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Top 100 Indians: #76 Dennis Eckersley

Dennis Eckersley is most famous for his work as a closer with the Oakland Athletics. He received Cy Young votes in four different seasons there, won the 1992 A.L. MVP, and gave up one of the most famous home runs in baseball history. Most baseball fans know he had a lengthy and successful career as a starter before all that, but many DON’T know that career began in Cleveland.

Jim McIsaac

Dennis Lee Eckersley

Pitcher, 1975-1977

Height: 6' 2" Weight: 190 lbs

Bats: Right Throws: Right

Acquired: Drafted on June 6, 1972 (Indians’ 3rd round pick, 50th overall)

Left Via: Trade on March 30, 1978 (sent with Fred Kendall to the Boston Red Sox for Ted Cox, Bo Diaz, Mike Paxton, and Rick Wise)

Dennis Eckersley ("Eck") was born on October 3rd, 1954, in Oakland, California. He grew up in nearby Fremont and became a great athlete at a young age, which he credited to his older brother, Wally, for allowing him to tag along and play with the bigger kids, "Trying to keep up with them really made me a better player right away," Dennis recalled in his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Eckersley became a star pitcher at Washington Union High School and a few days before he graduated he became the Indians’ third pick in the 1972 draft. He was still only 17 years old when he made his debut with the Reno Silver Sox, the Tribe’s single-A affiliate in those days. During the off-season, Eckersley married and in 1973 he returned to Reno and pitched over 200 innings, with more than a strikeout per frame and a 3.65 ERA. In 1974 Eck moved up to double-A (the San Antonio Brewers), where he compiled a 3.40 ERA and led the Texas League in strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the 1974 Indians had been led by the Perry brothers, Gaylord and Jim, both of whom had been great (Gaylord probably should have won the Cy Young Award that year), but the rest of the rotation was a mess. When Eckersley looked good during Spring Training in 1975, manager Frank Robinson put him on the big league team.

Eckersley was eased into the American League by coming out of the bullpen to begin with (a role he would famously return to, later in his career). By Memorial Day Eck had made ten appearances without allowing a single earned run, and on May 25 he was given the start in the first half of a doubleheader against Oakland. How did he do? He pitched a complete game shutout, allowing just three hits.

He continued to pitch well, posting an ERA better than 3.50 for each of the season’s final four months. Both Gaylord and Jim Perry were traded away during the summer and at the end of the year it was Eckersley who led the team in innings, strikeouts, and ERA. He was just 20 years old, only Bob Feller had ever pitched so well for the Indians at such a young age. He’d been the finest rookie pitcher in the American League and become the ace of the Cleveland staff.

Eckersley’s 1976 was a tale of two halves. He was named the Opening Day starter, making him the second-youngest Indian ever to receive that honor (Feller), but the start didn’t go well. Through July 11th Eck was averaging fewer than five innings per start and had a 4.95 ERA (which was ever worse in the low-scoring 1970s than it would be today). It seems to me too short a leash for a young pitcher who’d been so good the year before, but he was moved into the bullpen.

On July 30th Eckersley was given another shot at starting, and struck out 12 in a complete game victory. He pitched a three-hit shutout in his next start and was one of the two or three best pitchers in baseball the rest of the season, putting up an 8-4 record in fourteen starts, including seven complete games and two shutouts, with an ERA of 2.29. Eck finished second on the team in innings and ERA, and led the team in strikeouts and WHIP.

In 1977 Eckersley got his second consecutive Opening Day start. He pitched pretty well through the season’s first few weeks and on Memorial Day he pitched one of the best games in Indians’ history. Eck issued a walk in the first inning but stranded the runner. The Tribe scored one in the bottom of the inning when Duane Kiper tripled and then came home on a squeeze bunt. It was all zeroes from there. Eckersley finished with 12 strikeouts, including at least one in every inning. The last of those K’s gave Eckersley the 200th no hitter in MLB history, becoming just the tenth Indian ever to accomplish that incredible feat.

A few days later, on June 4th, Indians’ centerfielder Rick Manning fractured a vertebra while sliding into second base. Manning went on the disabled list and was out until September. This turned out to be perhaps the most important event in Eckersley’s time with the Indians, ahead of even that wonderful no hitter, but its importance wouldn’t become clear for months, on the eve of the 1978 season.

Eckersley was named to the 1977 American League All-Star Game and he pitched two perfect frames in that contest. Eckersley pitched almost 250 innings that season and led the Indians in strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, and wins. He has been the Tribe’s best pitcher for three straight seasons and was still just 22 years old when the off-season began.

Rick Manning had become perhaps Eckersley’s closest friend on the team. They roomed together on the road, and when Manning returned to Cleveland to rest and eventually rehab his broken back, he stayed at Eck’s home. The team was often on the road of course, and while it was, Manning and Eckersley’s wife Denise began an affair. No one caught wind of it for quite some time, and it seems the team found out before Dennis did. When they did, they quickly determined that keeping both Eckersley and Manning would quickly become untenable, and decided that one of them must be traded.

