Top 100 Indians: #32 Luis Tiant

Jamie Squire

LGT's countdown of the greatest players in franchise history continues with another pitcher who's time in Cleveland was too short.


Luis Clemente (Vega) Tiant (El Tiante)

Starting Pitcher, 1964-1969

Height: 6'0" Weight: 180 lbs

Throws: Right; Bats: Right

Acquired: Purchased in 1962 from Mexico City Tigers (Mexican League)

Left: Traded (December 10, 1969) with Stan Williams to the Minnesota Twins for Dean Chance, Graig Nettles, Ted Uhlaender and Bob Miller

Luis Tiant was born in Marianao, Cuba in the days when travel between that nation and the rest of the world was not yet limited. His father (Luis Sr.) was a great Cuban League and Negro League pitcher, and as the only child of a legend on a baseball-crazed island, Tiant was surrounded by the game from an early age, even though his father didn't consider it a great path for his son, due to discrimination against black players. At the age of 16 he traveled to Mexico with an All-Star team, and two years later he began playing professionally with the Mexico City Tigers. He played there for three years, and following the 1961 season the Indians purchased his contract.

Tiant put up strong numbers for Burlington of the Carolina League (an A-Ball league) in 1963. This put him on the Cleveland front office's radar, but he was still left unprotected in the waiver draft held each offseason during the winter meetings in those days. "I blew one when I didn't protect Tiant from the draft," said Indians GM Gabe Paul, "I've been pacing the floor all night." Fortunately, other teams had apparently not yet gotten word of Tiant's performance, and he went unclaimed. The following season, he was sent to Portland, the Tribe's top minor league team, where he became a sensation alongside fellow future MLB All-Star Sam McDowell.

Both pitchers began the season 8-0, at which time McDowell (who sported a 1.18 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 76 innings) was called up. Attendance for the Beavers had shot up whenever McDowell was on the mound, and after his departure, it was Tiant's starts that drew the crowd. That lasted only another few weeks though, as in mid-July, with his record standing at 15-1, a 2.04 ERA and 154 strikeouts to his name, Tiant was brought to Cleveland too.

Tiant made his MLB on July 19, 1964, and it was one of the greatest debuts in history. Facing the defending American League champion Yankees, Tiant pitched a complete game shutout, striking out 11 while allowing just 4 hits. To this day, it remains one of just two shutouts by an Indian in his MLB debut, and the only debut in franchise history to feature 10+ strikeouts. Five days later, Tiant again went the distance, making him one of just 11 players in the last 50 years to begin their career with back-to-back complete games. Tiant is one of just three to accomplish that while allowing one run or fewer. After not being called up til the season was halfway over, Tiant still managed to record 10+ strikeouts four times, tying him for second in the American League. Indians pitchers would combine for 1,162 strikeouts that season, setting a new MLB record.

Tiant started 30 games in 1965, going the distance in 10 of them. Tiant was an average pitcher overall that season, and on the advice of his father, he dropped 20 pounds during the following offseason, crediting the weight loss to running regularly and cutting greasy foods from his diet. The slimmer build seemed to suit him well, as Tiant got off to a fantastic start in 1966, with 3-straight shutouts to begin the year, joining Bob Feller as the only Indians to accomplish that. Perhaps due to being used in relief twice between starts and appearing 5 times in 11 days during late May and early June, Tiant wore down, and spent the last three months of the season pitching out of the bullpen. Still, he finished the season with a 2.79 ERA in 155 innings, strong stuff.

In 1967 Tiant moved back into the rotation, and again pitched well. Hs strikeout rate (9.2 per 9 innings) led the American League, and his ERA (2.74) placed him in the top ten. He struck out 10+ six times, tied for second-most in baseball. On August 22, Tiant struck out 16 batters, a total only five pitchers had ever topped in a nine-inning game. Tiant recorded that 16th strikeout to start the 8th inning, giving him 5 outs to record 3 more Ks and break Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax's record, but it was not to be. After some ups and down, Tiant had become one of the best hurlers in baseball. Good as he was that year, it was nothing compared to what was to come next.

Two weeks in 1968, Tiant made his third start of the year and pitched a shutout in Washington. Five days later he pitched another... then another... and another. Four straight shutouts, something no pitcher has accomplished in over 50 years, and still tied for the second-longest streak in American League history. By the end of May, Tiant had 8 complete games in 10 starts, and a 1.37 ERA. In June, he pitched 5 complete games in 6 starts, allowing just 5 earned runs in 51 innings, limiting hitters to a .149 batting average and .234 slugging percentage.

On July 3rd, Tiant topped himself by tossing a 10-inning shutout and striking out 19 hitters. At the time that was the second-highest total in American League history, and to this day, it remains a franchise record. Six days later Tiant started the All-Star Game, at which point he had a 14-5 record, a 1.24 ERA and 157 strikeouts. Tiant continued to dominate, finishing the season with a one-hit shutout of the Yankees, giving him a league-leading 9 shutouts on the season, a total only two pitchers have surpassed since 1968.

Detroit's Denny McClain won 31 games that season, and won the Cy Young and MVP awards unanimously, but it was Tiant who led the league in ERA and set MLB records by allowing just 5.30 hits per 9 innings (Nolan Ryan later broke that record, but Tain is still in 2nd place), and a batting average of just .168 (Pedro Martinez later broke that one, but again Tiant still comes in at #2). It is Tiant who was truly the American League's best pitcher in 1968.

