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.
16 Replies to “The underrated Frank Tanana”
As a fellow contributor to Baseball: Past and Present, I really enjoyed your most wonderful write-up on Frank Tanana. I recall listening to the game on AM radio here in Southern California when he won the AL West pennant for the Angels with a very solid pitching performance against the Royals in late September 1979. For the Angels, it was the first championship in team history. On the final game of the 1987 regular season, he also pitched the Tigers to the AL East pennant with a decisive winner-take-all contest against the division rival Blue Jays. For the Tigers, it was a stellar moment in their storied history. One other note: Tanana is very personable, gracious and approachable when it comes to signing memorabilia. This is I know from personal experience! He is a man of great faith and is to be personally admired for being a credit to this wonderful game both on and off the field.
thanks for reading and the kind words, George.
I missed Tanana’s brilliance. My baseball consciousness didnt really start until 1989. That said, just looking at everything he did in his career, a break here and he’s a hall of famer and i find that fascinating.
It’s awesome that you got to meet him. I have that same memory of Warren Spahn. I had little idea who he was when I met him, but he was very kind.
Love it. Wonderful piece.
Something jumped out to me—Tanana being 18th all time in Games Started. The remarkable thing about that is that his last season was his age 39 season. He turned 40 that July and only pitched 17 games after turning age 40. Of the other 17 players on the list, just Walter Johnson and Pud Galvin pitched fewer games after turning 40 (and neither of them pitched any games in their 40s). He packed those games in early.
I like to call Tanana a few years of Nolan Ryan and a bunch of years of Jamie Moyer.
The Hall of wWAR recently added Tanana, but has him at the very bottom. To me, that says he’s probably not quite a Hall of Famer, but he’s right outside. The fact that he received ZERO votes is crazy. He should have received SOME, but probably not quite enough to get in.
Thanks Adam, really means a lot.
Yeah Tanana doesnt really fit the hall of fame body of work, but it’s so darn close. Thats what astounds me. In the baseball consciousness he’s an innings eater, nothing more. But he was dang special and his numbers should be remembered as such.
Love that he’s barely in the Hall of wWAR, and that’s why i love the work you do there.
Albert — I just saw your comment on my HHS post and decided to pay a visit.
Tanana is a very unusual case. His level of pure talent dropped sharply after his injury at age 25 — his 30.9 WAR through age 24 ranks 5th in modern history and would be more than half his career value. But he plugged away as a league-average pitcher for another 14 years, without ever sustaining another significant injury.
Another unusual aspect is his earning a league-best 7.8 bWAR in 1975 for a season that, on the surface, looks more like 5 to 6 WAR: 135 ERA+ (4th) in 257 IP (15th). Looks like the Angels had an awful defense.
I enjoyed your column.
BTW, it was 1975 (not ’74) that he tied for 4th in the CYA vote.
I followed Frank’s entire career. A few things that stand out:
*He pitched 14 straight complete games during a stretch in 1977. Ever see that anymore?
*He has a list of winning games that were closely watched. Such as: the first baseball game in the Kingdome in ’77; the first game at the new Comiskey Park in ’91; the last game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in ’91; the final game of the regular season in ’87 against Toronto. He pitched complete games in all of them. He allowed a grand total of 1 run in those four games (the Orioles game, which was a first inning run).
*One of the years I was most proud of was 1980. The Angels were besieged by injuries and had an awful season. Frank started 3-9, still adjusting from flamethrower to off-speed specialist. He went 8-3 the rest of the way.
I was sad when he did not even receive one Hall of Fame vote when he was on the ballot. I’m not saying he belongs in the HOF, but he deserved votes because for a stretch he was among the best. Others who did not dominate like he did have received votes. I agree that he got buried on a ballot that included greats such as George Brett and Nolan Ryan. Still, that is not a reason to overshadow some of the great things Frank accomplished.
I lived in Baltimore my whole life and was an avid Angels fan durning that time. I loved Frank and Nolan…..still do! However my favorite baseball game of all time was a game in which Tanana lost to Jim Palmer, although I thought he outpitched Palmer. It was around 1975 and the game was played in Baltimore, a 1-0 win for the Orioles. It featured a 9th inning, two out home run by Bobby Grich (then with Baltimore) which hit the left field foul pole to end the game! My goodness, what a game! All these years later, I still think about that game often.
Just wanted to ad my 2 cents here. Not only was Frank Tanana a top notch player he is a top notch person as well. I was at a small fund raiser, dinner, auction for a local helps organization in rural Michigan last Saturday that Mr. Tanana was at. If I hadn”t seen his name written on an auction card I wouldn’t have known who he was. He didn’t care either. During dinner someone at his table asked him what he did for a living. He smiled and said that he was retired. They asked what he had done before and he just responded that he played a little ball here and there. What a pleasure. He was there to support the orginization and couldn’t care less if people knew who he was even if they heard the name.
I saw Tanana pitch for Salt Lake City in 1973. I went home and told my dad I had just seen the next Koufax. My recollection of the game is that he pitched a CG shutout, struck out about 12 and gave up 2 hits. I believe it was the second game of a double header so it was only 7 innings.
I followed his career closely after that, from the “Tanana and Ryan and 2 days of cryin'” days with the Angels to the end. A game he pitched that stands out was the last game of the ’87 season when he was with the Tigers. He pitched a CG shutout to beat the Blue Jays and Jimmy Key and sent the Tigers to the playoffs.
At one time I had done some research on how many wins starting pitchers had before their 25th birthday and Tanana was miles ahead of most everyone. I don’t know if so many innings at such a young age is what did his arm in but he hung in for a long time without his best stuff.
Old article but will say this about Frank Tanana. From 1988 to 1990 I lived in the Detroit area. I tried to as many games as possible when Tanana pitched. He was a true pitcher. He could change his game on the fly and eat innings. Truly one of the great pitchers.
Frank Tanana was the best
When Tanana signed with the Mets in 93 the GM introduced him st the press conference as “he threw 90 in the 70s and 70 in the 90s… classic
Frank Tanana definitely deserved to get some hall of fame votes and maybe even get in especially if Jack Morris got in come on now after what Frank was able to do for so long the writers should be ashamed of themselves not to many could be do what he did and be successful
Just want to add some love for Frank. One of my favorite pitchers for Detroit. I never saw him at his best on the Angels, but I loved his off speed pitches and the crazy curveball. He was a very entertaining pitcher to watch.
Tanana’s 1987 1-0 shut out of Toronto to win the division on the last day of the season for Detroit was amazing. Jimmy Key for Toronto was more dominant but Tanana was more amazing. His Tanana banana curve ball made his 80 mph fastball seem fast. The Blue Jays hit a handful of home runs that were just foul but they couldn’t time his off speed stuff. It was like Tanana had two careers, one as a flame thrower and one as a pitcher and the division clincher in 1987 was the highlight of his second career.