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Who was Willis Hudlin?

An exploration of the Tribe’s all-time WAR leaders starts with this baseball lifer

Willis Pitching

While being high on a team’s all-time wins above replacement list is normally reserved for some kind of legend, it can’t always be the case. Sometimes, quite frankly, it’s just a guy who was there for a while. Willis Hudlin, who earned a 24th-best-in-Cleveland-baseball-history 32.2 WAR in his career spanning from 1924 to 1940, is that kind of player.

The nature of WAR as a compiling stat is such that it allows guys who just hang around to outpace players that, if you had to choose, would probably be the preferred choice over the compiler. Which isn’t to say Hudlin was a bad player, far from it. He had his moments. It’s just that, all things considered, being half-remembered would be the best-case scenario for him. He had a solid baseball life though and earned his spot at the fringe of the Tribe’s list.

The praise was high for Hudlin when he hit Cleveland’s roster in 1926. At 6-foot, 190 from Oklahoma, he fit the bill for your typical kid fresh off the farm, and evidently struck quite a figure on the mound.

“The first time I hit against Hudlin in batting practice, I realized Cleveland had picked a jewel,” Tribe great Tris Speaker said on seeing him pitch, “he had me, as well as the other regulars on the club, waving a bat at his fastball.”

Hudlin was a sinkerballer primarily, also featuring a changeup and curve. One scout even called him the best prospect he’d ever seen, which is some kind of praise. A bit unfounded? Perhaps, but when is a scout not had a propensity for embellishment?

Ultimately, the numbers speak to a generally alright pitcher, though nothing spectacular. In his 15 and change years with the Indians, Hudlin piled up a 157-151 record with a 4.54 ERA, starting 320 games (completing 154 of them) and appearing in a total of 492 games. It all equates to 2557.2 innings of very average pitching. He had his moments though, and for a guy with a career like Hudlin’s, that’s kind of all that matters.

For instance, in 1927, he absolutely shut down the New York Yankees. Keep in mind, this is the mythical Murderer’s Row, who as a team hit .307/.384/.488, good for a 127 OPS+. The best individual hitter on the Indians that same year was George Burns, who posted a 109 OPS+. They were incredible, literally the best offensive team ever.

Hudlin, it seems, just didn’t care. At that point he was 21 years old and in his first full season with the Tribe. He was alright that year, posting an 18-12 record, starting 30 games with another 13 relief appearances, and pitched 264.2 innings to the tune of a 4.01 ERA. Ostensibly, that’s the kind of pitcher that the Yankees brutalized. Hudlin disagreed, as in 48.1 innings (four starts, seven total appearances, three complete games) he posted a 2.79 ERA against the Bombers, holding Ruth, Gehrig, and friends to a .278/.348/.396. It was his best run against any single team that year. He did cough up Ruth’s 51st home run in that famed 60-dinger season, but generally he made the 1927 Yankees look like, well, the 1927 Indians at the plate.

He also pitched literally the greatest game in Cleveland baseball history. That’s no small feat, right? Especially for a team that historically is defined by pitching. It was Hudlin, and not Feller or Lemon or McDowell or any of the amazing pitchers we’ve seen the last seven or eight years, that did it. It was a 15-inning shutout on August 24th, 1935 against the Philadelphia A’s that put him in the franchise record books. Granted, that A’s team wasn’t that great, though not the worst A’s team of the 1930’s, and they did happen to have Jimmie Foxx on the team, still at the height of his powers. More on Foxx in a minute.

Hudlin allowed eight hits and a walk in that game, logging a franchise all-time best 106 Game score (100 is generally considered a perfect game) and putting up an insane 1.662 win probability added. That’s a stat where, if you get to 1.000, that means you added a full win. Plainly, by virtue of adding nearly a second game — well, literally two thirds of a second game — and by being nearly untouchable, he got that absurdly high number. It was a weird, different kind of baseball, but Hudlin earned his place.

