Top 100 Cleveland Indians: #17 Sam McDowell

Sam McDowell had one-half of a Hall of Fame career, but then everything unraveled, on and off the field.

Samuel Edward McDowell (Sudden Sam)

Starting Pitcher, 1961-1971

Height: 6'5" Weight: 190 lbs

Throws: Left; Bats: Left

How Acquired: Amateur Free Agent, prior to 1960 season

Left Via: Trade, November 29, 1971: Traded to the San Francisco Giants for Gaylord Perry and Frank Duffy

Sam McDowell was born and raised in Pittsburgh, one of six children, and was a natural athlete, starring in four sports during high school. It was his blazing fastball that attracted the most attention though, and scouts waited impatiently for him to graduate so they could offer him a professional contract. McDowell graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1960, and since the MLB draft didn't exist in those days, you could choose which team you went to, if you were good enough. McDowell was plenty good enough, and more than half the teams offered to sign him. He was 6'5", threw in the mid-90s, had outstanding athleticism, and most importantly, threw left-handed. Baseball is game that treasures rare skill and tool combinations, and a big left-hander who can throw the ball by batters is one of the rarest combinations.

The Indians, who had just missed out on the AL pennant in the previous season, were the club that landed McDowell, ponying up $75,000 (close to $600,000 in 2013 dollars) to sign with the organization. He was good enough to go straight to the majors at age 17, but his parents wanted him to go to the minors first so that he'd have to earn his way to the big leagues. He spent that summer in Lakeland, Florida, where despite some control problems, he showed enormous promise. He spent most of 1961 in Salt Lake City, but before the end of that season he made his MLB debut as an 18-year-old.

The Phenom

It would take McDowell several seasons to really stick in the big leagues, as he struggled with the strike zone, so he he would play at least a portion of the 1962, 1963, and 1964 seasons in AAA. Going into 1964, it seemed like he'd start the season in Cleveland, but the Indians decided that the young left-hander needed just a big more seasoning in the minors. As it turned out, Sam was ready for the big leagues, and he dominated AAA hitters, striking out 102 in 76 innings (12.1/9) and allowing an incredible 4.0 H/9, along with a very nice 2.8 BB/9. After May 1964 he would not appear in the minors again.

The Indians, who in the 1940s and 1950s were one of baseball's best franchises, had fallen into mediocrity in the 1960s. But their scouting staff was still bringing in outstanding talent, especially pitching talent. Future Hall of Famer Early Wynn, who had retired the season before, was the pitching coach for the Tribe in 1964, and he brought his aggressive pitching style to the young and talented staff under his care. Along with the 21-year-old Sam McDowell, also on that team were Luis Tiant (Age 23), Tommy John (Age 21), Sonny Siebert (Age 27), and Mudcat Grant (Age 28). Jack Kralick was the veteran of the staff, having been acquired the previous season for Jim Perry, yet another young starter.

"Sudden Sam"

But Sam McDowell stood out among all that talent. He was given the nickname "Sudden Sam" early in his professional career. The name fit him, and soon Sam was more a middle name than a first name. McDowell's fastball was considered one of the fastest in the game at the time, with only Sandy Koufax's mentioned in the same breath. Once Sam started to find the strike zone with some regularity, the strikeouts began to pile up at a prodigious rate. Early Wynn preached the effectiveness of the high fastball, and McDowell combined his upper 90s heater with a 12-to-6 curve ball and a good slider. That, combined with his effective wildness made him as intimidating a pitcher as there was in the big leagues.

In 1964 McDowell led the league in strikeouts per nine innings with 9.2. In 1965, he led the league again with 10.7 K/9, which setting a major-league record, and in total strikeouts (325). McDowell would never reach Bob Feller's team record of 348 strikeouts, but he was striking out batters at a much higher rate than Feller, and ranks second only to Herb Score among Indians for career strikeout rate.

Missed Opportunities

With McDowell, Siebert, and Tiant, the Indians had the makings of a dominating rotation, a next-generation version of Feller/Lemon/Wynn/Garcia, if you will. But those mid-to-late 60s clubs never really competed for a pennant because either the offense was bad or there were too many injuries. In 1965 the Indians finished 87-75 but that was only good for 5th in a top-heavy AL. In 1966 they finished at .500 largely because of the offense. The front office tried to fix the offense, but the team could never put things together during that 1965-1969 stretch. Both Tiant and Siebert were traded in separate deals after the 1969 season, and for all intents and purposes the window had closed.

