by Mark Armour
With the recent trend of turning established closers into starters, one should recall the time when the greatest reliever of them all became, briefly, a starting pitcher.
The greatest reliever of them all, of course, was Hoyt Wilhelm, the old knuckleballer. His 2.52 ERA is the lowest for any pitcher who pitched most of his career after 1920. His park-adjusted ERA was 46 percent lower than the league average, the same figure claimed by Walter Johnson. Since he was a relief pitcher during most of his career, he managed to qualify for the ERA title only twice . . . and both times, he won it. He was no one-inning reliever-he threw 2,254 innings over the course of his career, only 70 innings fewer than Sandy Koufax.
There are two big “what-ifs” in Hoyt’s story. What if he had reached the majors several years earlier? and What if he had been a starting pitcher? The first question is unanswerable, but there is a lot of evidence that can help us with the second. In 1959, at a point when his career seemed to be winding down, he was given an extended chance in a big-league rotation for the first and only time. How did he do? He pitched the way he always pitched-like one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Wilhelm began his minor league career in 1942, but it took him ten full years to get to the big leagues (three of which were spent fighting the Nazis-he won the Purple Heart for wounds suffered at the Battle of the Bulge). He was a starter in the minors, winning twenty games twice. But scouts were looking for big guys who threw hard; a Charlotte newspaper famously reported, “Wilhelm is never going any place. He throws like a washer-woman.”
Wilhelm finally got to the majors in 1952 (at age 29), when Giants manager Leo Durocher decided he could use the knuckleballer in his bullpen. Leo reasoned, “The knuckler can fool ’em for four or five innings, even if Wilhelm doesn’t have the hard stuff to go nine.” Wilhelm pitched 71 games (a rookie record since broken) and 159 innings, all in relief. He finished 15-3 with 11 saves and won the ERA title (2.43), the first and only time a full-time relief pitcher has done so. He finished fourth in the league’s MVP voting. Not a bad start.
He had two more great years with the Giants, before struggling a bit as his workload was lessened the next couple of years, and spending two more seasons traveling around the major leagues. The 1958 Indians let Wilhelm start six games, but his stay in Cleveland was shortened because none of the Indians catchers could handle his knuckleball. The 36-year-old’s career looked to be about over.
After acquiring Wilhelm in August 1958, Orioles’ manager Paul Richards decided to give Wilhelm a shot at the rotation. Richards explained his reasoning: “I’d always wondered why he’d been used in relief, coming in with men on base where one passed ball could hurt him. I thought that perhaps, if Hoyt started, the runners wouldn’t get on base to begin with.” Wilhelm started four late-season games, the last of which was a 1-0 no-hitter against the Yankees. The final batter, Hank Bauer, laid down two foul bunts before popping to second base.
It got better. In 1959, Wilhelm started the season 9-0 with an ERA under 1.00, prompting former manager Leo Durocher to express some regrets: “If I ever had any idea he could go the distance like that I’d have used him as a starter when I had him on the Giants. Maybe I made a big mistake.” On May 22, he took a no-hitter into the eighth against New York, settling for a one-hitter. Six days later, again he shut out the Yankees. Hoyt came back to earth in the second half of the season, but still finished 15-11 with a 2.19 ERA, good enough for his second ERA crown.
Richards would still occasionally use his star in relief. For example, on August 6, Wilhelm came into a 1-1 game in the ninth inning against the White Sox, and proceeded to throw 8 2/3 inning of no-hit ball before finally allowing a safety. The game ended a tie after eighteen innings.
The Orioles of this era had a promising collection of young starting pitchers, dubbed “The Kiddie Corps”: Milt Pappas, Chuck Estrada, Steve Barber, Jack Fisher, and Jerry Walker. The oldest (Estrada) was twenty-two in 1960, and all of them were above average (or better) major-league pitchers in their early twenties. When Wilhelm struggled a bit early in the 1960 season, Richards moved him back to the bullpen. The Orioles’ reasoning-going with the young guns-appears sensible. After all, Wilhelm turned thirty-eight that summer, and had proven flexible enough to excel in relief. How could Richards have known that Hoyt had more than a decade of great pitching ahead of him, and that he would outlast most of the kiddies?
Wilhelm successfully returned to full-time relieving and was named to the All-Star team in each of the next two seasons for the Orioles. During the off-season after 1962, the Orioles traded Wilhelm to the White Sox in a six-player swap in which the Orioles landed shortstop Luis Aparicio. The Orioles had acquired him for the waiver price back in 1958, and had wrung four great years out of him. Not a bad investment.
But Hoyt was not through, not by a long shot. Over the next six years, while with the White Sox, Wilhelm put together one of history’s greatest sustained stretches of relief pitching, posting ever-declining ERAs of 2.64, 1.99, 1.81, 1.66, and 1.33, before finally inching up to 1.73 in 1968-still not a bad year for a pitcher turning forty-six. Much more than a situational reliever, Wilhelm averaged well over 100 innings per season, throwing 144 in 1965. Run production was historically low, sure, but no one else was doing this. His ERA in the 1960s was 2.18.
When the White Sox exposed him in the 1968 expansion draft, the Royals snagged him and traded him to the Angels. Over the last four years of Wilhelm’s career, he wandered around the majors a bit, although he continued to pitch well right to the end. He retired, reluctantly, when the Dodgers released him in July 1972, just shy of his fiftieth birthday.
One cannot help but wonder what sort of career Hoyt could have had as a starter. The one time he was given a full-time rotation slot, by the Orioles, he was lights-out. Later, the White Sox gave him three late-season starts in 1963, and he gave up 15 hits and 4 earned runs in 23 innings (1.56 ERA). He never started another game.
Wilhelm was a tremendous pitcher when his knuckleball was working, which was basically always. Baseball’s greatest relief pitcher, certainly, but also one of history’s best pitchers, period. We can only speculate what would have happened had Richards kept him the rotation for a few more years. The Orioles were entering a great period in the franchise’s history, but one can assume Hoyt would have been of some help.
Mark Armour is the co-author (with Dan Levitt) of Paths to Glory, which tells the stories of the building of several interesting baseball teams, available on-line or at your local bookstore. He is also the director of SABR’s Biography Project.