Sunday, May 29, 2011

#167 - Luis Tiant

Wow. No number "0" or even a "5" card for El Tiante even though he won 20 and sports one of the best Fu's of the set. Still, he looks like he's handling it pretty well in his first of what will be a bunch of successive action shots. And there were a lot of 20 game winners in the AL in '73, in no small part due to it being the first year of the DH. Luis probably didn't mind the dis. The big win total should have been all the confirmation he or anyone else needed that Luis' comeback was more than a one-season event. And it wouldn't be too long before he and his mustache were media darlings.

Luis Tiant's age was sort of like Gaylord Perry's spitter: it became a statistic in its own right and was constantly challenged. Officially born in 1940 he could have been born as much as ten years earlier but, frankly, he looks a little too good in current photos to be that old. Luis came from good baseball stock as his dad, Luis Sr., was a long-time lefthander for the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues and also played winter ball in Cuba. The junior Luis was spotted in a junior league and signed a minor-league contract with Mexico City for whom he played three seasons. His first year of '59 didn't go too swimmingly as he went 5-19 with a high ERA and more walks than K's. But his record improved over the next two years to a combined 29-16, his ERA dropped by two runs the second season, and his BB/K ratio also righted so that following the '61 season he was sold to Cleveland. For the Indians a good '62 in Single A was followed by a '63 at the same level in which he went 14-9 with a 2.56 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 204 innings.The next year he moved up to Triple A and moved his game up many more notches by going 15-1/2.04/154 in just 137 innings, earning a mid-season call-up as well as the Topps Minor Leage Player of the Year. In Luis' first start he shut out the Yankees and he went on to win ten games in 16 starts that summer. After a good sophomore season he would split time in '66 between the rotation and the pen recording eight saves and leading the league with five shutouts in only 16 starts. In '67 he had his first of two successive seasons of over a strikeout an inning. Then in '68 he had his killer year: 21-9 with an AL-leading 1.62 ERA and nine shutouts. Any other year he would have won the Cy but '68 belonged to Denny McLain and his 31 wins. Luis did come in fifth in MVP voting however. He also struck out 19 Twins in a game while giving up zero walks and made his first All-Star team.

Tiant had pitched during the winter in Mexico and elsewhere, but after his amazing '68 the Indians told him to rest his arm during the winter. Unfortunately Luis had an arm that thrived on being worked and shortly into the '69 season he hurt it and the results were almost a total reversal of his prior year's numbers. Following that season he was sent to the Twins with Stan Williams for Dean Chance, Graig Nettles, Ted Uhlaender, and Bob Miller. He began the season well enough but then that May fractured his scapula and pulled a muscle in his back. He was 6-0 at the time with a 3.12 ERA and wouldn't make it back to the mound until August after which he'd pitch sparingly and in pain the rest of the way. He did hit over .400 that season. The Twins released him the following March and it took him two weeks to hook up with a new team. He signed a 30-day minor league contract with the Braves, threw in five games and wasn't called up. He then hooked up with Louisville, Boston's Triple A team, at the request of its manager, Darrel Johnson. There he went 3-5 in nine starts with a 4.17 ERA and he was called up in early summer. He got bombed in his first start, had some trouble reining in the runs, but gradually improved over the season. In July he put up ten shutout innings in one start and in August struck out ten Royals in another one. Moments like those were promising, Luis' attitude was infectious, and the Sox signed him to a major league contract.

In '72 Boston's faith in Tiant paid off as he led them almost to win the division. Late in the year he won six straight including four consecutive shutouts and he led the league in ERA, winning Comeback Player of the Year. He had six shutouts that season. In '73 he returned to the 20-win category ironically without throwing a single shutout. He won 22 in '74 and made his second All-Star team. '75 was a special year for Luis as he won 18 despite his ERA picking up a run. He also saw his second year of post-season action where he put on a show for the nation with his crazy delivery while winning one game in the AL playoffs and two in the Series. The Sox also flew in his parents from Cuba which was a big deal since he hadn't seen his dad since '61. He won 21 in '76 and then 25 over the next couple seasons. He signed with the Yankees as a free agent in '79 and won 21 the next couple years. After being released in '81 he signed with the Pirates. He won a couple for Pittsburgh and went 13-7 for Portland, their Triple A club. Even though he was 40 he played winter ball in Mexico again and was then sold in April '82 to the Angels for whom he pitched one season before leaving as a free agent. That was it in the majors for Luis and he finished with a 229-172 record, a 3.30 ERA, 187 complete games, 49 shutouts, and 15 saves. In the post-season he went 3-0 with a 2.86 ERA and three complete games in his four starts. Although he has never won more than about 30% of the votes for the Hall his stats put him right on the cusp.

Luis still holds the record for most strikeouts in a game without a walk. The cartoon is cool but you already knew that from the front of the card. After he finished playing, Luis did various things including making commercials, community work for the Sox, various work in baseball in Mexico, and coaching baseball for a few years at Savannah College of Art and Design. He recently had a documentary released about him which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009. Luis has a SABR bio.

For the hookup we use another tough pitcher:

1. Tiant and Marty Pattin '72 to '73 Red Sox;
2. Pattin played for Jack McKeon in '74 and '75.

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