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IBI Power Poll: Best Indians' Starters of All-Time: Part 2

IBI Power Poll: Best Indians' Starters of All-Time: Part 2
February 19, 2013
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In part two of this week’s IBI Power Poll, I’m going to continue looking at the top starting pitchers in the history of Cleveland baseball. Yesterday, I took a look at the ten players that made up the IBI honorable mention list. Included in that list was an interesting conglomeration of generational baseball in the “Forest City.” There were representatives of nearly each decade from 1900 until now, including some staples of recent teams, including Bartolo Colon, Chuck Nagy and Greg Swindell.

Today, our journey will venture from a knuckleballer to a Cy Young award winner. Along the way, we’ll visit a hall of famer, four starters with 100 or more wins, the starter who has the best winning percentage of all the 30 pitchers listed, one of the vaunted starters of the great 50’s rotations, one of the most controversial hall of famers in recent memory and perhaps the biggest tale of “what could have been” in Cleveland Indians history….and that’s saying something.

Here’s the next ten:

#20: Bert Blyleven, RHP (1981-1985)

You can argue all you want about Bert “Be Home” Blyleven being in the Hall of Fame, but that’s not for this conversation. I’ll kick off my top 20 with the 2011 Hall of Fame inductee, Bert Blyleven, who had a short and moderately memorable stay with the Indians.

Blyleven was dealt to the Cleveland Indians prior to the 1981 season after a successful but enigmatic sorta career. There was no doubt that Blyleven was talented. In his first ten seasons with the Twins, Rangers and Pirates, he had won ten or more games each season, and never had an ERA above four. His ERA was sub 3.00 seven times, at exactly 3.00 an eighth, and never above 3.60 His first season below ten games was in 1980, his final year with the Pirates.

He was certainly a cranky player, and was dealt to the lowly Indians after he told the Pirates he was going to retire if they didn’t trade him. The Indians sent Gary Alexander, Victor Cruz, Bob Owchinko and Rafael Vasquez to the Pirates for Blyleven and Manny Sanguillen.

In his 4 ½ seasons with the Tribe, Blyleven went 48-37 with a 3.23 ERA over 760 2/3 innings. In 103 starts, he’d complete 41 games, and threw nine shutouts. He struck out 548 batters and walked only 218.

The teams he played on just weren’t very good, but Blyleven certainly was. His best season came in 1984 when he went 19-7 with a 2.87 ERA in 245 innings. He finished third in Cy Young voting on a team that only won 75 ballgames.

The Indians were trying to build a winner, but Blyleven, by this time, wasn’t having any of it, and asked to be traded. The Indians obliged, and sent him back to the Twins for a scrap-heap of players. Jay Bell was one of those players, but he didn’t develop into a star until he went to the Pittsburgh.

Blyleven was a fantastic starter on a team that just wasn’t very good. Welcome to the 80’s.

#19: Herb Score, LHP (1955-1959)

I didn’t know what to do with Herb Score. During his first two seasons with the Indians, he looked like the second coming of Bob Feller. Hell, some folks thought he was going to be better than Feller.

In 1954, Score went 22-5 with Triple-A Indianapolis with 330 K’s in 251 innings and was named the Minor League Player of the Year. He made his debut with the Tribe in 1955, and in his third game, he struck out 16 batters. In his first game in Fenway, a murderer’s row for lefties, Score pitched a three-hit shutout. He finished the season with a 16-10 record and a 2.85 ERA. He completed 11 games in 227 1/3 innings, and led the league with 245 K’s and a 9.7 K/9. He made the All-Star team, and was also named the Rookie of the Year.

His 245 K’s were a record that stood until 1984.

If he was great in 1955, what he did in 1956 was simply scintillating. Score went 20-9, pairing with bob Lemon and Early Wynn as one of three 20-game winners. He led the league with five shutouts in 249 1/3 innings, and also led the league again with 263 K’s and struck out 9.5 per nine innings. He made the All-Star game again, and finished 19th for the MVP award.

It’s reported that the Red Sox offered the Indians a million dollars for Score’s services after the season, and that they turned him down.

1957 started like his two previous seasons. He went 2-1 in his first five ballgames, striking out 39 in 36 innings, with a 2.00 ERA. That all changed on May 7. Gil McDougald crushed a line drive that nailed Herb Score in the eye. Score spent three weeks in the hospital, and didn’t play again that year.