McDowell was still only 27 years old in 1970, and although the club was falling quickly to the bottom of the AL, he was at the top of his game. In 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, he posted 165 ERA+ and a K/9 of 9.5. The following year, the mound was lowered, but he didn't seem affected by the change, as he once again led the league in strikeouts and K/9, earning the fourth of his six All-Star appearances along the way. In 1970, as he added a high win total to his normal ERA and strikeout totals, he was in contention for the AL Cy Young Award, but lost out in a close race to both Jim Perry and Dave McNally.

A Sudden End

The wheels would soon come off what up until then was a very promising career. Through his Age 28 season (1970) McDowell looked on pace to eventually reach the Hall of Fame. He had struck out almost 2,000 batters in just under 1,900 innings, and it looked like he would eventually pass Walter Johnson's career strikeout record, which had remained in place for over four decades, but injuries and off-the-field problems quickly ended McDowell's career. Over the past couple seasons McDowell's drinking problems had turned into full-fledged alcoholism, and that led to problems with the team. A contract dispute combined with off-field incidents (including "rowdyism" on a team bus) led to the Indians placing him on the trading block after the 1971 season.

As you can imagine, several teams bid on the now 29-year-old flamethrower, with the San Francisco Giants winning the bidding by sending Gaylord Perry (ranked #23 on our Top 100 Indians list) and Frank Duffy to the Indians. The deal turned out to be a great one for the Indians, as Perry would have 3.5 great seasons with the Indians, and the Giants would come to regret the trade, as McDowell, after 1.5 injury-plagued and controversial seasons, would be dealt to the New York Yankees. But he wasn't used regularly, and was released after the 1974 season. He pitched briefly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his hometown club, in 1975, but was released in June.

A Save

Normally a pitcher like McDowell would get no shortage of opportunities to regain his form, as in 1975 he was only 32 years old. But his alcoholism scared away clubs who otherwise would have given him a chance. McDowell's career was done, but the most important events in his life would be yet to come. In 1980, with the support of his family, he entered a rehabilitation clinic in Pittsburgh. He came out of the clinic sober, and would devote his life to counseling other athletes with drug and alcohol addictions. He currently lives in Clermont, Florida.

A bit of trivia: the character of Sam Malone, an ex-pitcher turned bar owner in the classic TV show Cheers, was based on Sam McDowell

Career Stats

Year Age Tm ERA GS CG SHO IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1961 18 CLE 0.00 1 0 0 6.1 3 0 0 5 5 4.3 0.0 7.1 7.1 1.00
1962 19 CLE 6.06 13 0 0 87.2 81 59 9 70 70 64 8.3 0.9 7.2 7.2 1.00
1963 20 CLE 4.85 12 3 1 65.0 63 35 6 44 63 75 8.7 0.8 6.1 8.7 1.43
1964 21 CLE 2.70 24 6 2 173.1 148 52 8 100 177 135 7.7 0.4 5.2 9.2 1.77
1965 22 CLE 2.18 35 14 3 273.0 178 66 9 132 325 161 5.9 0.3 4.4 10.7 2.46
1966 23 CLE 2.87 28 8 5 194.1 130 62 12 102 225 120 6.0 0.6 4.7 10.4 2.21
1967 24 CLE 3.85 37 10 1 236.1 201 101 21 123 236 86 7.7 0.8 4.7 9.0 1.92
1968 25 CLE 1.81 37 11 3 269.0 181 54 13 110 283 165 6.1 0.4 3.7 9.5 2.57
1969 26 CLE 2.94 38 18 4 285.0 222 93 13 102 279 127 7.0 0.4 3.2 8.8 2.74
1970 27 CLE 2.92 39 19 1 305.0 236 99 25 131 304 134 7.0 0.7 3.9 9.0 2.32
1971 28 CLE 3.40 31 8 2 214.2 160 81 22 153 192 113 6.7 0.9 6.4 8.0 1.25
CLE (11 yrs) 2.99 295 97 22 2109.2 1603 702 138 1072 2159 119 6.8 0.6 4.6 9.2 2.01
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/3/2014.

