By Glen Sparks
Luis Tiant always looked like he had such a blast when he was pitching.
He came at batters from a variety of angles. He’d twist his back, turn his head toward center field, move a knee this way one pitch, another way the next pitch. It looked improvisational at times, a bit like Second City from the mound. He threw over-the-top, three-quarters, sidearm, whatever.
And then you’d see those pictures of Tiant off the field, especially during his glory days with the Boston Red Sox. He had gained some weight and gotten barrel-chested. He had that smile on his face, joking around with a teammate or the parking lot attendant.
Usually, you’d catch Luis with a fat cigar stuck in his mouth. He seemed like a pretty cool guy. Only that Fu Manchu mustache he sported made him look a bit menacing. Red Smith, the legendary sportswriter, wrote that Tiant resembled “Pancho Villa after a tough night of looting and burning.”
Oh, he could pitch, too. He wasn’t all fun and games. He won at least 20 games four times, had two seasons with an ERA under 2.00 and went 3-0 in the postseason. At one point, he supposedly threw a fastball, curveball, slider, slow curve, palm ball and a knuckle ball, all from various release points.
We’ll find out Monday if Tiant is a Hall of Famer. He is one of the Golden Era candidates for Cooperstown. Like everyone else on the ballot, he needs 75 percent of the vote to get in.
El Tiante, as he was known, went 229-172 (.571 pct.) during his 19-year career, with a 3.30 ERA (114 ERA+). He threw 187 complete games and 49 shutouts. Luis finished with 2,416 strikeouts in 3,486.1 innings (6.2 K/9 innings).
His best season was 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. He compiled a 21-9 record for the Cleveland Indians, with a 1.60 ERA (186 ERA+) and 264 strikeouts in 258.1 innings (9.2 K/9). Tiant posted a Baseball-Reference WAR of 8.4, tops in the American League.
He finished fifth in the MVP voting, but, amazingly, he did not get any Cy Young votes. (Denny McLain won the A.L. Cy Young and MVP with his 31-6 won-loss record. He had a WAR of 7.4.)
Following six seasons in Cleveland, Tiant pitched one injury-riddled year for the Minnesota Twins. He left there to go to Boston. In 1972, Tiant went 15-6 with a 1.91 ERA (ERA+ 169) and was a 20-game winner in 1973, ’74 and ’76. He finished in the top six in Cy Young voting three times.
It was in Boston that Luis Clemente Tiant y Vega, the Cuban-born son of the great pitcher Luis Eleuterio Tiant, officially became a legend. In the Red Sox pennant-winning year of 1975, Tiant took the mound Sept. 16 against Jim Palmer, the ace of the second-place Baltimore Orioles. Tiant threw his first shutout of the season. The sold-out crowd at Fenway Park began chanting “Loo-eee, Loo-eee” for the first of many times. Loo-eee threw another shutout later that month.
The Red Sox were always known as a “25 players, 25 cabs” kind of team. Tiant changed all that through the sheer force of his joyful personality. He poked fun at himself and his teammates, telling jokes both dirty and clean. Once, Boston pitcher John Curtis wrote a newspaper column explaining to his wife and the world why he loved Luis Tiant. Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans once said in an article about Tiant, “Unless you’ve played with him, you can’t understand what Luis means to a team.”
After the 1978 season, the Red Sox offered Tiant just a one-year contract. The Man with a Thousand Wind-Ups signed with the Yankees. And the great Carl Yastrzemski cried. “They tore out the heart and soul of our team,” he told a reporter. Tiant retired following the 1982 season. The cigar was still there, but the fastball was gone. Tiant left with a career WAR of 66.1.
Luis vs Catfish
I am comparing Tiant with Jim “Catfish” Hunter, another popular pitcher from the 1960s and ’70s. Hunter pitched 15 seasons, 10 with the A’s and five with the Yankees. He finished with a a 224-166 mark (.574), almost identical to Tiant, and had a 3.26 ERA, slightly better than Luis. His ERA+ of (104) was slightly worse. Hunter struck out 2,012 batters in 3,449.1 innings (5.2 K/9, lower than Tiant’s ratio).
Hunter won at least 20 games five straight seasons (1971-75) and had a 25-win season in his Cy Young season of 1974. He enjoyed three other years when he finished in the top four in Cy Young voting. Catfish made eight All-Star teams. He finished with a WAR of 36.6, far below Tiant. He had an 8.1 in ’75, a 6.9 in 1974 and a 5.6 in 1972.
Hunter gave up a lot of hits, a lot of home runs and didn’t strike out many batters. He wasn’t nearly as dominating as El Tiante.
Catfish also played on the famous A’s teams that fought their way-literally at times—to three straight world championships. In 22 games (19 starts) and 132.1 innings, Hunter went 9-6 in the postseason with a 3.26 ERA.
The writers voted Hunter into the Hall of Fame in 1987, in his third year on the ballot. In all his years of eligibility, Tiant only got more than 30 percent of the vote once (30.9), and that was in his first year. After that, he topped out at 18 percent in 2002, his final time on the ballot.
By many standards, Tiant enjoyed a greater career than Catfish. Now, Tiant has another chance at getting into the Hall of Fame. How do you not root for Luis?