The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Cleveland Indians”

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 3 – Jim Hegan

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

During the middle of the 20th century, the Cleveland Indians fielded some very strong teams, including the 1948 World Championship club.  Though they certainly had some very fine position players such as Larry Doby, Lou Boudreau, Al Rosen and Rocky Colavito, arguably the heart and soul of those teams was the pitching.  Bob Feller was the ace, but the Indians also featured Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mel Harder, Mike Garcia, Herb Score, and even Satchel Paige.

Feller, of course, went on to win 266 games in his career, despite missing three full seasons to World War II.  Perhaps fittingly, two of those three seasons overlapped with the WWII service of Feller’s favorite catcher, Jim Hegan.

English: Cleveland Indians catcher .

English: Cleveland Indians catcher . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Hegan.

Bob Feller was a rural farm boy from the Midwest, while Jim Hegan was born and raised in Lynn, Massachusetts.  During the war years, while Feller was in the Navy, Hegan served in the Coast Guard.

Lest you think the Coast Guard was relatively safe during the war, at least 15 C.G. ships sunk or were destroyed during WWII, and one (the Natsek) mysteriously vanished without a trace in the Belle Island Strait.

Upon their return from the war, Hegan and Feller enjoyed long and successful careers, forming one of the most productive batteries in Cleveland Indians history.  Feller pitched for the Indians until his retirement in 1956, while Hegan was the team’s primary catcher through 1957, before performing backup catcher duties for a variety of teams for the next few years.  He retired in 1960.

Bob Feller made 484 starts in his Indians’ career.  Jim Hegan caught 241 of those games, almost exactly half of Feller’s starts.  Hegan was behind the plate for 22 of Feller’s shutouts, and one of his no-hitters.  Of the 16 catchers who caught at least one of Feller’s outings, Feller stated that Jim Hegan was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball history.  Feller remembered:

“Jim called a good game. We disagreed rarely. Jim was very good at keeping pitchers calm.”

While Hegan was the Indians’ primary catcher, they led the league in team ERA four years in a row, 1948-51.  Overall, the Indians led the A.L. in ERA six times while he was their primary catcher.  Hegan caught six 20-game winners in his career, and three no-hitters.  Hegan, recognized primarily for his defensive prowess,  was named to five A.L. All-Star teams.

One of the finest defensive catchers of all-time, when he retired in 1960, his .990 fielding percentage was the second-best ever recorded.  Hegan led the league in putouts, assists, double plays, caught stealing, and range factor per nine innings three times each, though not necessarily in the same three seasons.  A gun for an arm, he caught an excellent 50% of all would-be base-stealers during his career, including nearly 70% in ’46 and ’50.

An extremely durable catcher throughout his career, Hegan is still 4th all-time in games played for the Indians with 1,526.  In fact, he was respected so much as a catcher that he was the rare receiver who never once played a single game at another position during his entire career.

One small statistical oddity, in 5,320 career plate appearances, he was hit by a pitch just four times in his entire career.  For what it’s worth, Bob Feller was hit three times.

So what kept Hegan out of the Baseball Hall of Fame?  Well, as with the two other catchers we’ve reviewed in this series (Eddie Ainsmith and Jerry Grote), Hegan just wasn’t much of a hitter.  His career triple slash line of .228 / .295 / .344 is underwhelming, to say the least.  He managed 1,087 hits in his career of which 92 were home runs.  He drove in 525 runs, and he scored 550.  Hegan’s career high in batting average in a full season was .249 in 1947.  He did, however, hit a home run in the 1948 World Series vs. the Boston Braves.

When Hegan retired in 1960, his son, Michael, was just beginning his pro baseball career.  When Mike Hegan was a member of the ’72 World Champion Oakland A’s, he and his dad became the first father-son combo to each be part of a World Series winning team.

Jim Hegan is part of a long line of smooth and highly effective defensive catchers for whom useful statistics haven’t yet fully materialized.  Perhaps all one can do is to notice  the quality of the pitchers they’ve handled over the years, and accept the fact that to some reasonable extent, those pitchers owe at leas part of their success to the Jim Hegans of the world.  As my dad used to say, there’s nothing wrong with just working for a living.

Best Forgotten Seasons: Part 11 – The Cleveland Indians

Several professional pundits, as well a few proletarian bloggers,  have designated 2010 as The Year of the Pitcher.

After the homer-happy ’90′s, and even well into this decade, it is as if we have just emerged from a steroid-induced mass hallucination, where real-life Paul Bunyons swung bats the size of small trees, and pitchers, raised from birth in the shadow of aluminum bats and small ballparks, cowered in fear.

