I’m kind of addicted to the SABR Baseball List and Record Book. I pour through it, running my finger down the lines.
In addition to all the repeated luminous names of greats, a lesser known, certainly lesser celebrated name pops up a ton: Frank Tanana. Now, maybe it pops up because I like bananas or I remember him as being incredibly tough on the Orioles (he pitched 335 IPs against the Orioles with a 2.96 ERA, and 1.20 WHIP but had just a 22-19 record), but he definitely put up some amazing numbers throughout a long career that, I think, compares favorably to other noteworthy hurlers, as you’ll see below.
Frank Tanana: He had longevity on his side (even though an arm injury zapped his 100+ MPH fastball early in his career.) He appeared in the 42nd most games by a left-handed pitcher. His 638 games (616 starts) were one behind Mike Remlinger, 13 behind Wilbur Wood, and 16 behind Billy Wagner and Chuck McElroy. He started so many games that he appeared more than most LOOGYs could ever dream of.
In fact, his 616 starts are the 17th most in MLB history and he pitched the 33rd most innings in history, the 7th most by a southpaw. It amazes me that, in the long tenured history of the game, Tanana threw more innings that just about any other left hander to ever toe the rubber.
With all that success and innings, Tanana finished with the 12th most wins by a left-handed pitcher in MLB history (of course, he has the 16th most loses in MLB history as well). He won at least 10 games in 14 of his 21 seasons – only 25 pitchers in baseball history have more 10 win seasons. This mark is tied with folks like Jack Morris, Milt Papas, Lefty Grove, Kid Nichols, Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson and others. He also won a game in 21 different seasons, tied for the 17th most seasons in MLB history with a win.
In addition, Tanana struck out a ton of batters. His 2,773 Ks are the 21st most in a career since 1893, and the fourth most in MLB history by a lefty.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, his 55.1 WAR is 59th all time among pitchers. It is higher than Sandy Koufax, Red Ruffing, Bob Caruthers, Early Wynn, Waite Hoyt, Jack Morris, Jim Kaat, Hoyt Wilhelm, Herb Pennock, Catfish Hunter and pretty much the majority of people who ever pitched an inning in MLB history.
You can say Tanana was mostly an accumulator if you want. But he was as good as it gets from 1975-1977. During those three seasons, he averaged 262 innings, a 2.53 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.06 WHIP, and a 3.55 K:BB rate.
He tied for fourth in CY Young voting in ’74, while he was arguably just as good as Jim Palmer and Catfish Hunter and certainly more valuable than Rollie Fingers. In ’75, he finished third, again behind Palmer (who he was almost assuredly better than) and Mark Fidrych (who probably deserved the CY Young). In ’77, his 9th place finish was a travesty.
Nolan Ryan: The Ryan Express started about 170 more games than Tanana, pitched roughly 1,200 more innings and struck out a whole lot more batters. Ryan is often considered the preeminent compiler of them all. He pitched for so long, but he did so excellently. The two are linked by more than longevity: from 1973-1979, both Ryan and Tanana were on the same staff. It’s amazing that, with both Tanana and Ryan, the Angels couldn’t be more of a force. Here’s guessing, in the Wild Card Era, that Angels team might have got a World Series or two and we’d remember Tanana a tad differently.
Don Sutton: Sutton has just about 1,100 more innings on his ledger than Tanana. He has more Ks, less walks and a better ERA and WHIP. That said, was Sutton ever great? From 1971-1973 (arguably his best stretch), he averaged 265 innings, a 2.35 ERA, 143 ERA+, 0.99 WHIP and 3.45 K:BB rate. However, he had just three seasons with an ERA+ above 127 and his career ERA+ is 108. Tanana had four seasons with an ERA+ above 127, and his career ERA+ is 106.
Phil Niekro: The master knuckleballer started exactly 100 more games than Tanana. He won more but struck out less and walked more. His ERA and WHIP are strikingly similar to Tanana’s. While Niekro’s career benefited from longevity, he was incredibly dominant for major portions of it. From 1974-1979, he averaged 309 innings, a 3.21 ERA, 125 ERA+, 1.26 WHIP and 1.92 K:BB rate. While he only has four seasons with ERA+s above 125, those seasons were well above, including 1967 (Niekro posted a 1.87 ERA over 207 innings with a 1.06 WHIP).
