Sunday, September 21, 2014

#427 Joe Cowley

Card thoughts: I thought this Joe Cowley was this jerky Sun-times columnist, but apparently I was wrong.

The player: Cowley spent 9 years in the Braves system, but never pitched much with them in the majors—which is telling, because from 1981-1984 (when Cowley was at AAA), their major league pitching staff was no great shakes.

After essentially being released by the Braves in 1983, Cowley was picked up by the Yankees as AAA insurance for their starters. But the Yankees only had Ron Guidry and Phil Neikro as regular starters that year, and Cowley was rotated into the rotation in July. He performed surprisingly well, going 9-2 with a 3.68 ERA.

Cowley was even better in the season shown on this card. With a 12-6 record, with winning percentage was in the top ten in the league. He was helped by the Yankees high power offense, however, as his peripherals that season were pretty bad: 85 walks to 97 strikeouts, and 29 home runs given up in just over 159 innings. Cowley couldn’t even field well.

Realizing they had lightning in the bottle, the Yankees made a rare wise trade (for the time), and sent Cowley to the White Sox for Britt Burns and a few minor leaguers. With the Sox, he continued to walk tons of guys, although his strikeouts were up a tad. His 11-11 record wasn’t so great, however, although some of that can be attributed to the poor White Sox offense backing him up.

But notably, Cowley threw one of the more improbable no-hitters in major league history. You usually think of no-hitters as a crisp, well-thrown game. This was decidedly not. Cowley was in trouble all game, and at one point walked three batters in a row (with no outs). However, he got out of it by just giving up a sacrifice fly. Those three walks were out of seven on the day, and he won the game 7-1.

Cowley would never win another major league game. He went 0-2 the rest of the season, and then gave up 17 hits and 21 walks in just 11 2/3 innings with the Phillies in 1987 (he only made it past the fifth inning in one of those four starts. He gave up 7, 5, 5 and 6 runs in those starts. ). So Cowley is the last pitcher to have his last win be a no-hitter.

Rear guard: You might think Cowley was a veteran by looking at this card back, but no. Those are almost all minor league teams. Topps standard back then was if a player had less than 3 years experience, they showed the minor league record. If you squint hard, you can see he played with the Braves (tucked away in there in 1982).

As a kid, though, all those unknown towns were exciting. Cowley’s best minor league year as a starter was with Greenwood in 1978, where he went 11-7. Greenwood was part of the now defunct Western Carolinas League (which changed its name in 1979 to the South Atlantic League). Greenwood had been a Braves affiliate since 1969, but didn’t survive the initial transition to the South Atlantic League (they later had three years as a Pirates affiliate).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

#426 Brewers Leaders

Card thoughts: The Brewers finished in 6th place in the AL East with 90 losses. They were an aging team, still trying to hold on to the veteran hitters than brought them the pennant in '82. Unfortunately, they never developed many young pitchers in the intervening years.

The player: Another prominent Brewer to make their debut in 1973: Gorman Thomas.

Rear guard: The surprise here is that Robin Yount didn't lead the team in any offensive category. A shoulder problem limited him to just 122 games. Teddy Higuera, a 27-year old rookie from the Mexican League, made a big splash with the Brewers in '85. And I do not remember Danny Darwin being on the Brewers.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

#425 Larry McWilliams

Card thoughts: Topps did a good job capturing what made McWilliams effective: A deceptive delivery.

The player: McWilliams was the Braves’ #1 draft pick in 1974 (in January—there used to be two drafts a year). Most of the guys in that draft didn't make it to the majors, and Roy Smalley was the only player better than McWilliams that was chosen.

A starter for the first part of his career, McWilliams 9-3 record as a rookie (with a 2.82 ERA) showed promise. In addition, he was one of the pitchers that stopped Pete Rose's 44 game hitting streak that year. But he would struggle as a starter as he made just 13 starts in 1979 while getting injured, and when healthy in 1980, went 9-14. Seemingly in desperation, he went to a quick no wind-up, pitching motion that served to make hitters uncomfortable at the plate. This made McWilliams’ forkball even more devastating, although it wasn't until a trade to the Pirates that it began to show.

After year in 1981 that he spent almost entirely at AAA (he made just 5 starts), McWilliams began the year with the Braves, but as a reliever, rather than a starter. His 6.21 ERA was the highest in his career, so the Braves gave up on him, shipping him to the Pirates for Pascual Perez.

With the Pirates, McWilliams had a great season as a starter, going 6-5 with a 3.11 ERA. The next year, his 15 wins were sixth in the league, and that year he was in the top ten in many other pitching categories as well. McWilliams last year as a full time starter was 1984, where his numbers slipped to 12-11, more because of the poor play of the Pirates.

By the time this picture was taken, McWilliams was a swingman, starting only 2/3 of the games he pitched. He was less effective in this role, and his 3-11 record in 1986 (1-8 as a starter), told that tale. In 1987 he pitched so badly, he was a briefly out of baseball. But the Cardinals took a chance on him the following year, and he was a durable, if not spectacular, spot starter and long reliever for them. Another year followed with another abysmal winning percentage, this time for the Phillies (.154). McWilliams would end his career with the Royals in 1990 on May 12. He threw just one pitch in that game, and it was stroked for a RBI double by Lance Johnson.

Rear guard: McWilliams' first win came against the Mets in his major league debut. He gave up no runs, and five hits in 7 innings, walking 2 and striking out 2.