Selected Awards/Leaders

  • AL All-Star: 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971
  • AL Pitching Title: 1965
  • AL MVP: 16th, 1970; 17th, 1965
  • AL Cy Young: 3rd, 1970
  • AL WAR: 1st, 1965-7.9; 2nd, 1970-7.9; 8th, 1969-6.3
  • AL WAR Pitchers: 1st, 1965-8.1; 1st, 1970-8.3; 2nd, 1969-6.6; 4th, 1966-4.9; 5th, 1964-4.7; 7th, 1968-5.4
  • AL ERA: 1st, 1965-2.18; 2nd, 1968-1.81; 5th, 1970-2.92; 7th, 1964-2.70; 8th, 1966-2.87
  • AL Wins: 4th, 1965-17; 4th, 1970-20; 8th, 1969-18
  • AL W/L Percentage: 9th, 1964-.647; 10th, 1970-.625
  • AL WHIP: 7th, 1969-1.137; 10th, 1965-1.136
  • AL Hits/9 IP: 1st, 1965-5.868; 1st, 1966-6.021; 2nd, 1970-6.964; 2nd, 1971-6.708; 3rd, 1978-6.056; 6th, 1969-7.011; 10th, 1964-7.685
  • AL Strikeouts/9 IP: 1st, 1964-9.190; 1st, 1965-10.714; 1st, 1966-10.420; 1st, 1968-9.468; 1st, 1969-8.811; 1st, 1970-8.971; 2nd, 1967-8.987; 2nd, 1971-8.050
  • AL Innings: 1st, 1970-305.0; 2nd, 1965-273.0; 4th, 1969-285.0; 5th, 1968-269.0; 10th, 1967-236.1
  • AL Strikeouts: 1st, 1965-325; 1st, 1966-225; 1st, 1968-283; 1st, 1969-279; 1st, 1970-305; 2nd, 1967-236; 7th, 1971-192; 8th, 1964-177
  • AL Games Started: 3rd, 1968-37; 5th, 1967-37; 5th, 1969-38; 6th, 1970-39; 8th, 1965-35
  • AL Complete Games: 2nd, 1965-14; 2nd, 1970-19; 3rd, 1969-18; 9th, 1968-11
  • AL Shutouts: 1st, 1966-5; 4th, 1969-4; 6th, 1965-3
  • AL Home Runs: 6th, 1967-21
  • AL Bases on Balls: 1st, 1965-132; 1st, 1967-123; 1st, 1968-110; 1st, 1970-131; 1st, 1971-153; 4th, 1964-100; 4th, 1966-102; 6th, 1969-102
  • AL Hits: 9th, 1967-201
  • AL Strikeouts/Bases on Balls: 2nd, 1969-2.735; 8th, 1965-2.462; 9th, 1970-2.321
  • AL Home Runs/9 IP: 1st, 1965-0.297; 1st, 1969-0.411; 3rd, 1964-0.415; 5th, 1966-0.556; 5th, 1968-0.435; 7th, 1970-0.738
  • AL Losses: 2nd, 1971-17; 8th, 1967-15; 8th, 1968-14; 10th, 1969-14
  • AL Earned Runs: 1st, 1967-101
  • AL Wild Pitches: 1st, 1965-17; 1st, 1967-18; 1st, 1970-17; 3rd, 1971-13; 5th, 1964-11; 5th, 1969-14; 9th, 1963-7
  • AL Hit By Pitch: 6th, 1966-6; 6th, 1968-10; 8th, 1967-7; 9th, 1970-7; 10th, 1965-6; 10th, 1969-7
  • AL Adjusted Era+: 1st, 1965-161; 2nd, 1968-165; 3rd, 1970-134; 6th, 1964-135; 8th, 1966-120; 8th, 1969-127
  • AL Win Probability Added: 2nd, 1965-5.8; 3rd, 1966-3.1; 4th, 1970-4.1; 6th, 1968-3.6; 8th, 1969-3.1
  • AL Sacrifice Hits: 4th, 1969-11
  • AL Errors as P: 2nd, 1968-4; 4th, 1967-5; 5th, 1970-4; 5th, 1971-4

