We are celebrating the history of the Cleveland Indians by building an all-time roster. In this installment we select our choice for the starting rotation.
In this piece I’ll introduce my five-man starting rotation, beginning with my ace and ending with my fifth starter. I’ll also, as with the managers, mention some guys that didn’t quite make the team but were right there on the bubble.
The ace of this squad should be obvious. Bob Feller is arguably the most legendary player in the 118-year history of this club. He is the team’s all-time leader in wins (266), innings pitched (3,769), strikeouts (2,563), and second in shutouts (44).
An eight-time AL All-Star, Feller won 20 games in a season six times and led the league in strikeouts seven times. He holds the single season club record when he struck out 348 batters in the 1946 season.
Feller threw three no-hitters in his career. Only Nolan Ryan (7) and Sandy Koufax (4) have thrown more no-no’s in MLB history. Among those no-hitters, Rapid Robert recorded the only no-hitter on Opening Day when he shut down the Chicago White Sox to kick off the 1940 season.
Feller also set a Major League record when he struck out 18 Tigers on October 2, 1939; he was just 19 years old at the time.
Missing nearly four years of his prime to military service (age 23-26), we may never know what Feller could have done over his career. I don’t think that was a question in the mind of the big right-hander, as he was the first Major Leaguer to enlist in military service doing so just two days after the bombing at Pearl Harbor.
Addie Joss might well have been the greatest pitcher in Indians history had his life not tragically been cut short by tubercular meningitis at age 31. As it is, his nine years in an Indians uniform are the best nine-year stretch ever by a Tribe hurler.
He won 160 games in that time with a 1.89 ERA that ranks second all-time, not just in Indians history but in MLB history. He is also the all-time MLB leader in WHIP with an amazing 0.968.
Joss pitched just the fourth perfect game in MLB history and the first of two in Cleveland history. He completed his perfecto in just 76 pitches, making it the most efficient perfect game ever thrown.
A four-time 20 game winner, Joss’ 1.16 ERA in 1908 ranks as the seventh-best single season ERA of any pitcher since 1880. His 1.89 lifetime ERA is the second-best in Major League history.
Sam McDowell was a strikeout machine in Cleveland. He led the AL in strikeouts five times in his 11 years in an Indians uniform and he is the only Indian to strike out 300 batters in a season on two separate occasions, accomplishing the feat in 1965 (325) and 1970 (304). He is second all-time in Indians history with 2,159 career strikeouts.
Sudden Sam made six All-Star teams in a seven-year stretch from 1965-1971, winning an ERA title with a 2.18 mark in 1965 and winning 20 games once in 1970.
McDowell might have won many more games had he played on a better team. His Indians never finished higher than third place in his career despite his efforts. In 1968 he led the league with 268 strikeouts and finished second with an amazing 1.81 ERA but posted a mediocre record of 15-14 while his Indians batted an abysmal .234 as a team.
Mel Harder is the first Indians pitcher to reach 200 wins as a member of the club. He spent 20 years in an Indians uniform, winning 222 games and making 4 All-Star appearances. Harder led the league in ERA with a 2.95 mark in 1933. He followed that season up with back-to-back 20-win seasons.
He’s second in team history in wins and fWAR (48.3), starts (432), and innings pitched (3359.2). On the negative side Harder is also the Indians leader in losses with 184, but his 538 games pitched is only three behind Feller in club history.
Bob Lemon was a 20-win machine for the Tribe. In a nine-year stretch from 1948-1957 Lemon won 20 or more games seven times. He made seven straight All-Star games in that span and led the league in shutouts in 1948 with a club-best 10.
No Cleveland pitcher has as many 20-win seasons and Lemon is one of only three pitchers (Feller, Harder) to win 200 career games with the Indians. The amazing thing is that it took him just 12 seasons to reach the 200-win mark.
I am an analytics guy and I know very well what analytics says about pitcher wins, but when a guy is racking W’s up at that rate, it can’t be ignored. Lemon is an Indians legend that deserves his recognition on this list.
Stan Coveleski was right there on the bubble for making this rotation. He was another win machine raking up 172 in his nine years in Cleveland thanks in large part to four straight 20+ win campaigns.
Coveleski is fourth all-time in fWAR (43.7) for the Indians and his 2.80 ERA with the team is the second-most of any pitcher with at least 1,500 innings pitched for the club.
Arguably his best year came in the World Series Championship 1920 season. Helping the Tribe to its first ever title, Covey won a career best 24 games with a 2.49 ERA and led the league with 133 strikeouts.
It was hard not to put Corey Kluber on this list as he’s the teams all-time leader with 9.81 K/9 and he’s the only Indians pitcher to win two Cy Young Awards. (The award has been around since 1956). Maybe it’s a little history bias, or maybe he just needs a couple more years on the team, but I just don’t see him yet as an all-time Indian.
I could be wrong here, I think statistically he’s better than Lemon, Harder, Coveleski, and just about everyone else on list save Feller and Joss. He’s right up there with McDowell on this one so I could have gone either way.
In the end he’s pitched just 196 game for the Indians, over 100 less than the next closest guy on the list, and maybe that’s what did it for me. If he stays in Cleveland for the duration of his contract plus team options (he’s under control through 2021) then he should very well be on this list. Until then I have him on the bubble but not quite there.
You can’t go wrong with a rotation of Bob Feller, Addie Joss, Sam McDowell, Mel Harder and Bob Lemon. Coveleski and Kluber were right there but didn’t quite make the cut. Check out the next article in this series where I’ll name my starting catcher.