One Great Year Archive – IV
This feature discusses a season in which a team finished much higher than they did in the immediate past or future or a player far surpassed any other year of his career.

Johnny Kucks

Bob Grim
One Great Year: Johnny Kucks 1956
Johnny Kucks won 42 games for the Yankees from 1955-59. 43% of those victories came in 1956.
  • Born in Hoboken NJ, Kucks grew up in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from New York City.
  • After compiling a 19-6 record at Norfolk of the Piedmont League in 1952, the 19-year-old hurler spent the next two seasons in the military.
  • After a stint at the Yankees' instructional school, Kucks joined the Yankees for spring training in 1955. He threw a fast ball and sinker with professional control.
  • Johnny's roommate was P Bob Grim, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1954 after two years of military service.
  • Amazingly, Kucks made the Yankee roster and went 8-7 in 29 games, including 13 starts. He pitched three innings in the World Series, which the Dodgers won in seven.

Those statistics did not prepare the American League for what Kucks did in 1956.

  • Peter Golenbock: In the spring of 1956 Kucks continued to be outstanding, throwing with a loose-jointed, easy three-quarter motion, imparting a heavy over-spin on the ball that caused batters to break their bats and sting their hands if they didn't meet the ball just right. The fielders enjoyed playing behind Kucks because he pitched quickly.
  • Part of the starting rotation from the beginning of the season, Kucks won 18 and lost only 9. He twirled 12 complete games and finished with a 3.56 ERA. Only Whitey Ford (19-6) tallied more victories.
  • The Yankees won the pennant by 9 games over Cleveland.

The 1956 World Series is remembered for Don Larsen's perfect game, but Kucks was also a hero.

  • Johnny appeared in relief in the first two games at Ebbets Field, both Brooklyn victories.
  • For the third straight time, a Dodger-Yankee Series went to the seventh game.
  • Casey Stengel chose Kucks, who responded with a three-hit shutout as the Yanks romped 9-0. His sinker working, Johnny allowed only two fly balls all afternoon.

The momentum from the Series finale didn't carry over to 1957 for Kucks.

  • He started 23 games but finished only 10. His final tally showed only 8 wins against 10 losses.
  • Ironically, his ERA actually dropped to 3.56.
  • He pitched only 2/3 of an inning in the '57 Fall Classic.

Kucks stayed stuck on eight for the rest of his career.

  • He won only 8 again in '58, leading to his trade to the Kansas City Athletics early in the '59 campaign.
  • He contributed eight victories to the A's in '59 but dropped to just 4-10 with a 6.00 ERA in '60.
  • After three years in the minors with no call back to the majors, Johnny retired after the '63 season.
Reference: "Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, Peter Golenbock (1975)
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One Great Year: 1980 Oakland A's Starters
Four starters for the 1980 Athletics recorded the highest number of victories in their careers before or after that season.
  • This was no coincidence but rather a result of manager Billy Martin's phi­losophy.
  • Billy adopted the old school approach - he expected his pitchers to finish what they started.
  • As Ben Bolch wrote in 2011, "Slipping on an Oakland A's jersey as a start­ing pitcher 30 years ago meant being dressed for the nines. Come hell or high-water pants with socks pulled to the knees, Manager Billy Martin ex­pected his starters to throw a complete game - pitch counts be damned."

Here's the relevant statistics for the 1980 Athletics' top four starters, all right handers.

Pitcher Age W L ERA GS CG
Rick Langford 28 19 12 3.26 33 28
Mike Norris 25 22 9 2.53 33 24
Matt Keough 24 16 13 2.92 32 20
Steve McCatty 26 14 14 3.86 31 11

Oakland easily led the majors in complete games.

