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Happy Birthday Boy! Remembering Early Wynn

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Early Wynn at age 43 (AP file photo)

On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.

Early "Gus" Wynn, who died in 1999, would've celebrated his 92nd birthday today. He's one of only two pitchers to finish his career with exactly 300 wins, sharing that distinction with the great Lefty Grove.

Wynn wasn't exactly a late bloomer, as he had a great year when he was 23, but between World War II and his own inconsistency, he didn't get established as one of the best pitchers in the American League until he was 30. And then he became one of the greatest old pitchers of all time. He won the 1959 Cy Young Award with the pennant-winning Chicago White Sox at age 39. The only older pitchers to capture the award were 40-year old Gaylord Perry in 1978 and 42-year old Roger Clemens in 2004.

Unfortunately, while Wynn played on two great teams, the early-to-mid-1950's Cleveland Indians and the late-'50s White Sox, he never won a World Series title. He arrived in Cleveland exactly a year after their 1948 championship, and he played in losing efforts in the 1954 World Series with the Indians and in 1959 with the White Sox. (The White Sox, of course, went from 1917 to 2005 without winning a championship. The Indians still haven't won one since 1948. Fortunately, no one in either city tried to write a specious article about the "Curse of Early Wynn.")

Best Year: 1956: 20-9, 2.72 ERA, 277 2/3 IP, 3.16 FIP, 1.17 WHIP, 1.74 K/BB, 8.2 WAR
Wynn became known early on in his career for a big fastball, but he was never much of a strikeout pitcher. Then again, few people were in those days. He finally led the league in strikeouts for the first time in 1957, when he was 37, with a modest 184 in 263 innings, just 6.3 per nine innings. He also walked more than his share of people, another good reason for his up-and-down results.

Wynn was apparently miffed that he didn't get into the Hall of Fame on his first try. He had to wait until 1972, nine years after he retired and four years into his eligibility. But the voters may have been right to hesitate. His career numbers certainly aren't bad by any means, but his 3.54 ERA and career 107 ERA+ indicates that when you took in consideration his whole career, all his good years and all his bad years, he was more solid than spectacular.

Even his 1959 Cy Young Award wasn't exactly deserved. Wynn won it over Toothpick Sam Jones, who finished with a much lower ERA, pitched in far more games because he was both the Giants' closer and ace starter, and was only one win behind Wynn's AL-leading total. Jones finished the year with 5.9 Wins Above Replacement, compared to Wynn's 2.7, and it seems hard for us to understand how voters justified awarding Wynn. But Wynn was 39, his team was playoff-bound, and he had never won before. And, though this is a far worse reason, it can't have hurt that Wynn's 22-10 record looked better than Jones's 21-15 record, though Jones had four saves and pitched in 15 games as a reliever in addition to his 15 35 starts.

Then again, Wynn should have won in 1956, when he probably was the best pitcher in baseball, but he couldn't get a single vote. So it all evened out in the end.

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Wynn (left) with commissioner Bowie Kuhn at the 1972 Hall of Fame induction. (AP)

Worst Year: 1948: 8-19, 5.82 ERA, 198 IP, 4.78 FIP, 1.67 WHIP, 0.52 K/BB, -1.6 WAR
You couldn't always count on Wynn for consistency, but you could almost always count on him for innings. The reason that Wynn took so long to get established is that he had a year like this in his late 20s. Arguably, he was even worse in 1942, when he posted a 5.12 ERA in 28 starts at the age of 22, but it's understandable for a young pitcher to struggle. In 1948, he was a 28-year old army veteran who had been an All-Star the previous season and who was in his eighth major league campaign. He probably should have known better.

As it happened, though, that was the absolute nadir for his career. From his first cup of coffee in 1939 through 1948, he was 72-87 with a 3.94 ERA. After that, from 1949 to 1963, he was 228-157 with a 3.39 ERA.

1948 was the absolute nadir, though his end-of-career quest for 300 was a little embarrassing. He was winless and stuck on 299 for nearly a year, from Sept. 9 of 1962 to July 12 of 1963. He finished the 1962 season with a 4.46 ERA and a 7-15 record, and by that point he didn't have much of a fastball left so he increasingly used a knuckleball he'd developed. The 42-year old looked done to every team in baseball, so he opened 1963 without an employer. April, May, and the first half of June all passed before the Indians finally took pity on him and signed him. It was the only year of his career in which he was mostly used him in the bullpen, making 15 relief appearances and only five starts.

But he was effective, finishing the year with a 2.28 ERA, and he deserved the win a week earlier — his 300th win came on a day when he allowed four runs in five innings, but he had received a no-decision in his previous start, when he had pitched six scoreless, and had actually taken a loss in his first start, when he pitched a nine-inning complete game allowing just two runs. So karma was finally on his side.

Claim to Fame: As his Hall of Fame page notes, "Early Wynn was also a switch-hitter who tallied 90 pinch-hit appearances, including a grand slam, making him one of five Major League pitchers to attain that feat." Wynn was actually a pretty decent hitter as pitchers go, amassing 6.3 WAR as a hitter to go with his 52 WAR as a pitcher. He also had two hits in the World Series, one in 1954 and one in 1959 — both doubles. (His hitting was more notable than his pitching, as he managed a 4.95 ERA in four World Series starts.)

But his true claim to fame will always be his time in the Indians rotation. Bob Feller and Bob Lemon both had more consistent peaks and shorter careers than Wynn; they were mostly done by their mid-30s while Wynn had a half-decade more excellent baseball left in him. Ultimately, he was third-best of the three. But there's no dishonor in that. It was arguably the best one-two-three punch in history — the only competition is Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, and that was 40 years later and a very different era.

Happy birthday, Gus.

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