In ’68, Sudden Sam Was Even Better Than Yu
Steve Eby | On 17, Aug 2013
Starting pitcher Yu Darvish is having an incredible season for the Texas Rangers, as his 207 strikeouts currently pace the American League. He earned his second straight All-Star bid in July, has a 12-5 record with a 2.64 ERA and surrenders a league best 6.0 hits per nine innings. On Monday, Darvish struck out 15 Houston Astros, marking the fifth time that he has struck out 14 or more batters in a game this season. This statistic has only been matched by four other pitchers since the turn of the 20th century.
Former Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez struck out 14 or more seven times during his magical 1999 season and Hall of Famer and strikeout king Nolan Ryan did it in both 1972 and 1974. Randy Johnson, who ranks second on the all-time strikeout list, accomplished the feat an amazing six times, most recently in 2002 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Johnson also struck out 14+ at least five times in 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999 and a record eight times in 2001. The fifth member of the club did so as a member of the Cleveland Indians and was the first man to do it.
In 1968, Sudden Sam McDowell struck out 16 Oakland Athletics on May 1, 14 New York Yankees on May 6, 14 more A’s on June 13, 14 California Angels on July 6, and then dominated Oakland again on July 12 for 15 more K’s. It was the first time that such an accomplishment had occurred and it came in what is now known as The Year of the Pitcher.
McDowell—a product of Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School—was fantastic for the Indians in ’68, posting a 15-14 record with a career best 1.81 ERA during his eighth season with the Tribe. Only 25 years old at the time, the big lefthander made his third All-Star team while leading the league in both strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings. Not exactly known for his pinpoint control, however, McDowell also paced the Junior Circuit in walks as well.
McDowell led an awesome Cleveland rotation that also included Sonny Siebert, Stan Williams and Luis Tiant’s best year as a professional. The bullpen was also solid, as Vicente Romo, Eddie Fisher and Mike Paul added to an overall phenomenal pitching staff. The problem with the 86-75, third place Tribe was certainly the offense as Joe Azcue, Lee Maye and Jose Cardenal were the only regulars to hit better than .250. In addition, only Tony Horton and Duke Sims were able to hit more than eight homeruns. The team overall batted a measly .234 and scored just over 500 runs for the season.
The anemic bats certainly took its toll on McDowell’s record that sat just above .500, but had no effect on his overall performance. Sudden Sam was still able to hurl 11 complete games including three shutouts while posting a WHIP of 1.082. The ’68 campaign certainly ranks among McDowell’s best, but it also came as no surprise to anyone because McDowell was already one of baseball’s rising stars.
McDowell made his Major League debut a week before his 19th birthday on September 15, 1961. In 6.1 innings, McDowell shut out the Minnesota Twins allowing only three hits and five walks while striking out five. The awesome start was McDowell’s only of ’61, but it certainly put him on the radar for 1962 and beyond.
Sudden Sam came up in April of ’62 and struggled through his age 19 and 20 seasons. It wasn’t until 1964 that McDowell had his real breakout season, finishing 11-6 with a 2.70 ERA. In 1965, McDowell first led the league in strikeouts, fanning a career best 325. In addition to strikeouts, McDowell was also the American League’s best in ERA (2.18), ERA+ (161), hits/9 (5.9), HR/9 (0.3) and strikeouts/9 (10.7).
McDowell’s production slipped somewhat from 1966-67 but he followed them up with his excellent ’68 season and continued to roll from 1969 to 1971. Sudden Sam made the All-Star team in all three of those campaigns and won 20 games for the only time in his career in 1970. It was during his excellent ’70 season that McDowell also led the league in strikeouts for the final time in his career and finished third in the Cy Young voting. McDowell was also named American League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.
Over 11 seasons with the Indians, McDowell won 122 games, threw 97 complete games as well as 22 shutouts. He pitched in six All-Star games and led the league in K’s five times. His 2,159 strikeouts are second only to the legendary Bob Feller on the Indians all-time list. The Indians traded McDowell to the San Francisco Giants after the 1971 season.
The trade came at just the right time for the Indians and McDowell, as the two sides had a somewhat stormy relationship at the end of Sudden Sam’s tenure in Cleveland. The 29 year old McDowell had been promised a trade by Indian chief Gabe Paul after McDowell left the team for 10 days in late July and early August. The trade on November 29 capped a busy day for trades in baseball as the Oakland A’s also swapped outfielder Rick Monday to the Chicago Cubs for star pitcher Ken Holtzman and the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros completed an eight player deal that included future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan going to the Reds.
In exchange for McDowell, the Indians received a 33 year old Gaylord Perry and young shortstop Frank Duffy. At the time, Duffy was considered the key to the deal and ended up playing six unimpressive seasons for the Tribe. Perry, however, turned out to be the gem and continued his march toward the Hall of Fame by throwing three remarkable seasons in Cleveland including winning the 1972 Cy Young Award.
Meanwhile, McDowell’s best days were behind him as he struggled through a season a half in San Francisco before being purchased by the New York Yankees in June of 1973. McDowell spent the following two seasons with the Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates before retiring in 1975.
McDowell finished his career with 2,453 strikeouts and an 8.86 strikeout rate per nine innings. The K rate sat only behind Ryan and longtime Dodger great Sandy Koufax on the all-time list at the time of his retirement, but has since been passed over a number of times, currently ranking 11th all-time.
The eight names that have passed McDowell have all occurred within the past 20 years—including four current players—in an era where strikeouts are not as frowned upon by hitters as they used to be. As a result, McDowell is still considered as one of the great strikeout pitchers of all-time and his career was highlighted during The Year of the Pitcher in 1968.
Photo: Sports Illustrated