IBI Power Poll: Best Indians' Starters of All-Time: Part 1
By Jim Pete
February 18, 2013
The Cleveland Indians really are a mixed bag when you talk about the history of its starting pitching. Two of the greatest starting pitchers of all time spent all or the majority of their careers in Cleveland. The early 50’s Indians rotation is a top-five or ten rotation of all time, and that’s a team that had Bob Feller on the downside of his career.
Seven total starters in my top ten are in the Hall of Fame, with six of those players playing the majority of their careers in Cleveland. An eighth player on my list isn’t in the Hall, but is arguably as important to this franchise as Bob Feller, after spending 20 years on the team as a starter, and several more as a player and a coach. A ninth player in my top ten is likely a lock for the Hall and will no doubt play most of his years with the Indians when it’s all said and done. The tenth player had a fantastic career that was stopped short of being a Hall-of-Fame career because of the bottle.
The next ten on the list are loaded with guys who spent part of their stellar careers with the Indians, or who were steady for much of their career and spectacular for a season or two. The final eight, which I’ll talk about today, all deserve mention for either solid overall numbers, solid numbers while playing for bad teams, or just deserve mention.
The top twelve on my list were quite easy to rank, and the semantics of the numbers in front of their names were fairy fluid and inconsequential when it was all said and done. The number one spot was perhaps the easiest of all my lists with the exception of first base based on the overall importance of that singular player on the history of this team. It’s actually kind of funny in the end, because the number two slot is a pitcher than many might say is the greatest starter of all-time. Of course, that starter spent many years outside of Cleveland as well, and I firmly believe that had the war not interjected, the guy that IS number one on my list may have been considered #1 for all starters in the history of the game.
Cleveland has 15 no-hitters, with two of those being perfect games. Bob Rhoads, Ray Caldwell, Don Black, Dick Bosman and Len Barker all had no-hitters/perfect game (Barker) and didn’t make the list. other ten no-hitters were shared among six pitchers, with Rapid Robert Feller leading the way with three. When he retired, Feller not only had three no-no’s, but another 12 one-hitters as well.
The irony of all this starting pitching talk is that the Indians vaunted team of the 90’s barely registered a single member on this list, and only has two members in the top 30. I’ll get to both in a minute, as they both register in the honorable mention category. Guys like Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Mark Clark, Chad Ogea, Jack McDowell, Jaret Wright and Dave Burba all had their moments, but none deserve to be on this all-time list. Chuck Finley joined the equation in 2000, but by then he was 37 and long past his best years.
Sabathia joined the fray in 2001, while one Bartolo Colon begat Cliff Lee, and brings us to the current era Indians. Both Sabathia and Lee are gone, and the current Indians don’t currently have a member under consideration.
Here are the guys that failed to make the top ten list. What you’ll find is that you truthfully could lump the 30 players in the overall group into two total groups. In my humble opinion, the top 12 on this list are far-and-away better than the rest, who are very good. I could probably split them into three, which really is semantics, because those first 12 really should be the only ones considered for the all-time top slot.
This is in no particular order.
Guy Morton spent eleven seasons with the Cleveland Indians, and was unspectacularly excellent in his career with the Tribe. Overall, Morton was 98-86, with a 3.13 ERA, and never had an ERA above 3.02 during his first six seasons, from 1914 through 1919. His best season was in 1915, when he went 16-15 with a 2.14 ERA in 240 innings with a 7.0 WAR. From 1915 through 1918, he went 52-39 with a sub-3.00 ERA. Morton seems to be the model of Tribe starting pitchers for the 90’s, except he did it in the teens and the twenties. His numbers are fairly typical of what you’ll find in this list at this stage of the game.
Johnny Allen started his career off with the New York Yankees before getting traded to the Indians in 1935 for Monte Pearson and Steve Sundra. He was dealt essentially because he was hot-headed, stubborn and was a consistent spring training holdout. In his first year, Allen won 20 games for the first time in his career, and his 243 innings were the most in his career by 50. As good as he was in 1936, he was even better in 1937. He didn’t win 20 games that season, but he did win his first 15 games. This included a stretch of missed games from June 19th through August 3rd because of appendicitis. His first loss came in his last start on October 3rd. The Indians lost 1-0 in that game, with Allen throwing a five-hit, one-run complete game in the loss. He lost the game because of an error by Odelle Hale, and had to be held back after going after the third basemen after the game. Allen started the 1938 season 12-1 and made the all-star game. He was either injured during the game, or in the shower afterwards, and was never the same pitcher again. In the second half, he went 2-7 with a 6.29 ERA. Over the next two seasons, he went 18-15 overall, with an ERA hovering around 4. The numbers weren’t horrible, but they weren’t all that good either. He was sold after the 1940 season as a leader of Vitt’s crybabies.