Scored seemed right as rain in 1958, and threw a 2-0 shutout in his third start of the season. It was his second complete game, and he only gave up three hits and struck out 13. Score tore a tendon in his elbow. He pitched on and off for the rest of the year, but the damage was done, and so was Score’s career as an effective starter.

Score played five seasons with the Indians, going 49-34 with a 3.17 ERA, but the numbers really aren’t the issue here. It’s distinctly possible that Herb Score was the greatest lefty to suit up for the Indians, and his two seasons were as good as any debut for the team.

The Indians ultimately traded Score, as they did anyone who had any value. Of course, Score returned to the Indians as an announcer. He was the color commentator for Tribe TV for four seasons before moving to the radio booth in 1968. For 30 years, he was the voice of the Indians, while Tom Hamilton may be the best play-by-play man in the game today…Herb Score will always be the voice of the Indians.

#18: Vean Gregg, LHP (1911-1914)

Gregg joined the Indians after an eclectic ride through the minors and independent baseball. In his first season as a starter, Gregg went 23-7 with a league leading 1.80 ERA in 244 2/3 innings. He had replaced the great Addie Joss, who had died on April 14th, at the start of the season. Many felt that Gregg was going on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers in the game.

He again won 20 games in 1912, with a 2.59 ERA in 271 1/3 innings, and matched his 20-13 record again in 1913. His three year total for the Naps at that point was 63-33 heading into his fourth season. Perhaps his best game came in 1913 when he pitched a complete game, 13-inning affair in which he won 1-0 when he doubled in the only run.

Gregg had struggled with a sore arm over his first three seasons even while winning 20 each season. It was too much to overcome in 1914. He was 9-3 at the time of his trade to Boston. He never won more than 10 games again.

Gregg’s overall record was 72-36 for an impressive .667 winning percentage, the best of the 30 pitchers on this list. His ERA was 2.31, which is second overall. The only thing keeping Gregg from the upper part of this list is his short time frame with the Naps and that sore arm.

#17: Tom Candiotti, RHP (1986-1991, 1999)

The two best pitchers for the Cleveland Indians during the 1980’s were arguably Greg Swindell and Tom Candiotti. While Swindell was the Porsche of the group as a #1 pick from the University of Texas, Candiotti was the Pinto. “the Candy Man” was about as middling a player as you could be in 1983 and 1984 for the Milwaukee Brewers. He wasn’t terrible, but he was nothing to write home about either. He had spent six seasons in the minors, and in two seasons in the bigs, was forgettable. The Brewers released him after a season in the minors in 1985, and he was signed by the Indians. He was 27 years old, and had a career record of 6-6.

Then something funny happened.

Candiotti started to win, and win a lot. “Candy” won 16 games in 1986 with an impressive 3.57 ERA and a league leading 17 complete games in 252 1/3 innings. He tripled his total innings pitched in his first full season, and led the team in wins that year with 16. He was no doubt helped out by the venerable 47-year-old Phil Niekro, who clearly had a massive influence on the burgeoning knuckleballer.

Candiotti and the Indians bombed the following year, but he did tie for the team lead in wins with a grand total of seven. He lost 18 games, but he did manage to pitch in over 200 innings for the second straight season. He never pitched in less than 200 innings nor have a losing record nor have less than 13 wins nor have an ERA above 3.65 for the Tribe in a full season over the rest of his career.

He won 14, 13, 15 and 7 games for the Indians in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991, when the Indians traded him to the Blue Jays. His ERA in ’91 was a sleek 2.24 when he was traded.

Candiotti wasn’t flashy, nor is he a guy that is often remembered as one of the greats, but when it’s all said and done, the knuckler went 73-66 in 1201 2/3 innings with a 3.62 ERA for the Tribe during some dark, dark days in Cleveland. The Indians dealt him to Toronto for Denis Boucher, Glenallen Hill and the Spider Man, Mark Whiten. Hill and Whiten were considered serious prospects at the time, so the deal looked to be a solid one for the Indians. It didn’t pan out, but you can’t hold that against the best knuckler in Indians’ history.

The Tribe brought him back in 1999 for a seven game stretch. It was horrible, but he retired with the team that made him famous.

#16: George Uhle, RHP (1919-1928)

Babe Ruth said that Uhle was the toughest pitcher he ever had to face. Of course, to Ruth that meant that he “only” hit .336, with four homers. Uhle did manage to strikeout Ruth 25 times, the second most by any pitcher.

