If you’re a baseball fan and you want to waste away a few hours, one fun thing you can do is pick an all-time team for your favorite franchise. If you’re a Cincinnati Reds fan, you’ll easily be able to slot players into your lineup: catcher, Johnny Bench; second base, Joe Morgan; right field, Frank Robinson; first base, Tony Perez (or maybe Ted Kluszewski); somewhere, Pete Rose. And so on.
But I challenge you to try to select the ace of your mythical Reds All-Time Team. Who jumps out at you when you think pitchers and the Cincinnati Reds?
That’s right, there is no clear-cut choice as the best pitcher in Reds history. The Big Red Machine was riveted together on the strength of superstar hitters like Bench, Morgan, Rose, Perez, and George Foster, Dave Concepcion, and Ken Griffey Sr. The Reds of the 1990s had Eric Davis and Barry Larkin, but no dominant starter who lasted very long. You have to go back a long time, back to 1939, to find a Cincinnati pitcher who won the MVP (no Reds hurler has ever won the Cy Young Award, which was first handed out 56 years ago in 1956). That pitcher was Bucky Walters, and oddly enough he was a position player who was turned into a pitcher. More on Bucky later.
The Reds are the oldest team in the National League. They’ve been playing pro ball since the South was fighting with the North. Since there were only about 40 states and the Web was what you cleaned out of the corner of your barn, not what you surfed to find news. The Cincinnati Reds have been around a very long time. But, strangely, they’ve never had a superstar pitcher to call their own. A few have shuffled through town – like Tom Seaver – but none have been a “real Red.” No Cincinnati pitcher has even sniffed 200 wins with the club, as a matter of fact. The franchise leader in victories is a man named Eppa Rixey. Ever heard of him? Not many have, even though he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rixey won 179 games as a member of the Reds – the most ever for the old franchise-but it stands as the lowest total of any of the 16 major league clubs that can trace their history back to at least 1901 when this “modern era” began.
Cincinnati has had nine pitchers win at least 130 games for them, but no one has won as many as 180. That’s a logjam. Seaver was with the team for six seasons, but though he led the NL in wins once as a Red and he threw a no-hitter for the team, his best seasons were with the Mets. Tom Terrific won 75 games for the Reds, the same number as Aaron Harang. There have been 18 pitchers who have won at least 100 games for Cincy. Somewhere in that group is the greatest pitcher in Reds history. Let me try to identify who that is. Here’s a look at the candidates.
Johnny Vander Meer
Most people know that Vander Meer threw back-to-back no-hitters, perhaps the most unbreakable record in sports. But his career was more than that remarkable feat. He led the NL in K’s three straight years for the Reds, though it did come during the WWII years when many of the best hitters were in military uniforms. His 29 shutouts rank third in franchise history, but Vander Meer had a losing career record, and even though wins aren’t a great way to measure greatness, no pitcher who wins more than he loses can be the greatest of anything.
Jose Rijo and Mario Soto
I group these two together because they were both Latin-born right-handers who could throw the ball through a barn door. But neither had the stamina: Soto won 100 games for the Reds and Rijo 97. Soto ranks second in Reds history in strikeouts, Rijo is fourth and his ERA is the lowest ever for a Cincinnati Starter who pitched at least 500 innings for the club. Arm injuries kept them both from reaching superstardom.
Noodles Hahn, Will White, Pete Donohue, and Frank Dwyer
All four of these hurlers tossed the ball before the 1920s. Whereas each was a good pitcher (Hahn was probably the most gifted), none won enough or dominated enough, and none of them ever pitched the Reds into the World Series or stood out that much from dozens of other hurlers from that era.
After debuting as a 15-year old in what was really a stunt, Joe Nuxhall came back to the Reds as a mature pitcher and was very good. He spent 15 of his 16 seasons as a member of the Reds, going 130-109 for the club. But he was not an ace, in fact except for a couple of seasons he wasn’t ever the #1 starter in the Reds rotation. The righty also never led the league in any category of any kind.
The ace of the Reds’ staff for much of the 1960s, Maloney could throw really hard. No other Cincinnati pitcher has struck out more batters than Maloney, who fanned 1,592 in 11 seasons for the Reds. Maloney won 20 games twice before his 26th birthday and he fired a pair of no-hitters, but a sore arm curtailed him as his career went on. He was done by the age of 31, having won 134 games with a fine .615 winning percentage. Like a few others here, it would have been interesting to have seen how good Maloney could have been had he been able to be healthy for a few more seasons.
Gary Nolan and Don Gullett
When he was a 19-year old rookie, Nolan looked like he could be as good as Seaver. In his first season, the hard-throwing right-hander fanned 206 batters in just over 226 innings. But he battled arm injuries the next two seasons, winning just 17 games. he came back and was a very good pitcher for parts of three seasons before he suffered more arm troubles that kept him out for almost two full seasons. Ultimately he was good, but not great – winning 14-18 games five times.
