The Cincinnati Reds All-Time Starting Rotation: a Tale of Three Eras
When looking over the candidates for this honor, one quickly realizes that even though the Reds have enjoyed some success throughout baseball history, there are not many all-time great pitchers among the team’s rosters.
I was driven to find the best pitchers that contributed the most to the team. They had to have pitched over 1000 innings for the team. If I felt the main thrust of their career was elsewhere, they were not included. This is for pitchers most associated with the Reds team.
The team and city is drenched in baseball tradition and history. It was the city of the first professional major league team, in the 1860s. The city hosted two major league teams in the 1880s, the Redstockings of the American Association, and the Reds of the National League.
The next great era for the team and city was from 1919-1941, when the team’s first and second World Series titles bookended the era. The first team will always be associated with the Black Sox scandal. The second team was one of great accomplishment, appearing in two consecutive World Series in 1939 and 1940.
The third era of Reds greatness started in 1961, when the Reds won the pennant, and really carried through to 1980, including the Big Red Machine days, and then was brought back in ’90 and the early 90s when they had good teams.
Although the team has not posted a winning record in over ten years, the fans remain proud of their city’s baseball tradition, and hopeful of a revival in upcoming seasons.
Not surprisingly, the Reds’ best pitchers come from when the team was at its best throughout history. Many of the Reds’ very best pitchers had full careers during the earlier years of the team’s success. I will form a rotation from among those pitchers, as they all deserve recognition. Also, I will show a rotation from the post 1960 Reds teams. Then finally, I will present an all-time rotation for consideration.
The early greats:
The anchor of this rotation has to be the one HOF pitcher the Reds have in their history, Eppa Rixey. He held the record for the most wins for a left-handed pitcher in the NL (266) from the 20s until Warren Spahn broke it in the early 60s. He was also known as one of the finest gentlemen in the game. But he had a competitive edge on the mound. He was a grinder, who found a home in Cincinnati, where he made his fame.
The second entry for this rotation has to be Bucky Walters. Like Rixey, Walters struggled for several years pitching for the Philies. When he finally made his way to the Reds team in ’38, he became the best pitcher in the NL for the next eight years.
During this time he led the NL in wins, WHIP, H/9, shutouts, complete games, and Innings pitched. He won 121 games during a span of six years, ’39-’44. When he came to the Reds, he created a pitching duo with Paul Derringer which led the team to two consecutive pennants and the ’40 World series.
Paul Derringer featured a fastball, curve ball and an occasional knuckleball. He had exceptional control of all his pitches, leading the league in BB/9 and K/BB ratio more than once. Although he encountered problems with brawling off the field, he rose to the occasion for the team in the late 30s, winning 20 games four times, and totaling 223 wins.
Tony Mullane sat out a year just to play in Cincinnati. He objected to the overbearing reserve clause, which kept a player as a team’s property, even after selling them to another team!? Such was his case in 1885. The American Association forced him to sit out one year before he could sign and play for Cincinnati.
This year came right in the middle of five consecutive 30 wins seasons he happened to post. So his protest and the leagues subsequent action probably cost him a 300 win career. He ended with 284 wins. He was elected to the Reds HOF just this past year.
Mullane was the first ambidextrous pitcher. He pitched without a glove and held the ball with both hands – so as not to give away with which hand he would deliver the pitch. He was also nicknamed “the Apollo of the Box”, as his good looks drew hundreds of female fans who would swoon from the bleachers when he pitched!
Will White rounds out our early rotation. He was the first player to play with glasses on during games. He won 229 games for the Reds and Redstockings of the late 1870s and early 1880s. He was truly Cincinnati’s first ace pitcher, and still holds the major league record for most starts (75) in a season and most innings pitched in a season (680).
To fill out the early roster, we can mention Dolf Luque, a Cuban born pitcher who worked alongside Eppa Rixey in the 20s, and Noodles Hahn, who led the NL in strikeouts three consecutive years at the turn of the century.
The post-1960 rotation –
The ’61 pennant winning club had some fine pitchers, including Jim O’Toole, and Bob Purkey, neither really carried the quality through their careers that some others did.
Jim Maloney was one of the harder throwers in the 60s, having his fastball clocked at 99 mph. His career started up just as the Reds finished wining the ’61 pennant, and ended just before the Big Red Machine days! He won 134 games, and posted a career H/9 mark of 7.4. Along the way he collected two no-hitters.
Gary Nolan joined the reds team as a prospect in the late 60s. He was a pitcher of much promise, and developed tremendous control as his career developed. He won 18 games for the 1970 team, and faced off against Jim Palmer in game one of the ’70 series.
Injuries curtailed his overall production, but he managed 110 wins, an ERA+ 117, and a fine WHIP of 1.145.
Don Gullett had been a high school sports hero in Kentucky, his home state. He joined Nolan in the Reds rotation in 1970, and made a difference right away. Over the next seven years he won over 95 games. He became the face of the Reds successful pitching staff during the Big Red Machine years.
Almost like playing a tag team, Mario Soto came onto the scene in ’77. He featured great movement on his fastball, and a very effective circle change up. Like his predecessors, he posted very fine quality stats until his arm wore down.
At his peak, he led the league in WHIP, K/BB ratio, and complete games twice.
Jose Rijo joined the team in the late 80s. His two victories in the 90 series, while posting an ERA of 0.59 are a Reds legend. He totaled over 1600 Ks before he was finished. His career ERA+ of 121 is the highest in this rotation. He kept running into elbow problems, leading to many surgeries.
He made a surprise comeback in ’01, but retired shortly after that.
The Reds pitchers of this rotation could all be exceptionally effective pitchers. They all encountered injuries that shortened their careers and the impact they were able to make for the team. All at their best would make for a very stingy rotation!
If one were to pick relievers for this pitching staff, I would go with John Franco and Clay Carroll. Franco has the quality, and Carroll has the character.
The All-Time Rotation –
1 – Bucky Walters circa 1940, RHP
2 – Eppa Rixey – great all-time lefty
3 – Jim Maloney , RHP
4 – Tony Mullane – keep the ladies entertained – lol, R or LHP
5 – Gary Nolan, RHP
Spot starters – Will White, RHP, and Don Gullett, LHP
While the Reds have only one pitcher in the HOF, they have many interesting pitchers to choose from for this rotation. Three other pitchers , Bucky Walters, Tony Mullane, and Will White have compelling cases for the HOF veteran’s committee to consider. You, the Cincinnati fan or baseball historian, may have other pitchers in mind who might be considered for the all-time Reds starting rotation. Let me know of your suggestions.