Uhle was a spotty starter during his first two seasons, and mostly came out of the bullpen. He won 10 games in 1919, and went 4-5 during the Indians World Series run in 1920, but really started to break out in 1921. He wasn’t spectacular that season, going 16-13 with a 4.01 ERA, and had 13 complete games.

In 1922, Uhle led the rotation with a 22-16 ERA over 287 1/3 innings, with 23 complete games over a league-leading 30 starts, and he also led the league with five complete games. He upped his game in 1923, leading the league with 26 wins, 44 starts, 29 complete games, 357 2/3 innings, but gave up an incredible 378 hits.

He struggled to a 9-15 record in 1924, but was the team’s primary pinch-hitter, batting .407 with a crazy OBP of .484. In 1925, he had a bit of a resurgence, going 13-11, but didn’t return to his league leading self until 1926. He went 27-11 with a career best 2.83 ERA. He led the league in wins, winning percentage, starts, complete games and innings pitched.

Uhle struggled with the Indians or two more seasons before he was traded to Detroit at the end of the year. Uhle finished his career with a 147-119 record and a 3.92 ERA in 2200 1/3 innings.

#15: Mike Garcia, RHP (1948-1959)

It can’t be an easy thing, pitching on a staff with three Hall of Famers. Of course, Garcia hung with the big boys fairly easily over his first several seasons.

His first full season was the year after their 1948 World Series team. He went an impressive 14-5 with a 2.36 ERA over 175 2/3 innings. He didn’t start that season until an emergency start came about against the Yankees in a doubleheader. He never looked back, and his 2.36 ERA was the best in the league.

He struggled to an 11-11 record in 1950, but it didn’t predicate what was to come during the 1951 season, and over the next four seasons. You can make a case that he was one of the top five starters in all of baseball, and was one of the leaders of the Big Four for the Indians. Garcia went 20-13 that year, and was one of three starters that had won 20 games for the Indians. He lowered his ERA from 3.86 to 3.15, and pitched in 254 innings.

In 1952, Garcia won 22 games and dropped his ERA to a career best 2.37. He led the league in starts and shutouts and made his first all-star game. He followed that year with an 18-9 season and a 3.25 ERA in 271.2/3 innings.

In 1954, the Indians won 111 games, setting a major league record, and many consider the 1954 staff to be the greatest of all time. Garcia won 19 games that year, behind Bob Lemon and Early Wynn’s 23 games, but Garcia led the league with a 2.64 ERA and five shutouts over 258 innings. That made four straight seasons in which he pitched at least 254 innings, and Garcia was clearly considered one of the best in the game.

Over a four-year stretch, the righty went 79-41 with an ERA in the neighborhood of 3.00. The durable starter was also able to pitch out of the pen between starts, making 41 bullpen appearances over those four seasons.

Garcia was never the same after that season. He did win 11, games in 1955 and 1956, and 12 games in 1957, but a change in his delivery had made him an average pitcher. He injured his back in 1958 and was released because there was no room on the DL. They rostered him in 1959, but was released again.

His final numbers with the Tribe: 142-96 with an impressive 3.24 ERA in 2,138 innings. Garcia was perhaps the little brother of the Big Four, but he was an important member of perhaps the greatest rotation of all time.

#14: Jim Bagby, RHP (1916-1922)

Jim Bagby was the best pitcher on the 1920 World Series team, and that alone should lock him into the top 15. The fact that he was pretty brilliant past that only adds icing to the cake. Ty Cobb thought he was the smartest pitcher in baseball, which really says it all.

Bagby’s debut was as a reliever, and coincided with the great Tris Speaker’s Indians’ debut. Bagby consistently found himself both starting and relieving over his career with the Indians, which only added to his value. Bagby ended up going 16-17 that first season with the Indians in 1916, with an impressive 2.61 ERA in 48 games, 27 as a starter. He pitched in 272 2/3 innings.

While he’s known for his 30-win season in 1920, you could make a case that his best season was in 1917. Bagby won 20 games for the first time, going 23-13, with an overly impressive 1.99 ERA in 320 2/3 innings. He had eight shutouts as well, and also made 12 relief appearances.

In 1918 and 1919, Bagby won 17 games in each season, with a 2.69 and 2.80 ERA respectively. He pitched in 511 2/3 innings over those two seasons, proving to be one of the most durable pitchers in all of baseball. Heading into 1920, he’d never pitched in less than 241 1/3 innings.