Lefty Grove: Lefty made round numbers cool, finishing with exactly 300 wins. He lost just 141 games and started only 457, far less than Tanana. While his career was a few years and a couple hundred innings shorter than Tanana’s, Grove amassed some amazing numbers. He lead the league in Ks his first seven seasons and had 11 seasons with an ERA+ at 151 or above. In 1931, he went 31-4 and pitched 288.2 innings with a 2.06 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 2.82 K:BB. Grove was a dominating dominant juggernaut.
Tommy John: John seems to be one of the more beneficial comparisons to Tanana. While he started 84 more games, his ERA and WHIP are certainly similar to Tanana. At his best, from 1968-1970, John averaged 226 innings, a 2.93 ERA, 125 ERA+, 1.26 WHIP and 1.60 K:BB rate. His best was not as good as Tanana’s, but he does get a few extra points for, somehow, lasting longer than Tanana did.
Bert Blyleven: Tanana may be the poor man’s Blyleven; their numbers look somewhat alike if you squint. Blyleven won almost 50 more games in just 54 more starts, but their ERAs and WHIPs are certainly similar. Blyleven blows Tanana away when it comes to gross strike-out numbers, but Blyleven didn’t quite have the sheer peak that Tanana did. Oddly, enough, Blyleven’s best three-year stretch overlapped with Tanana’s. From 1973-1975, Blyleven averaged 294 innings, a 2.72 ERA, 143 ERA+, 1.20 WHIP and 3.25 K:BB rate.
Jack Morris: Morris’s recent 66 percent showing with the writers on the Hall of Fame ballot could serve as the genesis for this article. Black Jack was a God to kids growing up in the late 80s. He was supposedly a mythic figure capable of winning championships on his own. Unfortunately, most heroes don’t live up to a child’s imagination. Morris won just 14 more games than Tanana, pitched 300 less innings, struck out fewer batters and walked more. There isn’t a stretch of his career that matches favorably with Tanana. In fact, if you take out the great success Tanana had early in his career and compare both pitchers from 1977-1989, there isn’t much difference at all.
Jim Kaat: Kaat came pretty close to being enshrined in the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee based on his 25 seasons, 4,530.1 innings and 283 wins. While Tanana’s career benefited from longevity, the entirety of Kaat’s success is simply longevity. He had a two-year peak, from 1974-1975, during which he average 290 innings, a 3.02 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.25 WHIP and 2.03 K:BB rate. Those were the only years he had a WAR (B-ref) above 5.2. In fact, his only exceptional ERA+ came in just 113 innings in 1972. But, he did win 20 games three times (granted, he led the league in hits allowed four times.) It surprises me that Kaat gets far more attention than Tanana, when, in my opinion, Tanana’s career was clearly better.
While Tanana didn’t really approach greatness after 1977, he remained a consistent solid innings eater. It seems his career compares favorably to several Hall of Famers and several others who have had cases made on their behalf. That being said, Tanana appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s ballot just once, 1999 and received no votes. He might be the best pitcher in baseball history with this distinction.
Why did this happen?
A few things may have worked against Tanana with the writers. He appeared on their ballot the same year as Ryan, who received 98.8 percent of the vote and went on to far more-celebrated exploits in his playing career after he and Tanana parted company. Ryan’s presence may have hurt a bunch of men on the 1999 ballot. Consider the others who received less than 20 percent of the vote: Tommy John, Bert Blyleven, Luis Tiant, Ron Guidry, and Mickey Lolich. None could hope to compare to Ryan.
In addition, Tanana never won 20 games, and topped 16 wins just twice, posting a 240-236 record lifetime. WAR did not exist in 1999, which could have showed that Tanana’s career mark of 55.1 is better than a number of Hall of Famers.
While Tanana eventually found his way to the Red Sox, Mets and Yankees, he pitched for the “premier” franchises for just two years. He pitched in the post-season just twice (Kaat pitched in four post-seasons, two World Series and appeared in nine games.) In 1979, Tanana got one start for the California Angels against the Baltimore Orioles. In 1987, he started one game for the Detroit Tigers against the Minnesota Twins. He didn’t pitch poorly but didn’t pitch well.
In short, Tanana is a poor man’s Blyleven. Both pitchers were banished to mediocre, at best, organizations and never quite received their due. Whereas Blyleven remains one of the better pitchers of all-time, Tanana wasn’t quite as good. Still, I think a decent case could be made for Tanana being included in the Hall of Fame.