As a youngster, Gullett also had a golden arm, but an injury sapped him of his fastball. Still, when he was in the rotation, he was an excellent pitcher for Sparky Anderson’s Reds in the 1970s. He posted a glimmering 91-44 mark for Cincinnati, but more importantly he had a 3.03 ERA in his seven years for the club. An arm injury ended his career suddenly at the young age of 27.
The Cuban righty was fortunate that his skin was light enough that he was allowed to play in the major leagues during the pre-integration years. It’s possible that “The Pride of Havana” had the best curveball of his era. He used the bender well enough to pitch for two decades, 12 of those years for the Reds. In 1923 he won 27 games for Cincinnati and led the NL in wins, winning percentage, ERA, and shutouts. He completed 57% of his starts as a member of the Reds, and his 154 victories ranks fifth in franchise history.
The Apollo of the Box
A few words have to be said about Tony Mullane, one of the most popular and colorful players of the 19th century. Mullane pitched for Cincy in the American Association starting in 1886, all the way up to 1893 when they were in the National League. He won 20 games five times for the Redlegs, and he was among league leaders in shutouts often, but he wasn’t a great 19th century pitcher. He won a lot of games because back then pitchers started 45-60 games per year. Mullane has the greatest nickname of this bunch, but he’s not Cincinnati’s greatest pitcher.
Speaking of nicknames, Blackwell had a great one too – “The Whip.” The tall (he was 6’6) righty dropped down to three-quarters sidearm – that’s how he got that name. His delivery was damn hard to pick up and he led the NL in strikeouts in just his second full season. That was in 1947 when he also paced the NL in wins (22) and complete games (23). But like others here, Blackwell missed too much time with injuries and retired with too few wins and numbers to be the greatest Cincy pitcher. He was 79-77 as a Red, but it should be pointed out that he pitched mostly for losing teams.
Derringer, along with Luque and the next two pitchers on this list make up the top four candidates for the title of greatest Cincinnati starting pitcher. Derringer’s 161 wins rank third in Cincinnati history, and he rates fourth in innings pitched and games started. Over a six-year stretch from 1935-1940, the righty averaged 19 wins, 21 complete games, and 280 innings per season for Cincinnati. He was an All-Star six times and finished in the top four in MVP voting in 1939 and 1940. He was a 20-game winner four times for the Reds and he won two games (including Game Seven) in the ’40 World Series.
Walters was the other half of the Reds dynamic pitching tandem in the 1930s and early 1940s. Bucky won one fewer game as a Red than Derringer did, but he was the better of the two. Walters led the NL in wins, ERA, complete games, and innings pitched in both 1939 and 1940. As mentioned earlier, he’s the only Reds pitcher to win the MVP Award. He was 49-21 when Cincy won back-to-back pennants in 1939-40, and was 2-0 in the ’40 Series. His 32 shutouts are a franchise record.
He’s first in wins, as I mentioned already, but also tops in innings pitched and games started. Rixey is the only pitcher who spent the majority of his career with the Reds who is in the Hall of Fame. The tall left-hander spent 21 years in the majors: 13 with Cincinnati and eight with the Phillies. He won 20 games three times for Cincy, leading the loop in 1922 with 25. He was a contact pitcher, he rarely walked or struck out batters. But he also rarely surrendered home runs and he got a lot of groundball outs. He was an innings eater, a competitor, a smart craftsman on the mound. He adapted and kept batters off balance. He didn’t have great natural stuff, but he was a crafty pitcher – like Tom Glavine many years later. But even Rixey has his warts – he might be in the Hall of Fame but he wasn’t a great pitcher, he’s a marginal HOFer at best. In his 13 years as a Red, the team had a winning record in six of them, but Rixey basically pitched just above the team level (.547). If he was great, he’d have won a lot more, like other pitchers who won despite pitching for poor teams, like Walter Johnson.
Lastly, there’s Johnny Cueto, the current ace of the Reds’s staff who’s on pace for 20 wins in 2012. Cueto is just 26 years old, so he can’t be anointed the greatest anything yet, but his performance the last season and a half puts him in position to climb up the list of Cincinnati’s pitching leaders. He’s already a third of the way to Rixey’s mark for wins, and he’ll be halfway to Maloney’s K record by the end of ’12. If Cueto becomes the first Cincinnati pitcher to win the Cy Young Award (and he certainly has a good chance) he’ll vault himself into discussion as one of the greatest Reds pitchers. He’s signed through 2014 and if Cincy can wrap him up for 4-5 more years after that and hold onto him, Cueto could break all the Reds records for hurlers.
Who’s your choice as the greatest pitcher in Cincinnati history? Let me know in the comments below.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.