For the first time in his career, Tiant did not pitch winter ball following the 1968 season. He wanted to, but the team asked him not to, and he went with their wishes. Tiant would blame a rusty arm caused by not playing during the offseason when his 1969 got off to a poor start. On Opening Day, he lasted just 5 innings while allowing 5 runs, and by mid-May he was 0-7 with a 7.51 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. Tiant's ERA bounced back after that, and was a strong 2.89 over the rest of the season, putting him a bit above average on the whole, but he recorded just one shutout, and led the league with 129 walks and 37 home runs allowed, the latter of which is still the franchise record.

In December, the Indians dealt Tiant away to Minnesota, for a package centered around Graig Nettles, a good, young third baseman who went on to a fine career. Tiant had trouble staying healthy, but in 1972, now with Boston, Tiant won his second ERA crown. Between 1973 and 1976, Tiant averaged 20 wins a year, pitched a shutout in Game 1 of the 1975 World Series, and became one of the most popular pitchers in Red Sox history. Tiant later played for the Yankees, Pirates, and Angels, finally retiring at the age of 41 at the end of the 1981 season.

Tiant stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot the maximum 15 years allowed, but never did better than the 31% of the vote he received in his first year on the ballot. His career bWAR (66.1) is better than that of more than half the pitchers already in the Hall of Fame, but his case just never gained any traction. Tiant now lives in Massachusetts, but also still spends much time in Mexico. He was recently spotted before Game 6 of the 2013 World Series, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park.

Year Age Tm W L ERA CG SHO IP HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9
1964 23 CLE 10 4 2.83 9 3 127.0 13 47 105 128 1.110 6.7 3.3 7.4
1965 24 CLE 11 11 3.53 10 2 196.1 20 66 152 99 1.182 7.6 3.0 7.0
1966 25 CLE 12 11 2.79 7 5 155.0 16 50 145 124 1.103 7.0 2.9 8.4
1967 26 CLE 12 9 2.74 9 1 213.2 24 67 219 121 1.142 7.5 2.8 9.2
1968 27 CLE 21 9 1.60 19 9 258.1 16 73 264 186 0.871 5.3 2.5 9.2
1969 28 CLE 9 20 3.71 9 1 249.2 37 129 156 101 1.434 8.3 4.7 5.6
CLE (6 yrs) 75 64 2.84 63 21 1200.0 126 432 1041 120 1.143 7.0 3.2 7.8
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Selected AL Awards/Leaders
  • All-Star: 1968
  • MVP: 5th, 1968
  • WAR: 3rd, 1968-7.8
  • WAR Pitchers: 1st, 1968-8.4; 6th, 1967-4.6; 10th, 1964-3.8; 10th, 1966-4.1
  • ERA: 1st, 1968-1.60; 10th, 1967-2.74
  • Wins: 3rd, 1968-21
  • WHIP: 2nd, 1968-0.871
  • H/9 IP: 1st, 1968-5.296; 10th, 1965-7.610
  • K/9 IP: 1st, 1967-9.225; 2nd, 1968-9.197; 8th, 1965-6.968
  • Innings: 7th, 1968-258.1
  • Strikeouts: 3rd, 1968-264; 4th, 1967-219; 10th, 1969-156
  • Complete Games: 2nd, 1968-19; 5th, 1965-10
  • Shutouts: 1st, 1966-5; 1st, 1968-9; 9th, 1964-3
  • Home Runs: 1st, 1969-37; 3rd, 1967-24
  • Bases on Balls: 1st, 1969-129; 10th, 1968-73
  • Hits: 10th, 1969-229
  • Strikeouts/Bases on Balls: 3rd, 1967-3.269; 5th, 1968-3.616
  • Losses: 1st, 1969-20
  • Earned Runs: 2nd, 1969-103
  • ERA+: 1st, 1972-169; 9th, 1967-121
  • Win Probability Added: 1st, 1968-6.4
Cleveland Indians Career Leader
  • 15th WAR Pitchers (16.1)
  • 16th ERA (2.84)
  • t-23rd Wins (75)
  • 7th WHIP (1.143)
  • 4th H/9 IP (7.043)
  • 48th BB/9 IP (3.240)
  • 3rd K/9 IP (7.808)
  • 41st Games Pitched (211)
  • 25th Innings Pitched (1200.0)
  • 10th Strikeouts (1041)
  • t-22nd Games Started (160)
  • t-23rd Complete Games (63)
  • 9th Shutouts (21)
  • 40th Earned Runs (379)
  • 12th ERA+ (120)
  • 12th WPA (8.5)
Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-9th Pitching WAR (8.4, 1968)
  • 3rd ERA (1.60, 1968)
  • t-34th Wins (21, 1968)
  • 2nd WHIP (0.871, 1968)
  • 38th WHIP (1.103, 1966)
  • t-42nd WHIP (1.110, 1964)
  • 1st H/9 IP (5.295, 1968)
  • 20th H/9 IP (6.661, 1964)
  • 40th H/9 IP (7.026, 1966)
  • 7th K/9 IP (9.225, 1967)
  • 7th K/9 IP (9.197, 1968)
  • 25th K/9 IP (8.419, 1966)
  • 47th K/9 IP (7.441, 1964)
  • 6th Strikeouts (264, 1968)
  • 17th Strikeouts (219, 1967)
  • t-3rd Shutouts (9, 1968)
  • t-22nd Shutouts (5, 1966)
  • 1st Home Runs (37, 1969)
  • 6th ERA+ (186, 1968)
  • 3rd WPA (6.4, 1968)
Sources:
  • Baseball-Reference
  • SABR Baseball Project
  • Sporting News archives (1964-1969)
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