  • The A's 94 complete games topped second place Baltimore by a whopping 52!
  • The NL leader, St. Louis, had only 34 complete games.
  • Langford, Norris, and Keough ranked 1-2-3 in the majors in complete games. The NL leader, Steve Rogers, finished a paltry 14 starts.
  • Langford and Norris also stood atop the league in innings pitched with 290 and 284 respectively. However, Steve Carlton of the Phillies led the majors with 304 IP.
  • Langford twirled 22 consecutive complete games from May 23 to the end of the 1980 season.
  • Keough won AL Comeback Player of the Year after a 2-17 nightmare in 1979.

Martin claimed he wanted his starters to go the distance because he believed he had the best rotation ever assembled.

  • But, as you might suspect, the real reason was The Brat's distrust of his bullpen.
  • "Let's face it," Norris said. "We didn't have any Dennis Eckersleys out there."

Pitch counts were kept in those days but rarely used to determine when a starter should be pulled.

  • Langford averaged 110 pitches per nine innings. McCatty usually threw 130-140 pitches when he went the distance.
  • Each of the four pitched a 14-inning complete game during the 1980 sea­son. Norris needed 152 pitches to get through his marathon.
  • But that was nothing compared to McCatty, who fired an astronomical 207 pitches in his 14-inning stint. When Martin came out in the 11th to find out how his pitcher was holding up, McCatty told him, "I'm staying out here one way or another. I'm getting a win or a loss." It was a loss, 2-1 to the Mariners on Dan Meyer's HR.
  • The hurlers knew Martin was only going through the motions when he checked on them late in the game. "If you told him you were tired, he would look at you like you were less of a man," recalled Norris. "So I told him to get the hell out of there. Of course you're tired. But it's a gut-check. It's a matter of intestinal fortitude at that point."
  • Peer pressure built up also. One time, McCatty was shelled and lasted only 1 2/3 innings. So he came back the next day and lasted 8 1/3 in a victory over Seattle. CF Dwayne Murphy teased him, "What, you can't go nine?"

When Martin arrived in 1980, Oakland had fallen on hard times after winning the World Series three years in a row (1972-73-74).

  • 1975 - won the AL West but were swept by the Red Sox in the ALCS.
  • 1976 - 2nd in the West
  • 1977 - 7th, 38.5 GB
  • 1978 - 6th, 23 GB
  • 1979 - 7th, 34 GB with 108 losses

As he did every place he managed, Martin put a charge into the A's in 1980.

  • They went from 52 victories in '79 to 83, good enough for 2nd place in the AL West.
  • In 1981, the strike-shortened season, Oakland won the 1st half (pre­strike) West title by 3.5 games. Then they finished 2nd to Kansas City when play resumed but swept the Royals in the three-game playoff for the West crown. Then the Yankees swept them to take the AL pennant.

All that work took its toll on "the best rotation ever."

  • Langford never came close to 19 wins again, his highest being 12 in the abbreviated '81 campaign and 11 the following season. When he deve­loped elbow trouble in '83 after leading the club in innings for the fourth straight year, Rick didn't join the chorus of those blaming Martin for his plight. He completed only four years of a six-year contract before bottom­ing out at 1-10 in 1986.
  • Norris, the most promising of the four iron men, also won 12 in '81 but fell to 7, then 4, and was finished at age 29, in part because of drug use.
  • Keough continued with double-digit victory totals in '81 (10) and '82 (11, although with a league-high 18 losses) before dropping off to 5 in '83. Midway through that seaon, the Yankees traded for him but got only three wins for their trouble.
  • The story was essentially the same for McCatty. After topping the AL with 14 victories in '81, he won only 24 more over the next four years. Steve is currently the pitching coach for the Washington Nationals. (Does he pay attention to pitch counts?)

Billy Martin did baseball a favor in 1980-81 by showing that pitch counts are important and overworking your hurlers can considerably shorten their careers.

Reference: "Thirty years ago, Oakland A's pitchers generally finished what they started,"
Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times, 7/18/2011
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Billy Martin




Rick Langford

 


Mike Norris

 


Matt Keough

 


Steve McCatty