Red Sox SP: Luis Tiant
There were very few players in Red Sox history as beloved as Luis Tiant. From his one-in-a-million delivery to his eccentric personality to his reputation as one of the best big-game pitchers in baseball, Tiant etched his name in Boston baseball lore in his seven-year stint with the team. Yet Tiant was more than just an entertainer: He was also one of the best pitchers of his time.
In an era of great pitching, Tiant still managed to stand out. This was never truer than his 1968 campaign with the Indians when his incredible performance still managed to turn heads even in the most pitching-dominant year of the live-ball era.
Tiant went 21-9 with an AL-leading 1.60 ERA and nine shutouts. He also would have taken home the AL Cy Young award if not for a late-season injury that allowed 31-game winner Denny Mclain to slip by him in the Cy Young race, an award that could have made a massive difference to his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Tiant’s time with the Indians quickly went downhill from there. He lost 20 games in 1969 before starting just 27 games between the Twins and the Red Sox over the next two years. His career was on life support, but it was in that 1972 season that Tiant learned to reinvent as a finesse pitcher after injuries had sapped the life out of his fastball.
Relying more on his seemingly endless array of breaking balls and disrupting hitters with his 180-degree delivery, Tiant dominated in his time with the Red Sox. He averaged 17 wins a season, posted a 121 ERA+, and accumulated over 5.0 WAR a season.
Even with his excellence in the regular season, Tiant is revered most for his efforts in the 1975 postseason. First, he helped propel the Red Sox to an opening-round sweep against the three-time defending champ Oakland Athletics with a nine-inning, one-run masterpiece in Game 1. He was even better in the World Series opener against the Reds, allowing just five hits en route to a complete-game shutout.
It was Game 4 of that series, however, that may have been Tiant’s finest hour. Tiant was not nearly as sharp as his previous two outings, allowing thirteen baserunners and four runs, but he gutted through 155 pitches to preserve a 5-4 Red Sox win that evened the series.
Even though Tiant struggled the next time out (seven innings, six earned runs) and the Red Sox would go on to lose the series, Tiant’s performance in those playoffs made him an instant Boston legend.
Tiant retired after the 1982 season with a resume that appeared fit for Cooperstown. His 66.1 career WAR would be higher than 40 Hall of Fame pitchers, including first-ballot inductees Bob Feller, Roy Halladay, and Juan Marichal.
His 229 wins are higher than recent Hall of Fame inductees Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, while his 3.30 ERA is better than fellow 70’s stars Fergie Jenkins, Bert Blyleven, and Phil Niekro.
As expected, Tiant debuted with a solid 30.9% in 1988, appearing well on the road for election. His percentage, after all, was higher than eventual inductees Ron Santo and Minnie Minoso. Yet Tiant never reached that total again.
The following year was one of the strongest ballots of all time, as Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Gaylord Perry, and Fergie Jenkins all became eligible. Tiant slipped all the way to 10.5% and fell further to 9.5% in 1990 when Joe Morgan and Jim Palmer joined the ballot. The ballot would eventually open up, but by then, Tiant had lost all momentum and never reached 30% again.
Tiant’s name has appeared on veteran committees since falling off the ballot in 2002, but he has never come close to the election. He’ll get another chance in 2024 when his name appears again on the Modern Baseball Ballot.
Over the last few years, Veteran Committees have corrected numerous BBWAA missteps such as Alan Trammell, Ted Simmons, and Jack Morris. Tiant was every bit as good as those players and stacked up with nearly every Hall of Fame starting pitcher from his era.
If not for the misfortune of being on two of the most stacked ballots of all time, he would already be in the Hall of Fame. Tiant is obviously Cooperstown-worthy; it’s only a matter of time before the Veterans Committee realizes it too.