Fred Falkenberg was never much special, but at some point he reminded someone of Cy Young, and was from that point on known as Cy Falkenberg. He was so middling that he was sent to Toledo after his first four seasons in Cleveland. He had gone 34-31 with a very good ERA around 3.00, but was sent to the minors because he had issues with the manager at the time. Falkenberg began using an emery pitch at the time, and he was very good at using an emery board to make the ball dance. He returned to the majors at 32 as a much better pitcher. “Cy” went 23-10 that year with a 2.22 ERA. Falkenberg left the Indians for the Federal League after that season for a whole lot more money. His career was short with Cleveland, and while most of hit was unspectacular, he finished his Cleveland career with a 57-41 record, and a 2.70 ERA.
Bill Bernhard came to the Indians the same way that Nap Lajoie did after he was barred from playing in Pennsylvania after leaving the Phillies in 1900. After a season with the Philadelphia Athletics in the A.L. in 1901 and after a game in 1902 with the A’s, he joined Nap with the Tribe and was as solid as they come. He went 31-10 in his first two seasons with the Naps, with a 2.16 ERA. He followed that season with his best as a professional at 33, going 23-13 with a spectacular 2.13 ERA in 320 2/3 innings. He played 2 ½ more seasons with the Indians, never reaching his 1904 standards again. He finished his career with Cleveland with a 77-55 record, and an incredible 2.45 ERA. His ERA is ranked third overall of all the top 30 Tribe pitchers.
Willis Hudlin can be described as spectacularly consistent, as most others are at this level. From 1927 through 1932, he had 12-plus wins in each season, and had 12-plus wins in nine of his fifteen Cleveland seasons. He also had double-digit losses in ten seasons. Overall, Hudlin went 157-151 with the Tribe, and while “brilliant” will never describe him in the pantheons of Indians’ pitchers, his consistent ability to log innings (200-plus six times, 147-plus 11 times and 100-plus 12 times) and wins gets him a nod in the top 30.
Sonny Siebert is the first Indians’ pitcher mentioned on the list to pitch a no-hitter, which he did on June 10, 1966. Like every pitcher mentioned prior to Siebert on this list, he was consistently good on a rotation that included the spectacular Sam McDowell. He was signed by the Tribe as an outfielder. He moved to pitcher after an injury forced him out of the lineup. He could only pitch batting practice while waiting to heal, and coaches began focusing Siebert as a pitcher after watching him. By 1962, Siebert was with the Indians for good. He went 7-9 in that first season, mostly out of the pen, but joined the rotation late that season. He stayed there for the rest of his career. Over the next four seasons with the Indians, he went 54-38, with that initial season being the only one in which his ERA would be above 3.00. His 2.76 ERA overall is sixth on the top 30 list. He was dealt in 1969 after squabbling over his contract several time in his career, and for good reason. Siebert’s no-hitter was the eleventh in Indians’ history.
Dennis Eckersley coulda been a contendah. Unfortunately, there were several issues with Eck reported, including the not-so-alleged affair with his wife and best pal, Rick Manning. Eckersley was phenomenal during his first three seasons with the Indians. In 1975, he went 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA. He was 20. In 1976, Eckersley would follow up with a 13-7 record and a 14-13 record in 1977. At the age of 22, the future star closer was 40-32 with a 3.23 ERA. During that final season in Cleveland, Eckersley pitched a no-hitter on May 30th, striking out 12. Eckersley had just pitched all 12 innings in a game against Seattle, and hadn’t given up a hit in the final 7 2/3 of that game. He went 5 2/3 in the next game before giving up another hit, covering 22 1/3 total innings straight of hitless baseball. He’d only give up the one hit in that follow up game. The record of no-hit innings in a row was 25 1/3 by some guy named Cy Young. Eckersley is second. Not too bad. Unfortunately, the Indians traded him either because they knew that the personal issues could become explosive, or because they were worried about his sidearm delivery causing arm issues. Whatever the reason, Eckersley’s career with the Indians ended, and kept him out of the top 20, but not by much.
Charles Nagy was never a special pitcher, just a pretty good one on a pretty good team. He’s still one of my favorite players all-time. He was a consistent winner for the Tribe, and he won 10-plus games in eight-of-nine seasons. In 1992, it really looked like Nagy was going to become something a bit more special than he ultimately became. During that season, Nagy went 17-10 over 252 innings and 33 starts, with a 2.96 ERA. The Indians won 76 games that year, but their rotation was deplorable. No other starter won more than six games. It was all Nagy, all-the-time. Nagy struggled in 1993 to start the year off, and was complaining of shoulder strain. He went 2-6 to start the year off before the Indians shut him down when they discovered a torn labrum that would end his season. He returned in 1994 with a solid 10-8 year during the strike shortened season, then went 33-11 over the next two seasons, and pitched 200-plus innings from 1996 through 1999. When it was all said and done, Nagy was 129-103 for the Tribe, and was the best pitcher through both their World Series runs, and really through the entire run of those 90’s teams. Sure, Colon was the better overall pitcher, but his rookie season wasn’t until 1997, and it turns out Colon was already 90 that year. Nagy will never be confused as a top ten Tribe pitcher, but he was as consistent as they come, with spots of brilliance. I do wonder what may have happened had he not missed the 1993 season. He did rebound to put up solid numbers after that, but you always wonder what can happen with some momentum.