Then came the game changer. Bagby was clearly an ace prior to 1920, but after that season, many felt he was the best pitcher in all of baseball. He won his first eight decisions and by the end of July, he was an incredible 20-5. He won his 30th game on September 28, and won his 31st game on October 2nd to clinch the pennant for the Indians. He finished that year with a 31-12 record.

Bagby started and finished one of the truly most memorable World Series games of all time when he started game five of the 1920 series. He had already lost Game two 3-0. In the first, Elmer Grimes hit the first grand slam in series history. In the fourth, Bagby belted a shot to deep straight-away center that cleared the wall. Second baseman Bill Wambsganss then turned an unassisted triple play in the fifth inning. The Indians won the game, take a 3-2 lead in the series, and never look back.

He led the league in wins, won-loss percentage, complete games and games, and innings. He had a 2.89 ERA and had seven shutouts.

Bagby won 14 games in 1921, but was never the same pitcher again. He really struggled in 1922 and was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but only won three more games in his career.

Overall, Bagby went 122-86, with a 3.03 ERA in 1,725 2/3 innings…and he won 30 games on a World Series team. What more needs to be said about his inclusion here.

#13: Wes Farrell, RHP (1927-1933)

There really is a lot to Wes Farrell that make him a special player, and some of that isn’t even because of his pitching. As a batter, Farrell was one of the best pinch-hitters for the Indians. Farrell hit .274 with the Indians during his seven seasons, belting 19 homers and driving in 100 RBI. He had 31 doubles and ten triples, and had a .788 OPS. His best season came in 1931, when he hit .319, with nine homers, 30 RBI, six doubles and scored 24 runs. In other words, Farrell was a weapon.

His biggest ability though was his pitching. In his first four full seasons with the Indians, he won 20 games each season, going 91-48, and the consistent starter never had an ERA above 3.75 or below 3.31 in those four seasons. He also pitched in more than 242 2/3 innings all four seasons.

Farrell was a fiery player and often got into scraps with opponents and teammates alike.

He began having arm trouble and it all came to fruition in 1933. He went 11-12, and clearly was struggling with his health. The Indians dealt him to the Boston Red Sox in 1934.

Overall, Farrell was 102-62 with a 3.67 ERA, with back-to-back-to-back-to-back 20-game win seasons.

#12: Luis Tiant, RHP (1964-1969)

Tiant will forever be known as a Boston Red Sox pitcher, but his beginnings were right here in Cleveland, via Cuba and Mexico City. Like many fantastic starters before him, Tiant ended up moving on to bigger and better things elsewhere. Fortunately for the Indians, he had a fantastic career while here on the North Shore.

Tiant began his run in Cleveland overshadowed by a 20-year-old phenom, Sam McDowell. In 1964, they both pitched for Portland in the PCL, and McDowell was shredding the league. After a no-hitter, McDowell was 8-0 with a  1.18 ERA and 102 K’s in 76 innings, and was promoted to the Indians. Tiant was 7-0 at the time of McDowell’s promotion, with a 2.25 ERA, and went 15-1 with a 2.04 ERA and 13 complete games in July when the Indians finally called him up.

His first start? It was against one Whitey Ford. Tiant responded by throwing a four-hit shutout and striking out 11. He finished the season at 10-4 with a 2.83 ERA. Tiant won 11 games in 1965 and 12 games in both 1966 and 1967. The only time his ERA was over 2.83 during those first four seasons was in 1965, when he went 11-11. He led the league in shutouts in 1966, and ironically enough, was used mostly out of the bullpen. His five shutouts game in 16 starts, while he pitched in 46 total games.

Tiant was a good pitcher prior to 1968, but after he was a pitcher to be reckoned with. He finished the season with a 21-9 record and led the league in ERA with an impressive 1.60. He had nine shutouts (four in a row at one point) and a ten inning, one-run victory in which he struck out 19 hitters. He started the All-Star game, and finished the season by one-hitting the Yankees on 11 K’s.

In 1969, things “fell apart” for Tiant. He lost a league leading 20 ballgames, but still managed a solid 3.71 ERA in 249 2/3 innings. He really struggled with mound changes and the new strikezone. He was dealt to the Twins after that season for one Craig Nettles and Dean Chance.

Overall for the Indians, Tiant was 75-64, with a 2.84 ERA in 1200 innings. He was a special pitcher on a team that wasn’t so special.

