I saw that former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar died Friday at 72 and felt motivated to look at his career numbers once again. What I saw surprised me. Cuellar didn’t have a full season in the major leagues until he was 29. In spite of this, he still proceeded to go 185-130 lifetime, winning at least 20 games four times and sharing the 1969 American League Cy Young Award with Denny McLain. His WHIP* of 1.1966 is better than Hall of Fame pitchers Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Dizzy Dean, and in some parallel universe, I like to think Cuellar had a full career and is in Cooperstown too.
Cuellar falls into an interesting category, pitchers who didn’t get started until later in life. I know about a few of the success stories, including two I consider among the best left-handed pitchers of all-time, Randy Johnson and Warren Spahn, as well as Dazzy Vance and even Curt Schilling who looked like a lost cause his first four years in the majors until he hit his stride at 25 with the Philadelphia Phillies (there’s a great Sports Illustrated story about Orioles manager Frank Robinson meeting with a young punk version of Schilling, years before his emergence with the Phillies and asking him, “What’s wrong with you son?”)
Aside from the well-known success tales, what I would be interested to know is how many other pitchers like Cuellar could have been Hall of Fame-worthy with even two or three more solid seasons. Cuellar’s win total is close to Jim Bunning, Rube Waddell and Vance, and he has more victories than Dean or Sandy Koufax. I’m sure there are others like him.
Cuellar has close to identical lifetime numbers to one of his teammates, Dave McNally, and interestingly, the two have inverse career trajectories. While Cuellar was just getting started at 32, McNally’s career ended ingloriously at that age, the same year he and another pitcher, Andy Messersmith, helped end the reserve clause in baseball by insisting on their right to free agency. All things considered, Cuellar and McNally are probably somewhere near who I consider to be the best players not in the Hall of Fame.
*This marks the first time I’ve referred to WHIP in this blog. Until tonight I wasn’t even sure what it meant, but I learned it’s a metric measuring walks plus hits per inning pitched. That sounds like a decent statistic, even if it’s deceptive for a guy like Carlton, the master of throwing a 12-hit shutout. No amount of statistical nonsense would inspire me to take Cuellar over him.
I could write a post about how I get annoyed reading baseball writing that uses a bunch of stats to make a point as I think obscure metrics are often used today in place of logic without adequate explanation for unsophisticated readers. I prefer a strong narrative to a shitload of metrics. Still, using them seems equivalent to reading Harry Potter: Everybody’s doing it so I might as well too. Come to think of it, I really should read those books at some point.