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 5th WAR Pitchers (42.3)
  • 18th ERA (2.99)
  • 11th Wins (122)
  • 43rd W/L Percentage (.528)
  • 25th WHIP (1.268)
  • 2nd Hits/9 IP (6.839)
  • 2nd Strikeouts/9 IP (9.210)
  • 15th Games Played (336)
  • 10th Innings Pitched (2109.2)
  • 2nd Strikeouts (2159)
  • 8th Games Started (295)
  • 15th Complete Games (97)
  • 8th Shutouts (22)
  • 9th Home Runs (138)
  • 4th Bases on Balls (1072)
  • 13th Hits (1603)
  • 19th Strikeouts/Bases on Balls (2.014)
  • 41st Home Runs/9 IP (0.589)
  • 7th Losses (109)
  • 10th Earned Runs (702)
  • 1st Wild Pitches (114)
  • 9th Hit By Pitch (53)
  • t-13th ERA+ (119)
  • 2nd WPA (19.8)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-12th Pitching WAR (8.3, 1970)
  • t-15th Pitching WAR (8.1, 1965)
  • 34th Pitching WAR (6.6, 1969)
  • t-12th ERA (1.81, 1968)
  • t-30th ERA (2.18, 1965)
  • t-20th Wins (20, 1970)
  • 29th WHIP (1.082, 1968)
  • 3rd Hits/9 IP (5.868, 1965)
  • 5th Hits/9 IP (6.021, 1966)
  • 6th Hits/9 IP (6.056, 1968)
  • 21st Hits/9 IP (6.708, 1971)
  • 32nd Hits/9 IP (6.964, 1970)
  • 37th Hits/9 IP (7.011, 1969)
  • 1st Strikeouts/9 IP (10.714, 1965)
  • 2nd Strikeouts/9 IP (10.420, 1966)
  • 7th Strikeouts/9 IP (9.468, 1968)
  • 11th Strikeouts/9 IP (9.190, 1964)
  • 17th Strikeouts/9 IP (8.987, 1967)
  • 18th Strikeouts/9 IP (8.970, 1970)
  • 19th Strikeouts/9 IP (8.811, 1969)
  • 33rd Strikeouts/9 IP (8.050, 1971)
  • 20th Innings Pitched (305.0, 1970)
  • 38th Innings Pitched (285.0, 1969)
  • 2nd Strikeouts (325, 1965)
  • 3rd Strikeouts (304, 1970)
  • 4th Strikeouts (283, 1968)
  • 5th Strikeouts (279, 1969)
  • 14th Strikeouts (236, 1967)
  • 16th Strikeouts (225, 1966)
  • 27th Strikeouts (192, 1971)
  • 38th Strikeouts (177, 1964)
  • 9th Games Started (39, 1970)
  • t-10th Games Started (38, 1969)
  • t-16th Games Started (37, 1967, 1968)
  • t-40th Games Started (35, 1965)
  • t-22nd Shutouts (5, 1966)
  • t-38th Shutouts (4, 1969)
  • t-38th Home Runs (25, 1970)
  • t-4th Bases on Balls (153, 1971)
  • t-10th Bases on Balls (132, 1965)
  • 23rd Bases on Balls (123, 1967)
  • t-32nd Bases on Balls (110, 1968)
  • 12th Bases on Balls (131, 1970)
  • 45th Strikeouts/Bases on Balls (2.735, 1969)
  • t-10th Losses (17, 1971)
  • t-34th Losses (15, 1967)
  • t-1st Wild Pitches (18. 1967)
  • t-3rd Wild Pitches (17, 1965, 1970)
  • t-8th Wild Pitches (14, 1969)
  • t-14th Wild Pitches (13, 1971)
  • t-32nd Wild Pitches (11, 1964)
  • t-37th Hit By Pitch (10, 1968)
  • 19th ERA+ (165, 1968)
  • 23rd ERA+ (161, 1965)
  • 7th WPA (5.8, 1965)
  • t-23rd WPA (4.1, 1970)
  • t-32nd WPA (3.5, 1968)
  • t-42nd WPA (3.1, 1966, 1969)

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