#11: Cliff Lee, LHP (2002-2009)

I agonized over where to put Lee, but the Cy Young kept ringing in my head, as that season truly was a special one. Unlike CC Sabathia, Lee’s career was earmarked by the consistent solid pitching that Sabathia showcased. Lee had his moments, but it didn’t come together until the 2008 season. Remember, Lee was sent to the minors in 2007 and was left off of the playoff roster. Many thought his days were done in Cleveland, and the Indians did try and deal him prior to the 2008 year.

Luckily, they didn’t.

Lee came to the Indians in that famous deal that sent Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos for Lee, Sizemore and Brandon Phillips.

Lee became a regular starter for the Indians in the 2004 season. He started off the seasons at 10-1 before finishing the year at 14-8. At the break, he was 9-1 with a 3.77 ERA, but in the second half limped home with a 5-7 record and a 7.91 ERA. Overall, he finished with a 5.43 ERA. Lee was a stubborn pitcher, and while fatigue was surely an issue, Lee seemed determined to throw the same pitches to get guys out. It cost him early in his career, and nearly ended it before it began.

Lee followed that up with his best pre-Cy Young season, sparked by a nine-game winning streak after the all-star break. His season was nearly the opposite of 2004, and much more consistent. His ERA improved in the second half by a third of a run. He never lost more than a game in any month, and September was his best, closing with a 4-1 record and a 3.28 ERA. He was the best lefty in the AL, and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

In 2006, Lee seemed to follow suit with 2005 in that he finished strong. The difference was that he struggled with consistency throughout the year. He closed by going 4-1 with a 3.03 ERA. He ended the year going 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA, pitched 200 2/3 innings, and led the team with 33 starts.

Then came 2007.

Lee seemed close to becoming something special, but always seemed to be consistency away. 2007 nearly sent him into a tailspin out of baseball. Lee struggled with both health, consistency and locating his fastball, and it cost him. He went 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA, missed the beginning of the season thanks to an abdominal strain, and ended up getting sent to Triple A. He was frustrated, and it showed. He made it back to the team in a September call-up, but was left off the playoff rotation.

Lee simply transformed in 2008. He worked as hard as he ever had that offseason, and spent a lot of time with Carl Willis, the Tribe’s pitching coach. He was 12-2 at the All-Star break, and started for the A.L. He won his 20th game on September 20th, and he ended 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA, leading the A.L in both. Lee began working the strike zone, and left his stubborn-ness to throw the fastball behind.

Lee was dominant again to start of the 2009 season with the Indians, but the Indians were not. He went 7-9, but his ERA was a stellar 3.14. Still, Lee was a commodity that the Indians weren’t going to spend money on. He was sent to the Phillies for Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson and Jason Knapp.

When Lee left the Indians, he was an elite pitcher, and one of the top four or five names in the league. His 22-3 season was perhaps the best season overall as an Indians pitcher since the early 70’s, and clearly better than Sabathia’s Cy Young season the year before. Unfortunately, Lee’s time with the Indians was cut short before they could reap the benefits.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the top ten, and open up the polling for the All-Time Indians’ starting rotation. It wasn't easy...but was an interesting look at the top starters to wear Cleveland on their jersey.

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 jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Dale
February 20, 2013 - 9:22 AM EST
My only comment is that Elmer Smith hit the first grand slam HR in World Series history in game five in 1920. It wasn't Elmer Grimes as was mentioned in the Jim Bagby summary.
Jim
February 19, 2013 - 11:56 PM EST
No way is he top ten...

There's no doubt that he was arguably the most talented Indians' pitcher to ever suit up for the Tribe...

and perhaps his TWO seasons rank at the top of the heap as far as seasons go, but if that were the only factor, who worry about hall of famers...or longevity at all.

I'm not saying it's not a factor...but I took everything into account...solitary seasons as well as longevity and impact as a whole as a player....

You could move him up or down a few slots...but no way is he top ten...

Bric
February 19, 2013 - 11:50 PM EST
Baseball was never bigger or better than in the '50's.
Great athletes passed up NFL or NBA careers for MLB.
(Dick Groat, Bob Gibson, Paul Giel, many others.)
Herb Score's first two years were so phenomenal when taken in that context, that he should have easily been a top 10 pick.
Cliff Lee, outstanding pitcher, should haven't been close to Herb Score in any ranking.

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