If you look at his 1929 season, it looks at first like a youngster starting to break out. Hudlin logged a 3.34 ERA, totaled a career high 280.1 innings, and won 17 games. This is likely where he earned one of the less creative nicknames, ‘Ace’. Instead of being a jumping off, the beginning of an ascendance, that was the last time he would be that good. He would never again win more than 15 games, and never had an ERA under 3.67. In fact, he’d only get below 4.00 twice after 1929, and only pitch 200 or more innings three more times.

As with so many pitchers before Tommy John surgery and the growth of sports science and medicine in general, you wonder if something happened. Back then, “dead arm” was just a thing you got. Sometimes it got better, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes careers just ended. After 280 innings that year, and nearly 800 before his 24th birthday, it’s likely he just overextended himself and damaged something permanently. Hudlin stuck around for another 15 years in one form or another, so it couldn’t have been that debilitating, but whatever happened, he was never as good as he was in 1929.

I mentioned Jimmie Foxx earlier. That year, 1935, Foxx posted an AL-best 1.096 OPS, lead the league in home runs and slugging, and also notched the highest strikeout total with 99. He was a tremendous player, a legend of the game, whose 534 home runs stood as a marker of greatness for a long, long time. When Ted Williams passed Foxx, it was considered a big deal. He was probably the best hitter of the 1930’s, winning three MVP’s amid a sterling career.

Foxx also absolutely ate Willis Hudlin’s lunch. Here we have a pitcher who lived in the time of Ruth, Gehrig, Geringer, and Greenburg, and they did pretty well for themselves against Hudlin. Ruth hit seven home runs in 103 plate appearances, posting a Ruthian 1.465 OPS against the pitcher. Foxx though, when he made contact, he made a ton. He faced Hudlin 185 times, hitting 14 home runs — twice as many as second place Al Simmons — and posted a 1.169 OPS. He was, of course, great in general. Hudlin wasn’t even the pitcher he homered off the most — Foxx logged sixteen dingers off Red Ruffing, General Crowder, and Tommy Bridges, three real, actual men. That he so brutalized Hudlin, but Hudlin isn’t even top five in his most victimized pitchers, is the pinnacle of “I don’t think about you at all” mindset.

One other neat thing — in 1929, Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run against Hudlin. Cool, right?

In all, as you can tell, Hudlin was an okay pitcher, though ultimately nothing spectacular. He had his moments, whether the 15 innings against the A’s, his dominance of the Yankees when they were a behemoth, or the time he gave up three homers, went ten innings, and earned the win against the Browns in 1928. That’s the type of game you just couldn’t imagine today. Having a handful of moments like these, that’s part of the story of anyone who sticks around for as long as he did. He stayed with baseball for many decades afterward, owning part of the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association while pitching and managing them at the same time, winning a pennant in 1942. He later did the same with the Jackson Senators of the Southeastern League in 1947, and then became owner of the Greenville franchise in the Cotton States League, which also won a pennant under him in 1954. Plainly, this was a guy who knew players, knew the game, and knew what it took to win.

He also scouted some, first for the Tigers in the mid-50s, when H.G Salsinger of the Detroit News called him “one of baseball’s leading authorities on pitching”. A great judge of talent by all accounts, he even mentored future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. In another time, with more teams and more opportunity, you wonder if he could have made a splash as a major league manager. With his track record around the minors and in the game, it had to have been some part of his dream.

After scouting for the Yankees in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hudlin retired from the baseball world for the most part. It’s a hell of a career to have though, basically experiencing every level of the game from manager to owner and experiencing the gamut of joy and pain with championships, last place finishes, and at least a couple franchises folding up underneath him. He got a stadium named after him in his hometown of Wagoner, OK, in 2013. This isn’t a guy who’s going to get a monument at Progressive Field, but with a career, with a life like this, I can’t think of a greater honor than a true baseball man like Willis Hudlin having a ballpark named after him.

It wouldn’t be weird if you’d never heard of the guy. He was a bit player in the life of some legends of the game and pitched on some decent Tribe teams that had no chance of really competing because of, well, the Yankees mostly. Hudlin was a baseball lifer, a guy who knew his craft, and built a life around it. That’s a life most of us dream of.