Tiant's candidacy obscured by 300-win arms

Quirky righty overpowered hitters in his day, but was overshadowed by bigger fish

November 26th, 2017

Luis Tiant has perhaps the strangest Hall of Fame voting record ever. In 1998, his first year on the ballot, Tiant received 30.9 percent of the vote. Almost every player up to that point who got that high a percentage on their first ballot was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. Just among pitchers, this includes Jim Bunning (who just missed with the Baseball Writers' Association of America and was elected by the Veterans Committee), Early Wynn, Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, Juan Marichal and so on.
The only exception was Maury Wills, who started out at 30.3 percent and had his support climb to about 41 percent before momentum ran out.
Here is the oddest part of Tiant's voting record: He was on the ballot for 15 years … and he never again got close to 30.9 percent of the vote. He didn't even break 20 percent. Something drastic changed between Tiant's first year on the ballot and his second.
That change? An unparalleled flood of 300-game winners.
Tiant grew up in Cuba; his father, also named Luis, was a magnificent left-handed pitcher in the Negro Leagues. Negro Leaguer Buck O'Neil often used to say that Luis Eleuterio Tiant had the best move to first base in the history of baseball. The father, like the son, used numerous funky pitching motions to distract and throw off the timing of hitters.

"He was no fun to face," O'Neil said.
The young Luis would be like that -- turning his back to the hitter, attacking with multiple arm angles -- but what many people miss about him is that when he first came into the big leagues with the Indians, he did not need any trickery. He was a fantastic power pitcher with overpowering stuff. As a 26-year-old in 1967, Tiant led baseball by averaging more than a strikeout per inning.
And then came Tiant's legendary 1968 season with the Indians. People might have missed just how good Tiant was that year because it was the same year Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain won 31 games. But Tiant's 1.60 ERA is the lowest in the American League since the end of the Deadball Era. His 5.30 hits allowed per nine innings is the second lowest behind only Nolan Ryan's 1972 season. Tiant also led the American League with nine shutouts.

It is an all-time great season, one of the best in baseball history. But since McLain won 31, Tiant did not win any awards that season.
And Tiant's career turned quickly after that. He had the misfortune of playing for a Cleveland team that could not score runs -- Detroit catcher Bill Freehan said that if Tiant had the Tigers' offense behind him, he could've had 40 wins -- and in 1969, the Tribe completely fell apart. When the season ended, the Indians traded Tiant to Minnesota in hopes of restocking their young talent (they picked up a pretty good third baseman named Graig Nettles, but soon traded him to the Yankees).
Tiant then hurt his shoulder. A series of lesser injuries followed and it looked as though Tiant's career was done. He was released by the Twins. The Braves signed Tiant, but they released him after less than a month. At just 30 years old, it seemed like there was no place left for him to go.
Then Tiant signed with Boston. In the first inning of his first game, he walked the bases loaded and then allowed a three-run triple to Kansas City's Cookie Rojas. Tiant allowed two more runs in a relief appearance and then lasted just four innings in his next start.
"Enough is enough," the Boston Globe wrote.
But in mid-July, Tiant threw 10 innings of shutout baseball against Minnesota. That kept him on the team. Tiant started, relieved and did anything else he could to help. There did not seem to be a roster spot for him in 1972, but he found a spot after the Red Sox traded reliever Sparky Lyle.
And Tiant was amazing. He pitched out of the bullpen for the first three months or so, and then moved to a starting role. Tiant went 12-5 with a 1.50 ERA as a starter that season and threw four consecutive shutouts. By this time, he had taken on his father's style of gyrating and never giving hitters the same look twice; and for the second time in his career, Tiant led the AL in ERA (1.91).
Tiant's style helped him win 20 games during each of the next two seasons, and in 1975 he pitched brilliantly in the postseason, carrying the Red Sox to Game 7 of the World Series. In that Fall Classic, he also saw his father for the first time since leaving Cuba.

Tiant held on for years, pitching until he was 41. He went 12-16 with a 4.76 ERA from 1979-81, which added a few points to his ERA and took away a few points from his winning percentage. But more to the point: It hurt his timing.
Catfish Hunter retired after the 1979 season, and at that point, his career numbers were strikingly similar to Tiant's:
Hunter: 224-166, 3.26 ERA, 104 ERA+, 2,012 Ks, 954 BBs
Tiant: 217-156, 3.21 ERA, 118 ERA+, 2,270 Ks, 1,027 BBs
But Hunter came on to a Hall of Fame ballot against names such as Jim Bunning, Mickey Lolich, Lew Burdette and Wilbur Wood -- none of whom had won more than 224 games -- and breezed into the Hall of Fame in three years.
By waiting to retire, things were different for Tiant. In his first year on the ballot, his competition was also Bunning, Lolich and Wood, and Tiant got 30.9 percent of the vote. The next year, though, Gaylord Perry (314 wins), Fergie Jenkins (284 wins) and Jim Kaat (283 wins) were on the ballot. Tiant's vote total was cut by two-thirds.
The next year, it was Jim Palmer. Two years later, Tom Seaver made his debut, then Phil NIekro, then Steve Carlton and Don Sutton. Never in baseball history had so many all-time great pitchers come on the ballot in such a flurry. And Tiant's career numbers -- which looked so good when Hunter came on the ballot -- were dwarfed. He was not a Hall of Fame factor again.
What are Tiant's chances now that he is back up for Hall of Fame voting, this time by the Modern Era Baseball Committee? Probably not great, as much of the voter attention this year will be focused on Jack Morris, who came painfully close to BBWAA election.
Tiant certainly has a strong case. He was 41st all-time in strikeouts, 24th in shutouts, 40th in Wins Above Replacement and 49th in Win Probability Added. But Tiant's ballot timing has been unlucky so far. It's a wonder if that will ever change.