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Sunday, November 14, 2010

With All the Cy Young Talk for Felix Hernandez, Here's an Elegy for the Young Frank Tanana

You don't remember Frank Tanana, you do?

You don't remember that he was an outstanding flamethrowing lefty starter for some horrible Angels teams in his early twenties. Why? Perhaps because the big-name pitcher on his team then was some flamethrower named Ryan. Nolan Ryan.

You don't remember that for his career he was 240-236, that he had to adapt to being more of a crafty pitcher later in his career because of an arm injury. And, naturally, you wouldn't remember a great line by broadcaster Todd Kalas, Harry's son, about him near the end of his career -- "The guy who threw in the 90's in the 70's is now throwing in the 70's in the 90's." Great summation.

Why am I writing about Frank Tanana? Well, because there's been a lot of talk that with his recent season, Mariners' starting pitcher Felix Hernandez should win the Cy Young Award for the American League despite being a .500 pitcher because despite traditional measurements, the Baseball Prospectus-like stats -- by which most front offices apparently swear -- demonstrate that Hernandez clearly is the best starting pitcher in the AL (or so the argument goes) and, therefore, he is worthy of the Cy Young Award. After all, it wasn't Hernandez's fault that the Mariners finished 61-101, perhaps making Hernandez the 2010 version of either the 1950 Ned Garver (who won 20 games and had 24 complete games for a St. Louis Browns team that won 58 of its 154 games that year) or the 1972 Steve Carlton (who won 27 games for a Phillies team that won 59 of its 156 games that year). Both Garver and Carlton toiled for terrible teams, and what made Carlton's performance so remarkable that despite the Phillies' futility, they rose to the occasion behind him, and he rose to the occasion almost at every turn (his performance that season was one of the best ever, to say the least, especially considering the team that he played for).

So that brings us back to Hernandez, who might be worthy despite "only" having gone 13-12 for a team that didn't do much. I have no quarrel with Hernandez's anointment, and acknowledge that he suffers from the fact that when it comes to media exposure, if you play for Seattle and aren't both outstanding and exotic (see, for example, Ichiro), you might as well be playing on the moon because people back East and in the Midwest just go to sleep too darn early for you to get recognized. If the standards have become such that a won-loss record shouldn't matter as much as the underlying numbers, so be it. Hernandez is a tremendous pitcher, and there have been examples where average to above average pitchers win 20 games because they're in the right place at the right time (read: they didn't come close before or after that feat) and outstanding pitchers labor because they're playing for bad teams.

That said, I circle back to Tanana, about whom I'm writing from memory and who I believe was underappreciated because he was so outstanding (and overused) very early in his career, playing for bad teams. How overused? He pitched 71 complete games by the time he was 24. Today, the future Hall of Fame pitcher might not have 23 complete games in his career (and that's the number that Tanana threw in 1976 at the ripe old age of 22 -- the year that whoever was managing determine to end what probably would have been a Hall of Fame career had Tanana not been so overworked by the time he was 25). At any rate, though, here are Tanana's numbers in 1975, 1976 and 1977 (when he was 22, 23 and 24 respectively):


16-9, 2.62 ERA, 16 complete games, 5 shutouts, 1.104 WHIP, 9.4 K's/9, 3.68 K's/BB.


19-10, 2.43 ERA, 23 complete games, 2 shutouts, 0.988 WHIP, 8.1 K's/9, 3.58 K's/BB.


15-9, 2.54 ERA, 20 complete games, 7 shutouts, 1.086 WHIP, 7.6 K's/9, 3.36 K's/BB.

The Angels finishes during those years?

1975 -- 72-99 (last in AL West)

1976 -- 76-86 (tied for fourth in AL West)

1977 -- 74-88 (fifth in AL West).

As for the Cy Young voting, Tanana came in tied (with Jim Kaat) for fourth in the AL in 1975 (behind Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers -- and boy, did Palmer have an awesome year, but those three played for great teams, far better than Tanana's Angels), third in 1976 (behind Palmer and one and a half year wonder Mark Fidrych), and (gasp) ninth in 1977, behind Sparky Lyle, Palmer, teammate Nolan Ryan, Dennis Leonard, Bill Campbell, Dave Goltz, Ron Guidry and Dave Rozema). Sure, he had some great competition -- and the number of complete games and shutouts those guys threw was staggering, but Tanana -- during his early years -- remains one of the most underappreciated and most forgotten pitchers of the past 40 years. But take it from someone who saw him on TV and followed him -- he was that good that young.

I heard a saying recently that it's not good to be a pioneer, because historically most of the pioneers (that is, the ones you haven't heard about) ended up face down in a stream with arrows in their back). Now, there will be debates, of course, about trying, about leadership and about courage, but the context I heard the comment in -- in fairness -- was about being bold and taking great leaps of faith where a more cautious approach would work just fine (and the context I'm talking about didn't involve taking a great stand for human rights or discovering electricity or the automobile, but one where the risks would far outstrip the rewards). Well, perhaps Frank Tanana was a pioneer, and I do allow for the doubting that he wasn't as recognized as perhaps he might have been because the competition at the time was just that good. Fair enough. But if Felix Hernandez wins the AL Cy Young Award, the writers will be tipping their caps to all of those pitchers who were unfortunate enough to pitch for mediocre to horrible teams at a time when one of the principal criteria was in order to qualify for the award, it didn't matter how good you were, you had to, at a minimum, either pitch for a division-winning team or just be much, much better than anyone else (such as Steve Carlton in 1972).

There are many pitchers out there -- and descendants of them -- who might be pulling for Felix Hernandez, if for no other reason than because he's just like their relative -- an outstanding pitcher for a bad team and, finally, the baseball world will be rewarding great pitching, regardless of the team's record.

I wonder if Frank Tanana is out there, somewhere, pulling for Felix Hernandez.


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