed to be back in the swing of things but his elbow flared up again, prompting the Florida Marlins to sit Burnett for most of September. The precautionary measure was a good one, as Burnett is still pitching at age 36.
Chris Carpenter has enjoyed an awesome pitching career, owning a 144 wins, 3.76 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 2.71 K/BB.
But what might be more impressive is his list of injuries:
-2002: shoulder surgery in September
-2003: sat out season with torn glenoid labrum
-2007: surgery to trim bone spurs in May
-2007: Tommy John surgery in July
-2009: oblique tear in April
-2012: missed most of season with thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve-related ailment, in pitching shoulder. Forced to have a rib removed.
-2013: has yet to pitch with lingering symptoms from thoracic outlet syndrome
At age 38, it’s unlikely Carpenter can come back from his latest injury, but the team still thinks a second half appearance is possible.
From 2002 to 2004, Eric Gagne was the most dominant closer in baseball. During that span, Gagne owned a 1.78 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 6.29 K/BB and 152 saves.
Five years before his reign, however, Gagne underwent Tommy John surgery. The then 21-year-old pitcher missed the entire season recovering and worked his way up to closer in 2002.
But all good things must come to an end. Gagne underwent a second—and at the time, unprecedented—Tommy John surgery in 2005. During the surgery, doctors uncovered a nerve entrapped by scar tissue and released it instead of the usual Tommy John procedure.
Gagne would go onto pitch three more seasons, but was never the same.
On an unrelated side note, it’s also worth mentioning that the Quebec-born Gagne only spoke French before attending Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma but taught himself how to speak English by watching the television show ‘Kenan and Kel.’
Any list about pitchers miraculously returning from injury would not be complete without Tommy John. John was a respected starting pitcher from 1963 to 1974, even being selected to the All-Star Game in 1968. But during his 1974 season, John experienced permanent damage to his right ulnar collateral ligament.
At the time, pitchers with UCL damage either tried to rehab the injury (which was mostly unsuccessful) or retired. However, Dr. Frank Jobe made John his pet monkey for a new, reconstructive surgery that replaced the damaged elbow ligament with a tendon from the forearm.
The surgery was a mega success and John went on to pitch for another 14 seasons. Now known as “Tommy John surgery,” the procedure has helped countless players extend their careers.
Jordan Zimmermann’s major league career didn’t get off to a hot start. After posting a 4.63 ERA over his first 16 games, Zimmermann was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery.
Zimmermann returned in late-August 2010 after a year of rehab. The 27-year-old has since become one of the game’s best, young starters, owning a career 3.37 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 3.70 K/BB.
Alex Cobb is the only pitcher on this list who hasn’t endured an elbow or shoulder injury. But don’t let that fool you, his current concussion is an injury only a pitcher could experience.
On June 15, 2013 against the Kansas City Royals, first baseman Eric Hosmer hit a line drive off Cobb’s head. According to the radar gun, the line drive was clocked at 104 mph. Cobb was removed from the field via stretcher but was in stable condition at the hospital.
In the experience was a particular shame as Cobb was in the midst of a breakout season, pitching a 3.01 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 3.30 K/BB.
Miraculously, the Tampa Bay Rays expect Cobb to pitch again this season.
Brian Wilson, otherwise known as “The Beard,” was a Tommy John survivor even before his San Francisco Giants’ career began. In 2003, as a junior with the Louisiana State University, Wilson underwent TJ surgery to repair his right throwing elbow.
The Giants still took a chance on Wilson in the same year’s draft, in the 24th round. The right-hander recovered and powered through the minor leagues, making his major league debut 2006.
Wilson became a bullpen fixture two years later, when he saved 41 games. In 2010, Wilson enjoyed his finest campaign, spinning a 1.18 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3.58 K/BB and a league-leading 48 saves. The closer would also finish seventh in the Cy Young Award ballot.
The big-bearded reliever didn’t last long in 2012, however. Wilson only hurled two innings before going under the knife with his second career Tommy John surgery. Wilson is currently still recovering, but has plans to audition for playoff contenders soon.
Stephen Strasburg was once labeled as the “most-hyped pick in baseball history” by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.
For the most part, Strasburg has fulfilled his lofty expectations, owning a career 2.95 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 4.08 K/BB. But the power righty gave the Washington Nationals a bit of scare, just a few months into his debut 2010 season, when he tore a ligament in his pitching elbow.
The then-21-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery, missing most of 2011 in the process. But since then, Strasburg has been one of the league’s most dominant pitchers. Even though the Nationals have perhaps been overly protective of their star hurler, Strasburg has posted a dynamic 2.95 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 3.82 K/BB since the surgery.