The animated and eccentric Cuban hurler looked more like a circus attraction on the mound – convulsing and shaking his glove like a man standing in ice water – but was a top-flight pitcher for a number of years. On two separate occasions he led his league in ERA and finished in the Top Ten in shutouts seven times.
Tiant, the son of a Cuban Negro League left-hander, made his debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1964. As a rookie, Luis only made sixteen starts but led the club in complete games. After a modest ’65 campaign, El Tiante established himself as a star pitcher in 1966, when he tied for the league lead in shutouts while posting a 2.79 ERA. A strikeout pitcher, Luis and Sudden Sam McDowell were the only two starting pitchers in the Major Leagues who averaged a strikeout per inning in 1967.
The 20-win Club was a fraternity El Tiante joined in 1968, posting a 21-9 record for the Tribe. Luis paced the AL with a 1.60 ERA and nine shutouts. Luis finished third in the American League with 264 strikeouts. Despite these accolades, Denny McLain, with his amazing 30-win season, won the Cy Young Award. Despite the edge McLain had in wins, El Tiante may have been the better pitcher that year. Not only was Luis’ ERA 36 points lower than McLain’s, but El Tiante, on average, eclipsed Denny in two of the most important categories: hits allowed and strikeouts. Luis averaged 0.589 hits per inning while Denny averaged 0.717. Luis averaged 1.023 strikeouts per inning while the Detroit flash-in-the-pan averaged 0.833.
Thanks to pitchers like Tiant, McLain, Bob Gibson and Sudden Sam McDowell, mowing away the opposition, the mound was dropped and Tiant took a substantial hit in statistics. After his amazing 1.60 ERA season, El Tiante lost 20 games for the Indians in ’69. The Indians lost faith in El Tiante and dealt him for Dean Chance and a young Graig Nettles. After an injury plagued ’70 and a disastrous 1971, Luis resurrected his career with the Red Sox in 1972. He paced the AL with a 1.92 ERA while posting a 15-6 record.
El Tiante enjoyed his second 20-win season in 1973 while averaging 0.757 strikeouts per inning. Hall of Famer Jim Palmer averaged quite less with 0.533. Also, Luis’ control was sharper than the Hall of Fame man. Luis averaged 0.287 walks per inning while Palmer let on an average of 0.382. A third 20-win season came in ’74, as Luis led the AL with seven shutouts. Although he regressed in ’75, he was the Red Sox go-to guy in the Playoffs. Luis threw a complete game shutout against the A’s in the ALCS, preparing him for his first shot at National League players. Against the Big Red Machine in the World Series, El Tiante won two battles but the Reds won the war.
After the World Series, Luis notched his final 20-win season in 1976, posting a 21-12 record for the Sox. He fell off in 1977 but collected himself for a solid ’78 campaign, in which he won 13 games with a 3.31 ERA. The Red Sox granted Luis free agency and he caught on with the Sox nemesis, the New York Yankees in 1979. In pinstripes, Luis posted an identical 13-8 record he had with the Sox in ’78 while throwing 195 innings for the Bronx Bombers.
Luis struggled in 1980, at the advanced age of 39 but El Tiante wasn’t ready to call it quits. He signed a free agent contract with the Pirates in ’81 and posted a respectable 3.92 ERA. He pitched one final year with the Angels before retiring after the 1982 season.
Luis Tiant’s career stats: W 229/L 172/PCT .571/G 573/CG 187/IP 3,486/H 3,075/BB 1,104/SO 2,416/SHO 49/ERA 3.30