Seasons in Boston: 1971-1978
Honors: 3x All-Star, 2x American League ERA Title
Red Sox Numbers: 3.36 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 122 W, 113 CG, 26 ShO, 1075 K, 85 ERA-, 28.9 fWAR
Signature Season (1974): 311.1 IP, 176 K, 22 W, 25 CG, 7 ShO, 2.92 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 76 ERA-, 6.1 fWAR
When looking for the best pitchers in the history of the Red Sox franchise, there was no spot that was as hotly contested as the fifth spot. Those in contention for this spot but ultimately falling short were Jon Lester and his playoff heroics, Mel Parnell’s six-year run of excellence, Frank Sullivan’s five-year stretch of success, and Dutch Leonard’s domination of the Deadball Era. Ultimately I settled upon the Red Sox’s best pitcher of the 1970’s, Luis Tiant, or El Tiante as fans colloquially know him. While many of those other pitchers above did certain things better than Tiant, his time here with the Red Sox was the best stretch of his career and provided fans with countless memorable moments.
Tiant came to the Sox after being released by two teams— the Twins and the Braves— in the spring of 1971. After breaking into the big leagues in 1964 as a member of the Indians, Tiant had enjoyed a successful start to his career but really broke out in 1968. During that age-27 season, he won 21 games and led the league in ERA at 1.60 and shutouts with nine while also making his first All-Star team. That same season he struck out 19 batters against the Twins on July 3 over ten innings. Tiant wasn’t nearly as successful the following year and was traded from the Indians to the Twins.
That year, his first and only with the Twins, Tiant dealt with an injured shoulder which caused him to miss substantial time. Further injury issues led to his release by the Twins in the spring of 1971. He was then signed by the Braves only to be released a month later. Finally on May 17, he was signed by the Red Sox. He struggled that first year in Boston, making ten starts and pitching to a 4.85 ERA.
In 1972, we started to see the real Tiant. He only made five starts in the first half of that season while pitching out of the ‘pen frequently. In the second half Tiant took off, making 14 starts, 11 of which would be complete games, while posting a 1.36 ERA. He had arrived.
Tiant was not named to the All-Star team in 1972 because he didn’t become a full-time starter in the second half of the year, but he did lead the majors in ERA with a mark of 1.91, earning himself a sixth place finish in the Cy Young voting and eighth place in the MVP voting. In 1973, Tiant won 20 games for the Red Sox, beginning a stretch of four years as the real ace of the staff. Bill Lee also enjoyed some strong seasons, but Tiant was consistent year after year.
His best season was in 1974 when he threw a career-high 311 ⅓ innings over 38 starts, completing 25 games including seven shutouts while winning a career-best 22. He made the All-Star team while also finishing fourth in the Cy Young Voting, and 11th in the MVP voting.
The 1975 season would be a whole different story as it seemed Tiant was fatigued both mentally and physically. A Cuban native, Tiant had been separated from his mother and father since entering professional baseball. A meeting was in the process of being organized by U.S. Senator George McGovern and Fidel Castro. No doubt the career high in innings from 1974 also played a part in his 4.02 season ERA. The long awaited reunion finally took place on August 21st and his father, a former Negro League and Cuban League star, threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park on August 26th. Luis Tiant Sr. had pitched 16 professional seasons during his career.
Following his parent’s arrival Tiant pitched like a rejuvenated man and posted an ERA of 1.47 in September with three complete games and two shutouts. His dominance down the stretch helped lock up the pennant for the 1975 Red Sox. Tiant made one start in the ALCS against the Athletics, pitching a complete game while allowing one unearned run in a Game One victory.
Following that series sweep he threw a complete game shutout in Game One of the World Series against the Reds before coming back in Game Four to throw yet another complete game, this one in a 5-4 victory over the Reds to tie the series at two games apiece. Things would not go as well for Tiant in Game Six when he allowed six earned runs, but some guys named Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk would lead the Red Sox to victory despite his performance.
The 1976 season was one where a 35-year-old Tiant pitched like a much younger man. He won 21 games, the fourth and final time he would ever win 20 games in the major leagues, while dropping his ERA to 3.06 for the year. This was nearly a run better than what he posted in 1975. He would go on to earn both Cy Young and MVP votes during that season with another massive workload of 279 innings. His next two years would be his last with the Red Sox. 1977 wasn’t so great, but he had a very strong 1978.
One consistent attribute for Tiant was his ability to pitch well when it mattered. Over the course of his career, Tiant’s September/October ERA was his lowest of any month at 2.74. He also posted the most wins 52, complete games 40, and shutouts 12 than any other month over the course of his career. He was 31-12 in September/October with the Red Sox.
Contract disputes led to Tiant signing with the Yankees in 1979 where he spent the next two seasons. He finally retired after the 1982 season at the age of 41. From the time he entered the major leagues in 1964 up until present day only 11 pitchers have thrown more complete games than Tiant’s 187 and only seven have thrown more shutouts than his 49. Over the course of his career he made 484 starts, 187 of which were complete games, a whopping 38.6% of his starts.
Tiant ranks fourth in Red Sox history in both innings pitched and shutouts. He ranks fifth in wins, sixth in complete games, seventh in strikeouts, and in the top fifteen in ERA, WHIP, and ERA-. He ranks eighth in FanGraphs WAR and fifth by Baseball-Reference WAR. I think Baseball-Reference does a better job of equating his true value here. Ultimately, the choice to go with Tiant comes down to his ability to pitch his best when it matters, his ability to go deep into games, and his durability and longevity with the Red Sox. For these reasons, Tiant is the fifth starter in the All-Time Red Sox rotation.