July 27, 1948
In each of his last five full seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Bob Feller has been a 20-game winner. He has been an All-Star, an MVP candidate, the face of a franchise, and has routinely led the league in wins and starts.
Despite a laundry list of accolades, the 29-year-old pitcher has not appeared quite himself this year. The flame-throwing right-hander has seen more than his fair share of struggles on the mound this season.
With 26 games under his belt this year, he has posted a 9-12 record with a 4.07 ERA. Of those 26 appearances, 22 have been starts and ten times he has gone the distance.
Already at 12 losses and with more than two months left in the season, Feller will put in jeopardy his career worst numbers in both the loss and ERA department. His season loss total is already the third-worst mark of his ten-year career and, if the season ended today, his ERA would be better than his previous career high by just one-hundredth of a point.
What, if anything at all, is ailing Feller?
Is it an injury for the right-hander?
Feller says no.
After the team returned from their series over the weekend in Boston, Feller visited A.L. Austin, the doctor who treated his sore right elbow in 1937 and every so often since. Feller had not visited with the good doctor in two years.
“He gave me a rub and I paid him,” said Feller. “He said there was nothing the matter with my arm or shoulder and that’s all there was to it.”
The relationship between the two men seems strained after the doctor shared that Feller had better return for further treatment on his right shoulder or he would run the risk of being “washed up” within the next few months.
“For guys on other clubs who can’t pitch because of sore arms, I would recommend Austin,” shared Feller. “But I’ll never go back.”
Rapid Robert may have to put the pride aside and learn the old baseball adage that “you don’t learn to pitch until you’ve lost your fastball”.
Feller is at the advantage, when compared to most pitchers who have preceded him, in that he has a well-established and reliable curveball already in his repertoire. While he may have lost a little bit of the speed that distinguished him as one of, if not, the fastest pitchers in the game, he has a nasty breaking pitch that can be just as effective as his fastball.
Feller may know that he has lost some of the zip on his fastball. That has not stopped him from trying to strike out batters with the fastball up and away like he had done so many times throughout his storied career. Many of those pitches this season have, unfortunately, been relocated into the stands as any one of 17 home runs allowed this year.
Team President Bill Veeck spoke with Feller the other day, not as a baseball coach or as a former pitcher, but as an individual who has been around the game for a while and who has seen his share of good pitchers go through tough stretches on the mound.
“Nobody ever stays that fast through his whole career,” said Veeck. “Nearly every great fastball pitcher has gone through what [Feller] has gone through now – Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and all of them.”
For Feller, the confidence on the mound may return when he is better able to be in control of his pitches. His control has been suspect at times. Wild may even be a more accurate term. While Feller has always racked up a considerable amount of walks, he had maintained a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.62. Through three months of this season, his rate is at 1.25.
Indians pitching coach and long-time staff ace Mel Harder feels that Feller too often has relied on a slider that has not moved the way he has desired, setting himself up for a grooved pitch in the wheelhouses of some of the league’s most dangerous sluggers. It may only help to confirm that Feller is looking for another pitch to offset his curveball, thinking that his fastball may not have what it takes to get him the strikeout when he needs it the most.
The boos have rained down from the stands at the Stadium throughout the season while Feller has struggled to find consistency. He has seven times at home given the Cleveland loyal a complete game effort, including his only shutout of the season. He has failed to finish the seventh inning in these home starts just one time. While he is 5-5 as a starter in Cleveland, he is just 4-6 in road starts.
It would be tough to imagine any scenario in which Feller’s pride had not been hurt by the reception from the fans. Even the strongest, most steadfast individual can only take so much of an emotional barrage at one time.
Feller knows that he has not pitched to the best of his ability and has to know that he has disappointed more than a handful of fans looking to see the dominant, strike-throwing ace and one of the best pitchers in the game of baseball over the last ten seasons when they have come to the ball yard to take in a game. While his numbers may not reflect the pitcher he once was, he has at times showed those glimpses of old.
This Indians team, in contention for a piece of the pennant, has to hope that he finds it again soon…and that he does not lose it again thereafter.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project (pictured with Cy Young)
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