But, as the saying goes, everything is relative.  Certainly, pitching has reemerged as a significant force in Major League Baseball.  The depth and breadth of the current crop of young hurlers is stunning.  But obviously, this is not the first time pitching has dominated and defined our National Pastime.

The Gold Standard by which any subsequent Year of the Pitcher is measured is, of course, the 1968 season.

In 1968, the pitcher’s mound was as high as a small mountain, hitters were, on average, smaller than they are today, and pitchers could throw inside with impunity.

In 1968, the combined ERA of the entirety of Major League Baseball was 2.98.  Seven pitchers recorded ERA’s under 2.00.  Five of these pitchers were in the American League.

Over in the N.L., Bob Gibson of the Cardinals set a record for the lowest ERA in a season at 1.12.

Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, who did not have an ERA below 2.00 for the season, broke Walter Johnson’s 55-year old record for consecutive shut-out innings pitched with 58 (later eclipsed by another Dodger, Orel Hershiser.)

Of the five A.L. pitchers who recorded ERA’s below 2.00 in 1968, two pitched for one team, the Cleveland Indians.

Sam McDowell, a fearsome strikeout pitcher who at one point struck out 40 batters over a three game stretch, posted the second best ERA in the A.L., and the second best ERA on his staff, at 1.81.

So who recorded the lowest ERA in the A.L. in 1968?

A 27-year old, cigar smoking Cuban, whose father had pitched against barn-storming Major League and Negro League players in pre-Castro Cuba, Luis Tiant.

In 1959, when Luis Tiant was just nineteen-years old, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba.  In 1961, Tiant came to America to become a Major League pitcher.  He planned on returning to Cuba the following year to see his family.  But the political situation in Cuba had worsened, and his father warned him not to come home, at least for a while.

Tiant’s exile lasted 46 years.

In 1964, Tiant made his Major League debut.  A decade later, his parents were finally allowed to come to America to see their son pitch.

1968 was Cleveland Indians’ pitcher Luis Tiant’s Best Forgotten Season.

The 1968 season was El Tiante’s fifth in the Major Leagues.  Previously, he had never won more than 12 games in a season.  But in ’68, Tiant’s talent and experience came together to produce a record of 21-9, a league-leading 1.60 ERA, 19 complete games, and a league-leading nine shutouts.

Tiant also surrendered an amazingly low 152 hits in 258 innings pitched.  His 5.3 hits per nine innings not only led the league, it is the second lowest mark ever recorded in Major League history.

Tiant also struck out 264 batters (third most in the league), against just 73 walks.  His ERA+ was a league best 186, and his WHIP was an astoundingly low 0.871.

So how does a pitcher with numbers like these not win the Cy Young Award?

Because he just happens to be pitching in the same league as Denny McLain.  McLain won 31 games against just six losses, posted an ERA of 1.96, and led the A.L. in starts (41), complete games (28!), and innings pitched (336.)

McLain not only won the Cy Young award, he was named A.L. MVP as well.

In other words, Tiant’s season, as great as it was, was just one of several outstanding pitching performances that season.

Later, of course, Tiant would enjoy great success pitching for the Boston Red Sox in the 1970′s, (1971-78.)  In fact, he would post yet another sub-2.00 ERA for the Sox in 1972, (1.91.)

El Tiante tallied three 20-win seasons for the Red Sox, and compiled a record of 122-81 while pitching for them.  In the 1975 World Series, he beat the Big Red Machine twice, his herky-jerky delivery, never quite facing home-plate, instantly making him a hero to a young generation of new baseball fans.

Most baseball fans remember Tiant’s Boston years.  But Tiant probably enjoyed his Best Forgotten Season in 1968 while pitching for the Cleveland Indians.

Should Luis Tiant be in the Hall of Fame?

His career win-loss record is 229-172 with a career ERA of  3.30.  According to baseball-reference.com, three of the six pitchers whose careers most resembled Tiant’s are in the Hall, including Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale.

If Tiant ever does get elected to the Hall of Fame, however, a case can certainly be made that his plaque should prominently display him wearing a cap with the Cleveland Indians logo prominently displayed on his head.

Meanwhile, Luis Tiant was finally allowed to return to Cuba in 2007 after an exile that lasted nearly half a century.  Now almost 70 years old, Tiant has come full circle.

The personal sacrifices he made to pursue his dream are beyond the comprehension of most Americans.  But his accomplishments while pitching in America demonstrate the tenacity of his spirit, and the triumph of his soul.

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