Best sliders in the game (MLB Prime 9)


While doing some research for an upcoming article, I came across this video from the MLB Network Prime 9 series on sliders.   Cardinal fans will want to jump ahead to Part 2, knowing that they will get to see both Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson.  If you do, you will miss an important piece of Cardinals history, and it might help you understand Gene Mauch’s managerial dilemma in September 1964.

So please start with Part 1, and pay particular attention to the segment on Jim Bunning.   While watching, also take note of comments from Jim “Mudat” Grant and Jim Kaat.  Both played for the Cardinals.  Grant blew through town as part of a lot of shuffling that went on in 1969.   Kaat stayed a bit longer, first as a starter in 1980 and then as the Dennys Reyes of Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals.  He played a huge role in the 1982 Championship season, taking the ball every third day out of the bullpen.

Part 1: Jim Bunning, Francisco Rodriguez, Bob Lemon, Dave Stieb

The Jim Bunning segment is amazing.   If you only know of him as a congressman or senator from Kentucky, you only know part of his amazing story.

After two mid-season callups with the Detroit Tigers in 1955 and 1956, the 25 year old right hander with the unusual delivery took the American League by storm.   In his first full season, he would compile a 20-8 record and an ERA of 2.69, those 20 wins would lead the AL.   He would also lead the league in innings pitched with 267 1/3, behind 14 complete games.   For many pitchers, that would be a career year.  For Bunning, it was just the beginning.

On July 20, 1958, Bunning would throw the first of his two no-hitters, this one against a pretty good hitting Boston Red Sox team.   Two walks and a hit batsman (Jackie Jensen) kept it from being a perfect game.   That would come later, and in another league.  1958 was also the season that Bunning became a strikeout machine.

Bunning’s control improved significantly in 1959, cutting down his walk totals while maintaining just over 7 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched.   He would lead the league the next two seasons with 201 strikeouts.   As impressive as that might sound, it was nothing compared to what he would do in a couple of years.

The tall lanky right hander ran into some trouble with the long ball in 1962 and again in 1963, and that prompted a most unusual trade.  Perhaps the Tigers felt that Bunning was beginning his decline or that the league had been able to catch up to that gnarly slider, he was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1963 season.   In 9 seasons in Detroit, Bunning compiled a record of 118-87 with an ERA of 3.45.   His WHIP of 1.208 was slightly inflated from the past two seasons, but was still an impressive (half) career mark.

Bunning took the National League by storm in 1964, just as he had the American League in 1957.   He was beating everybody, and not just winning, utter dominance.   He took advantage of the slightly larger strike zone, and his strikeout totals exploded.

On Father’s Day, June 21, 1964, in front of a packed house in New York, Bunning throws his second no-hitter, this time a perfect game.  It should be known that this came just two days after earning his first National League save, getting the last two Cubbies to weakly ground out to end the game on June 18.

This brings us to September 13.  Jim Bunning would be locked in a pitchers duel with a 22 year old left hander making his second major league appearance.  Dick Estelle of the Giants matched Bunning pitch for pitch over the first 9 innings.   The Phillies broke through on a tired Estelle in the 10th inning, scoring three runs.   Bunning would pitch a perfect 10th inning to earn the win.

Chris Short, a tall hard throwing lefty, would follow suit the next day and pitch a complete game victory over the Houston Colt 45s.   As well as Bunning had been pitching, Short was having an even better season (sans the perfect game and a couple of wins, but an ERA well under 2 runs per game).

Feeling the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals charging hard, and looking at his rotation and seeing nothing but unproven kids, manager Gene Mauch decides to shorten his rotation and throw Bunning and Short out there on short rest, some times as little as 2 days, never more than 3.   Now that you’ve had a chance to see what Bunning looked like on the mound, and just accepting on my word that Short was another max-effort hard throwing hurler, would you have done any differently ?   Perhaps, but this was the closest the Phillies had been to a World Series since Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn and the Whiz Kids, so he gambled.   And lost.  The additional innings on both Short and Bunning proved to be too much, and not only did the two starters get overworked, the bullpen got gassed and fell apart.  The Phillies crumbled, losing 12 of their last 15 games.

Bunning would finish the 1964 season with 19 wins, and would do so again in 1965 and 1966.  It seemed that he was getting better as he was getting older.   His strikeout totals certainly ballooned.   He would cross the 250 strikeout mark in 1965, finishing with a career high of 268.   He would also record more than 250 in 1966 and 1967, leading the league in 1967 with 253.

At age 35, Bunning had his career season in 1967.  While he would never win a Cy Young Award, he would finish second to Mike McCormick of the San Francisco Giants on the strength of those 253 strikeouts and a career low ERA of 2.29.   If the Phillies had been a better team and could have managed just a few more runs for the veteran right hander, perhaps he would have taken home the award instead of McCormick.   Back in that era, wins still mattered.

An amazing career for an unbelievable pitcher.   100 wins in both leagues, a no-hitter in both leagues, finished his career second in strikeouts to Walter Johnson (subsquently surpassed by many pitchers).   And thanks to the MLB Network, you can also see a few minutes of that unusual buggy whip delivery that used to drive batters crazy.

Part 2: Bob Gibson, Sparky Lyle, Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, Ron Guidry

Oh, that’s right.   There is a second part to this series.   If you are a Cardinals fan, this is the one you have been waiting for.  You will get a nice segment on Bob Gibson, including one of the nastiest sliders you’ll ever see, striking out Willie Horton to end Game One of the 1968 World Series.  You’ll also get a good look at Steve Carlton, mostly as a member of the Phillies.  As you watch him pitch, you can lament with the rest of us as we think back, wondering what the Cardinals could have been if Gussie Busch hadn’t been so darned hard-headed.

Another high point in this part is the appearance of Jerry Reuss.

I will leave you with one final thought.   At the end of the Bob Gibson segment, the narrator says that in 1968, nobody had a better slider than Bob Gibson.   That is true.  Carlton would start playing with it, not really mastering it until 1969, and the numbers clearly show his success before and after.

But…… the best slider in the National League in 1967 was another hard throwing right hander, who also wore the Birds on the Bat.   If you have read this blog before, you’ll already know who I’m talking about.   Yes, it was Dick Hughes.   Talk about what could have been, if not for a cool night in Florida in March 1968.

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