Long before there was CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, or even Justin Masterson, another man with a lightning bolt for an arm, gifted to him at birth by the baseball gods, called Cleveland home. Ask anyone lucky enough to have seen him pitch and they will swear that he is the greatest pitcher to wear an Indians uniform not named Bob Feller. For those of us who weren’t as fortunate, he’s just another name lost in Indians lore. But, who is the man in question? It’s none other than Sudden Sam McDowell.
McDowell was a solidly built left-handed flamethrower who signed with the Tribe as an amateur free agent at the ripe young age of 17 in 1960 for the price tag of $75,000. Expectations were set high for McDowell thanks to his A-plus fastball, but a complete lack of command threatened to derail everything. He spent the better part of two seasons toiling away in the minors honing his craft before finally being called up near the end of the 1961 season. In this debut, 6.1 shutout innings of work against the Minnesota Twins, McDowell gave up 3 hits and struck out 5, but also allowed 5 walks.
No one knew it at the time, but this start would be the epitome of Sam McDowell’s career.
For some pitchers, control issues can problematic to the point of disastrous and even career threatening. Yet for others, a lack of control can be beneficial. For those pitchers, we often label them as “effectively wild.” McDowell was the poster child for being effectively wild.
During his 11 seasons as a member of the Cleveland Indians from 1961-1971, McDowell accumulated an impressive 2,159 strikeouts. That’s good enough to place him second behind Bob Feller. His 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings is also second to Feller on the Indians all-time list. As if that’s not impressive enough, McDowell also owns the second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-highest total strikeout seasons in franchise history. (The single-season strikeout record belongs to, you guessed it, Bob Feller.)
For as great as all of that is, however, McDowell’s walk numbers are mind-boggling. In those 11 seasons, McDowell issued 1,072 free passes for a rate of 4.6 walks per nine innings pitched. That falls somewhere between the areas of poor and below average. Despite his great strikeout stuff, his K/BB ratio came out to a lackluster 2:1.
But again, McDowell was effectively wild. For all of the issues you can have with his lack of control on the mound, it effect his ability to keep runners from crossing the plate. From 1961 to 1971, McDowell’s ERA was a stellar 2.99 and his ERA+ was 119. He three 22 shutouts, good enough for eighth on the Indians all-time list, and completed 97 (almost a third) of his 295 starts.
From a WAR standpoint, McDowell was one of the most valuable pitchers in Indians’ history. According to Baseball-Reference, McDowell accumulated 39.7 bWAR in his 11 seasons with the Tribe. That’s good for fifth place behind Feller, Stan Coveleski, Addie Joss, and Mel Harder, respectively. If you’re loyal to FanGraphs, McDowell was even more valuable. According to their calculations, he accumulated 42.9 fWAR. This is again good enough for fifth place behind Feller, Harder, Caveleski, and Joss.
The bottom line is that when McDowell hit his prime from 1965 to 1971, he was one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. He topped the 300 strikeout and 10 strikeouts per nine innings marks twice during that time period with single-season highs of 325 strikeouts and 10.7 K/9 in 1965. During that same season, McDowell posted a 2.18 ERA and 161 ERA+. He would best both of those figures in 1968 when he posted a 1.81 ERA and 165 ERA+. To top things off, McDowell was named an all-star six times (’65-’66 and ’68-’71), received MVP votes in two different seasons (’65 and ’70), and finished in the top three of AL Cy Young voting in 1970.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. For the Indians and Sam McDowell the end began following the 1970 season. McDowell wanted a significant six-figure pay raise after being named the Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year. The Indians were reluctant to come to terms with their star pitcher. One voided contract, hold out, and suspension later, McDowell completed his worst season in a decade. Seeing the decline in performance as the writing on the wall, the Indians opted to seek a trade for their disgruntled pitcher.
On November 29, 1971, the Indians came to an agreement with the San Francisco Giants. The trade would turn out to be one of the most lopsided in Indians’ history. In exchange for McDowell, the Indians received light-hitting shortstop Frank Duffy and spitball pitcher extraordinaire Gaylord Perry.
McDowell ended up being a disaster for the Giants in 1972. His strikeout rate fell to a career-worst 6.7 K/9. His ERA, usually among the league leaders, jumped to 4.33. Making things even worse for McDowell and the Giants, Perry won 24 games for the Indians in 1972 while claiming his first Cy Young award. He would remain the Tribe’s ace for the next three seasons while McDowell’s career continued to fall apart.
After an unsuccessful run as a reliever and part-time starter to begin the 1973 season, McDowell was sold to the New York Yankees for $100,000. The Yankees made the decision to move McDowell back into a full-time starting role, and while he showed marginal improvements he was nowhere near the pitcher he was with the Tribe in the 1960’s. Injuries further derailed his career and he was eventually released following the 1974 season. McDowell gave it one more shot by signing with the Pirates prior to Opening Day 1975, but failed to make a real impact in 14 starts and was released before the calendar turned to July.
McDowell retired in 1975 with a career strikeout rate of 8.858, third on the all-time list behind Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. He has since fallen to ninth on that list, but his legacy as one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers of all-time should remain unchanged.
Since his retirement McDowell has faced many ups and downs. Most notably, he went on to conquer the demons of alcohol addiction, a problem he struggled with throughout his career and often times blamed for his control issues. In a twist, the character of Sam Malone on the 80’s sitcom Cheers was loosely based on McDowell. He also received a degree in sports psychology and addiction and has worked with several teams in the role of sports addiction counselor. In 1993, McDowell earned a World Series ring for the work he did with the Toronto Blue Jays.
With all of that said, Sam McDowell is easily one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the Indians organization. Unfortunately he is often overlooked, especially by fans of a younger generation who didn’t get to see him pitch. His legacy is also hurt because he pitched for the Indians during the 1960’s. That’s not an era that is typically looked back on fondly thanks to the lack of winning that took place. He didn’t have the benefit of winning a World Series or going on a crazy October playoff run like those who came before and after him. Regardless, when the discussion of greatest Indians pitchers comes up Sam McDowell’s name deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Feller, Lemon, and Harder.