Mike Flanagan, by all accounts, was a wonderful man. He played basketball with Julius Erving in college and said it was defending Erving in practice that taught him that he would be better off pitching. He won the Cy Young Award in 1979 — he won 23 games, had a 131 ERA+, struck out 190 — and he won 167 games in his 18-year career. He was famous for a quip — like when he said that the first time he went into the bullpen in New York, they told him to lock the doors — and famous for pitching for the last Baltimore teams that played baseball the Oriole Way, built around turning double plays and hitting the three-run homer. If you want to read about the man, and you should, there are plenty of places like here, here, here and so on.
Flanagan, it seemed to me as a fan, was the essence of that wonderful phrase: “Crafty Lefty.” I’ve always loved the way those two words bounce off each each other. They almost rhyme, but not quite. They evoke an image of a left-handed pitcher trying to hold off the world with a not-too-fastball, the guile of a street hustler and a certain unwillingness to accept the unlikeliness of it all. Mike Flanagan’s main pitch was a slow curveball, which on some days baffled hitters, and on other days looked to them like a balloon floating in the wind. But he kept throwing it and his not-too-fastball and a sinker and a change-up, and he would drop sidearm sometimes, and he would try to make every pitch at least one-mph slower or faster than anything else he had thrown that day, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but he kept on pitching, year after year.
And so, in Mike Flanagan’s honor, I’ve come up with the Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame. To find my first Crafty Lefty class, I came up with what I consider the quintessential Crafty Lefty performance. I decided this is it:
7 1/3 innings, 8 hits, 3 runs, 3 strikeouts.
Those are just starting points, of course. So I’m looking for lefties who pitched AT LEAST 7 1/3 innings, scattered AT LEAST 8 hits, gave up AT MOST 3 runs, and struck out AT MOST 3 batters. Mike Flanagan did this 11 times, tying him with other crafty lefties Bob Knepper, Ken Brett and his one-time teammate Mike Cuellar.
Here are the crafty lefties who have done it the most often over the last 50 years — and so, the first class in the Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame:
Crafty Lefty Hall of Famer: Tommy John (42 times)
— John was a CL before he had his own surgery. He probably became even craftier afterward. His big pitch before and after TJ Surgery was the sinking fastball, and it dropped hard. Over the last 50 years, nobody is even close to Tommy John when it comes to inducing double plays.
Most Double Plays (since 1961)
1. Tommy John, 605
2. Jim Kaat, 454
3. Gaylord Perry, 451
4. Phil Niekro, 431
5. Tom Glavine, 420
You might see a couple of crafty lefties on that list. In the five years before the surgery, John was 65-48 with a 113 ERA+ and a 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio. In the five years after the surgery, John was 90-45 with a 121 ERA+ and a less than 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio. He looked tantalizingly hittable, but he almost never gave up a home run in those after-surgery years (he led the league in home run percentage three times) and double plays helped him out of plenty of jams. John left hitters cursing themselves. Which is what a Craft Lefty should do.
Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame: Claude Osteen (35 times)
— Osteen was a three-time All-Star … but what’s interesting is that those All-Star years (1967, 1970 and 1973) turned out to be three of his worst seasons. One possible reason? Osteen throughout his career was a good early year pitcher. He was 99-89 with a 3.06 ERA in April/May/June. He was 97-106 with a 3.49 ERA in July/August/September. Maybe it just took hitters three months to figure him out. Osteen had a good slider and what batters called a “sneaky” fastball. He was very good in the postseason; he never gave up more than one earned run in his three World Series starts.
Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame: Scott McGregor (28 times)
— They were Baltimore’s Crafty Brothers — McGregor and Flanagan. Few people realize that McGregor, perhaps as much as any pitcher, was responsible for baseball’s building fascinating with the radar gun. McGregor’s fastball would not have gotten ticketed on Nevada highways, but his manager Earl Weaver didn’t use the radar gun for finding guys who could throw in the upper 90s. He though that the key to pitching was pitchers who threw at markedly DIFFERENT speeds. And so, using the radar gun, McGregor figured out how to throw his curveball in the low 60s, his good change-up in the low 70s, and then he threw his fastball as hard as he could, which was generally in the low 80s. That variety of speed led to a fine 13-year career which included a 20-win season and a shocking dominance over his childhood friend and former high-school teammate George Brett, who only managed to hit .222 off McGregor.*
*McGregor used to tell a story that, as we say in the journalism business, is too good to check. It is about how hot Brett was 1980, the year he almost hit .400. The two were playing golf, and Brett was sitting in the cart up by his ball when McGregor pulled a shot right at him. “FORE!” McGregor shouted, at which point Brett put down his beer, grabbed a club, and hit the ball in mid-air right back to McGregor. “Hit it again,” Brett said, and he went back to drinking his beer.
Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame: Mike Caldwell (25 times)
— Caldwell, like Tommy John and various other CLs, was often charged with spitting on the ball or scuffing it or something. He threw with a not-quite sidearm motion, and his ball dropped dramatically, even shockingly. In his best season, 1978, he pitched 293 innings and allowed only 14 home runs. That 1978 season would have been good enough to win the Cy Young Award many years, but that year a decided non-crafty lefty, the overpowering Ron Guidry, had one of the best pitching seasons of the era.
Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame: Paul Splittorff (24 times)
— This has been a tough year for the Crafty Lefty. Split died died in May. He and Flanagan were eerily similar — crafty lefties, contemporaries, both won 20 once, their walks and hits per 9 are almost identical (1.334 for Flanagan, 1.340 for Splitt. Flanagan had a 100 ERA+, Splitt a 101. Flanagan had 19 shutouts, Splitt had 17. Flanagan’s record was 167-143, Splitt’s was 166-43. Like I say, eerily similar. And, sadly, both died young.
As pitchers, they were not as similar. Flanagan, as mentioned, had that slow curveball and he relied on attacking hitters with different arm angles. Splitt did not throw especially hard, but he was a big guy — 6-foot-3 — and he was pretty conventional, and he came after hitters with fastballs at varying speeds. He didn’t throw a change-up very often, but really he tried to infuse every pitch he threw with the elements of a change-up. Hitters were never supposed to know how fast the ball would get there.
Other Crafty Lefty Hall of Fame nominees include Bill Lee (though, I’m not sure you can be both a Flake and a Crafty Lefty; I will have to consult with the baseball label rulebook), Geoff Zahn, the second half of Frank Tanana’s career, Ross Grimsley, Clyde Wright. Wilbur Wood seems like a first-ballot choice, but we still have to get a ruling on whether the knuckleball is “crafty.” Jim Kaat almost certainly deserves to be in the Crafty Hall, but he actually was pretty overpowering in his early years. Tom Glavine was a crafty lefty, but he’s not yet eligible and, anyway, he’s going to that other Hall of Fame.
Jamie Moyer figures to enter in his first year of eligibility.