Friday, April 2, 2010

Mike Cuellar, 1937-2010. R.I.P.

Baltimore Orioles pitching legend Mike Cuellar died today of stomach cancer. He was 72.

The Cuban born Cuellar was arguably the best left-handed pitcher in the American League if not all of Major League Baseball between 1969 and 1974. In those years, Cuellar obtained 125 of his 185 wins. In 1969, Cuellar shared AL Cy Young Award honors with Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers. During this six year period, the Orioles won five AL East titles, three AL championships and a World Series in 1970.

When most people think of the Orioles of the late 1960s and early 1970s they think of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and manager Earl Weaver. Yet one can make the case that without Cuellar's stellar pitching was just as responsible for the Orioles success during this period than the contributions made by the other aforementioned players all of whom are in Cooperstown save for Powell.

I would make the case that Cuellar was to the Orioles what Sandy Koufax was to the Dodgers. Cuellar's 125 wins between '69 and '74 stack up to Koufax's 129 wins between 1961 and 1966. Now, of course, Koufax routinely struck out over 300 batters and posted ERAs below 2.00. Cuellar was lucky to strikeout half that many batters and his ERAs were generally over 3.00. While Koufax could throw a blistering heat accompanied by a big breaking curveball Cuellar relied on a screwball. It must also be remembered that Koufax retired at 30. Cuellar came into his own after he turned 32.

In 1971, Cuellar along with Palmer, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson each won 20 plus games. It's the only time in MLB history four starting pitchers had at least 20 wins. To put that into perspective no pitcher in MLB won 20 games in 2009. It is worth noting that with Cuellar's passing Palmer is the only surviving member of this quartet. McNally died of lung cancer in 2002 while Dobson died of leukemia in 2006.

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