On March 30th, nine days before the season was to begin, Eckersley was the one dealt away, sent to Boston (with Fred Kendall) in exchange for Ted Cox, Bo Diaz, Mike Paxton, and Rick Wise. Cox had an OPS of .570 in two seasons with the Tribe, Bo Diaz made a total of 580 plate appearances over four seasons, with an OPS of .679, Mike Paxton had an ERA of 4.97 and was done in Major League Baseball by May of 1980, and Rick Wise pitched all of two seasons in Cleveland (one good, one not) before leaving as a free agent.

Those four players provided the Tribe with a combined bWAR of 3.2 during their time in Cleveland (not that anyone knew what WAR was back then), whereas Eckersley had put up a bWAR of 4.8 in 1977 (for anyone who thinks the Sabathia and Lee deals have worked out poorly, you can see that it could have been much worse!).

If a trade had to be made (and I can certainly understand the argument that it did), it’s a shame the front office didn’t realize that Manning was the one who should go. He’d been a very good young player in 1976, but even before his injury, he’d fallen far off in 1977. He played five and a half more years with the Indians and he was a crappy hitter every step of the way, with OPS figures in the .600s every season. The Indians chose… poorly.

Eckersley was one of the three best pitchers in baseball over the next couple seasons. He finished 2nd in the American League Cy Young voting for Boston in 1978 and probably deserved to win the award in 1979. Between 1978 and 1984 (the last season before he hit free agency for the first time) Eck pitched almost 1500 innings, with strong ERA and WHIP totals. He averaged a bWAR of 3.4 for those seven seasons, 7th among pitchers in all of baseball. Only Bert Blyleven had more than one season that good for the Indians over those years.

From Boston Eckersley moved on to the Cubs, where he tasted the playoffs for the first time. He was traded to Oakland in 1987, where manager Tony La Russa considered making him a long reliever. When their closer, Jay Howell was injured during the 1987 season, Eck was moved into the role. From there on, his story is pretty well known. He gave up Kirk Gibson's home run that ended Game 1 of the 1988 World Series (and coined the term "walk off" to describe it), he put up a cartoonish 0.61 ERA over 73.1 innings in 1990, and he won the 1992 American League Cy Young and MVP Awards.

Eck retired in 1998 and In 2004, his first year of eligibility, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also named one of the Top 100 Cleveland Indians during the team's centennial celebration in 2001.

If the Tribe had been wise enough to hold onto Eckersley instead of Manning, or if the unfortunate events necessitating that one of them be moved had never happened, Eck would probably be viewed very differently by the baseball world. Odds are he never would have been named a closer, which would dramatically change his legacy.

Would Eckersley still have made the Hall of Fame, solely on his merits as a starter? There's no way to know. He'd certainly rate even higher on this list if he'd stayed in Cleveland, his 1978 and 1979 seasons alone would have pushed him into the top 50 and he might be viewed as one of the four or five best pitchers in franchise history if he'd played ten years or more here. Alas... there are only those three short seasons. Three damn good seasons.

1975 20 CLE 13 7 2.60 34 24 6 2 186.2 16 90 152 144 1.270 0.8 4.3 7.3 1.69
1976 21 CLE 13 12 3.43 36 30 9 3 199.1 13 78 200 101 1.169 0.6 3.5 9.0 2.56
1977 22 CLE 14 13 3.53 33 33 12 3 247.1 31 54 191 112 1.084 1.1 2.0 7.0 3.54
CLE (3 yrs) 40 32 3.23 103 87 27 8 633.1 60 222 543 116 1.165 0.9 3.2 7.7 2.45

Indians Career Ranks (rate stats for pitchers with 500+ IP):

34th in strikeouts (543)

t-34th in shutouts (8)

4th in K/9 (7.72)

10th in K/BB (2.45)

9th in WHIP (1.165)

t-27th in ERA (3.23)

t-18th in ERA+ (116)

Indians Single Season Ranks:

22nd in strikeouts (200 in 1976)

26th in strikeouts (191 in 1977)

11th in K/9 (9.03 in 1976)

30th in K/9 (7.33 in 1975)

41st in K/9 (6.95 in 1977)

12th in K/BB (3.54 in 1977)

39th in K/BB (2.56 in 1976)

27th in WHIP (1.084 in 1977)

35th in ERA+ (144 in 1975)

1975 A.L. Ranks:

10th in strikeouts

4th in K/9

3rd in ERA

2nd in ERA+

10th in bWAR

1976 A.L. Ranks:

4th in strikeouts

2nd in K/9

8th in K/BB

9th in WHIP

10th in fWAR

1977 A.L. Ranks:

9th in IP

5th in strikeouts

6th in K/9

1st in K/BB

2nd in WHIP

10th in ERA

t-8th in shutouts

8th in bWAR

9th in fWAR