The Cleveland Indians All-Time Starting Rotation

There is an ultimate fantasy league starting up, and it falls to you to pick the all-time rotation for the Cleveland Indians.  You can select pitchers from any era of the team since its beginning in 1901.  Who would you pick?  How would they fare against the best of other teams selecting their fantasy all-time rotations?

Here are the guidelines.  First, your starting pitchers need to have logged 1000 innings for the Indians to be considered eligible for this team.  Secondly, any relievers selected must have appeared in 250 games to make the team.  The pitchers will be only as effective as they were for the Indians, if they pitched for other teams.  Their performance in the fantasy league will follow how they pitched for the Indians alone, not their whole careers.

The Early Years –

Cleveland had baseball before the inception of the American league in 1901.  The team of the mid 1890s had been one of the best and won an early version of the world Series, the Temple Cup in 1895.  They had featured Cy Young as their ace pitcher.  But the team was contracted by the National league, and no replacement had been planned.

Ban Johnson, the president of the newly forming American league,  jumped on the opportunity to place a team in Cleveland.  He moved his Western league Grand Rapids team to Cleveland in 1900 and called them the Lake Shores.  They played in the same place the old Blues and Spiders had played, League Park.

For the opening of the new major league in 1901, the team borrowed the nickname from the National league team, the Blues.  (This was short from the official name of “Bluebirds”, and for their all-blue uniforms.)

The players, not too keen on being called the Bluebirds, opted for the Broncos for the next year.  That is when fortune smiled on the Cleveland franchise, as Napolean Lajoie was being forced to play outside the state of Pennsylvania, and landed with Cleveland.  In a poll, the fans voted to call the team the Naps, after their new star.

When Lajoie left the team after the 1914 season, the fans again voted and arrived on the name we know today, the Indians.

Napolean Lajoie was not the only star of the team that first decade.  Addie Joss was establishing himself as one of the top pitchers in the new league.  (These would have included Cy Young, Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, Ed Walsh, and Addie Joss.)  Joss was an exquisite pitcher, winning 20 games four years in a row beginning in 1905, and establishing the second lowest career ERA (1.89)in baseball history.

He developed a form of meningitis which ended his career quickly and all too soon.  Joss died in 1911 at the age of 31.  Players from around the league came together to play an exhibition game to raise money for his family.  This was kind of a first all-star game, but it was done against the wishes of the league president.  The players went ahead with the game, and the president recanted his threats.

By the late teens, the team traded for new player/ manager Tris Speaker and pitchers Stan Coveleski and Jim Bagby.  The fortunes of the team began to turn around with the new leadership, and by 1920 the Indians had won their first pennant, edging out the White Sox and the Yankees.  They proceeded to win the World Series against the Brooklyn Robins, 4-2.

Stan Coveleski was the pitching star of the series, winning three complete games.  He was known for his pinpoint control and his spitball.  He was one of 17 pitchers allowed to continue to throw the pitch after it was outlawed.

The Indians didn’t win another pennant until 1948.  But their teams were usually pretty good, around .500 or better most seasons. They had a fine starting staff in the 30’s.

When Mel Harder came up to the major league team he wasn’t yet 20-years-old. He pitched is entire 20 year career with the Indians before becoming one of baseball’s most revered pitching coaches for another 20 years.

Harder won 20 games twice and pitched in four all-star games.  He is the only pitcher to have logged more than ten innings and never have allowed an earned run in all-star game history.  Harder was also a fine fielder and led the league in put outs four times.

As a pitching coach (1949-1963) he was responsible for working with the Indians’ great pitchers, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, Herb Score, Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant and Tommy John.  He is truly a Cleveland legend.

The leading pitcher of the early 30’s for the Indians was Wes Ferrell. He won 20 games four consecutive years (1929-’32) before being traded to the Red Sox and winning 20 two more times.

Before the team could get through the summer of 1936, a 17-year-old corn fed farm boy was toeing the rubber for the Indians.  Rapid Robert Feller was turning scouts and player’s heads watching his fastball whiz by.  The Indians let him pitch 62 innings that first summer. 

By ’37 he was a sensation, striking out over a batter an inning – something no pitcher had ever done in the history of the game – not Rube Waddell, not Walter Johnson, or Smokey Joe Wood. 

By 1938, he led the league for the first time in strike outs with 240.  He led the league in Ks for his first seven full seasons he pitched.  Before his peak was over, he had led the American league in every important statistic – Wins five times, ERA, shutouts four times, complete games three times, innings pitched five times, WHIP twice, H/9 three times, K/9 four times, and K/BB.

After the ’41 season he left baseball to fight in WWII.  He left most of four seasons without hardly playing, which would be right at what should have been his peak.  In later interviews he has stated he had no regrets, knowing he did what was most important, and said the life lessons he gained made him the player he was later.

We’ll never know what could have been baseball-wise, but Bob Feller will always be an American hero for his contribution to the war.

In 1946, his first full season after the war, he began making up for lost time, seemingly. He completed 36 games while pitching 371 innings, winning 26 games, and pitching 10 shutouts.  He finished with 348 strike outs, one short of the single season record of Rube Waddell’s, set in 1904

By the end of the next season, though he began to lose the zip on his fastball, and had to find other ways to get batters out.

In 1948, with the addition of Bob Lemon to the staff, the Indians won the pennant and World Series, only their second title.