Greg Swindell is another guy that I’ll always remember as perhaps having the potential to be better than he ever turned out to be. He was a fireballing lefty out of the University of Texas, and when the Indians took him in the first round of the 1986 draft, there was a lot of comparisons to Roger Clemens being thrown about. The Indians brought him up that same year, and he went 5-2 with a 4.23 late in the season. He struggled in 1987 to a 3-8 record, and was shut down after injuring his elbow. This opened the door for tons and tons of questions heading into the 1988 season. He was healthy, but elbow injuries can end careers. Swindell didn’t waste any time responding. Swindell started off the season going 10-1 with an incredible 2.11 ERA at the end of May, but didn’t make the All-Star team even after his hot start because of a rough month of June. He finished the season with an impeccable 18-14 record, which turned out to be his best major league season. Swindell went 34-31 over the next three seasons with the Indians, including a final season tally of 9-16, which was incredibly misleading. His 1989 season was off to another stellar start and this time an all-star appearance, but a sore elbow would put him on the DL for five weeks. The 1990 season saw his innings drop over injury concerns. He didn’t miss a start, but the Indians were being tentative with their ace. Swindell led the league in walks per nine innings with a 1.2 rate, and also led the league with 5.45 K’s per walk. Unfortunately, the Indians were terrible, winning only 57 games. Swindell turned down John Hart’s three-year offer in his last year of Indians’ control that would have allowed Swindell to “become the highest paid player in the history of the Cleveland Indians,” according to Hart. Hart then dealt him to the Reds for Jack Armstrong, Scott Scudder and Joe Turek. Overall, Swindell went 61-56 with the Tribe with a 3.86 ERA on some really bad Cleveland Indians baseball teams.
The final pitcher mentioned in part one is probably the best pitcher of all ten, and that’s Bartolo Colon. You can say what you want about the enigmatic starter, but his natural ability was absolutely unquestioned. He was a pitcher of the year in Kinston in 1995, and he didn’t pitch after August first, and was the Tribe’s minor league player of the year. He went 7-1 in Buffalo in 1997, with a 2.22 ERA, and the Indians had seen enough. Colon joined Jaret Wright on an Indians staff in 1997 that would make it to the Series. While Wright received all the accolades that season, Colon wouldn’t pitch in the playoffs. He turned out to be the better starter though. Colon became the unquestioned ace of the staff from 1998-2002, winning 10-plus games in every season, and 14-plus games in ever full season. Overall, Colon went 71-38 during that stretch, with a sub-4.00 ERA. What’s scary is that Colon never seemed to reach his potential with the Indians, although he did win the Cy Young in 2005 with the Angels. Colon was spectacular, twice striking out over 200 hitters. His deal to the Expos brought the Indians an incredible haul, including Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens. That alone should probably move Colon up a bit higher than a few guys in the middle-ten, but I just couldn’t do it. Lee ended up higher on the list than Colon thanks to a Cy Young (although Colon was arguably better over a longer period of time), Phillips ended up a perennial all-star (with Cincy), and Sizemore did as well, although his career was cut short, as we all know. Colon’s omission from the top 20 shows you the type of fantastic depth the Indians all-time starters have. He’s a great starter for sure, but when you take a look at the guys ahead of him, you’ll see why he was left off the list.
On Tuesday, I’ll look at #11-#20 on my list, before voting opens on Wednesday with my top ten starters. Who will your rotation be? Should be interesting for sure.
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He was the absolute rock on that staff of the 90's...and while he was given a monster amount of support, that shouldn't take away the fact that he was the one guy that you could count on day after day to give you a quality start...
He wasn't an ace...but was the most important pitcher of the 90's for the Tribe. He wasn't the most talented...but was better than has been intimated in the comments...
There are so many factors for me...but...I do have him 12th in Indians' history: http://www.indiansbaseballinsider.com/blog/ibi-power-poll-best-indians-starters-of-all-time-part-2-37381
But he was phenomenal for sure.
It was really, really difficult to rate the guys from 6-12, and from 13-22 or so...
I think the top two are rock solid...but there's a lot of fluidity to the rest of the list...depending on what variables are important to you.
Whats your problem? Nagy had some great years even before 95. He was a good guy and helped the team reach two worlds series. He was also very good in 96. Imagine what those 90s teams would have been like without him. Not having the pitching is probably why we didn't get a ring imagine if we didn't at least have Nagy. But thats not even the point the guy put up alot of good numbers here, had tons of wins and tons of innings pitched. Was an all star and an all around good guy who was a fan favorite during a special time in Cleveland Baseball.
Seriously, how could you have a problem with Nagy?
All time the first names that come to mind our Gaylord Perry, Satchel Page and Feller.
One of them were mentioned in this piece...and I think the others are fairly obvious...
But this is loaded with starters from pre-1970...
"An eighth player on my list isn’t in the Hall, but is arguably as important to this franchise as Bob Feller"
I clearly was alluding to Harder, and comparing him to Feller with regards to importance...