The Early Year’s Rotation –

1 – Bob Feller – 1936-1956 – 266W; 44 SHO; ERA+ 122

2 – Mel Harder – 1928-1947 – 223W; 25 SHO; ERA+ 113

3 – Stan Coveleski – 1916-1924 – 172W; 31 SHO; ERA+ 129

4 – Addie Joss – 1902-1910 – 160W; 45 SHO; ERA+ 145

5 – Wes Ferrell – 1927-1933 – 102W; 8 SHO; ERA+ 127


In 1949 Mel Harder came on as pitching coach, and the team switched into high gear.  The team added a young Early Wynn and Mike Garcia to the starting staff.  Few teams have boasted a starting rotation like the one the Indians possessed for the next several years.  Feller, Lemon, Wynn and Garcia are one of the great starting staffs in baseball history.

From 1950-1955 the team won 92 or more games each season.  They set an American league record in 1954 with 111 wins.  Only the Yankees dynasty at its peak kept them from winning multiple pennants.

In 1955 the Indians brought up an incredibly talented rookie, named Herb Score.  He possessed a blazing fastball and a drop off the table curve.  His stuff was like none had seen since a young Bob Feller some 20 years before. 

Score won the rookie of the year award in ’55 and followed it up with a 20 win season in ’56, but then ran into arm trouble, and never was able to compile a complete season again.  He finished his career with 55 wins.

Early Wynn came home in ’63 to win his 300th game.  It was a nice gesture by the club to give him that opportunity.  Wynn was a battler on the mound.  He found a way to win games.  He had a good fastball as a younger pitcher, but later relied more on guile.  He once said he would brush back his grandmother if she came to the plate.

He won 20 games five times for the Indians, and had more strike outs than any other pitcher during the 50s.  He was traded to the White Sox after a ’57 season that seemed to signal his decline.  However, he wasn’t finished, and led the ’59 Go-go Sox to the pennant in ’59.

The Indians were not finished producing great pitchers.  During the 1960s Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant mowed down batters at alarming rates.  “Sudden Sam” McDowell became one of the great strike out artists in baseball history, twice topping 300 Ks in a season.  In ’68 Tiant won 20 games, posted an ERA of 1.60 and allowed only 152 hits in 277 innings!

The Indians traded McDowell for Gaylord Perry in the early 70s.  Spit balling Perry pitched a huge  amount of innings over the next three and one half seasons for the Indians during his considerable peak.  But the team was heading into a prolonged funk.

Not until 1993 did the Indians show any signs of life.  They even became the subject of the humorous movie series “Major League”.

During the mid to late 90s the Indians hopes were resurrected and they built a new park – Jacobs Field.  They boasted one of the most potent offenses in baseball history with stars like Roberto Alomar, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, catcher Sandy Alomar, center fielder Kenny Lofton, and defensive whiz Omar Vizquel at shortstop.

Their pitching was not so dominant however, but allowed for team success.  They featured the rebuilt arm of Orel Hershiser , Charles Nagy and later Bartolo Colon.

Since appearing in the World Series twice in the 90s, the Indians have had intermittent success.  Their last run fell just short of the World Series in 2007, behind CC Sabathia.

The Modern Rotation –

1 – Bob Lemon – 1946-’58 – 207W; 31 SHO; ERA+ 119

2 – Early Wynn – 1949-’57, ’63 – 164W; 24 SHO; ERA+ 119

3 – Mike Garcia – 1948-’59 – 142W; 27 SHO; ERA+ 118

4 – Sam McDowell – 1961-’71 – 122W; 22 SHO; ERA+ 119

5 – CC Sabathia – 2001-’08 – 106W; 7 SHO; ERA+ 115

The spot starters – Luis Tiant – ’64-’69, Gaylord Perry – ’72-’75, Bartolo Colon – ’97-‘02

The Relievers – Bob Wickham – ’00-’06 – 255 games; 139 saves; ERA+ 138

                             Doug Jones – ’86-’98 – 295 games; 129 saves; ERA+ 137

                             Set-up – Eric Plunk – 373 games; 26 saves; ERA+ 141

This is not a particularly strong relieving corps.  It’s passable, but probably belies the attitude of the team towards relief pitching throughout its modern history – just get somebody to fill the role.

The All-Time Starting Rotation and Staff –

1 – Bob Feller – 266W; 44 SHO; ERA+ 122

2 – Addie Joss – 160W; 45 SHO; ERA+ 142

3 – Stan Coveleski – 172W; 31 SHO; ERA+ 129

4 – Bob Lemon – 207W; 31 SHO; ERA+ 119

5 – Early Wynn – 164W; 24 SHO; ERA+ 119

Spot Starters – Mike Garcia, Sam McDowell, Mel Harder

Relievers – Bob Wickman, Doug Jones, Eric Plunk

In Conclusion –

The Indians have a rich history of pitching from 1901-1975.  The rotation includes interesting and very effective pitchers from each represented era.  They are all Hall of Fame pitchers. There aren’t many 300 game winners filling in as fifth starters! 

For two generations Mel Harder’s career was intertwined with the Cleveland Indians.  It was toward the end of this time that I felt the team had found a self identity, and a sense of striving for excellence.  He deserves a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to this team.

The Indians need to recommit to their roots of fine pitching in order to reach again the heights the team knew in the 50’s.  The model today is to accomplish this from within.  The team is not without talented players.  Much could be accomplished in a short time with the right teachers and focus.

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