It’s a valid question. In fact, I’m willing to bet that, of those of you reading this article: if you heard that name, your response would be exactly the same as the headline. Baseball history is filled with names and numbers that deserved better fates than the reactions they’ve gotten generations down the line. I doubt that Frank Tanana is on most people’s short list of guys who would pitch a game their life depended on, nor is he making many “All-Time” starting rotations either. Take a closer look though:
- 21 MLB Seasons (1973-1993)
- Career 3.66 ERA (Better than Jack Morris)
- 2,776 Strikeouts (More than Jim Palmer or Tom Glavine)
- 57.2 Career bWAR (More than Orel Hershiser or Johan Santana)
Tanana was a two sport star at Detroit Catholic Central High School, where he excelled in basketball (reportedly scoring over 2,500 points while there) and baseball. There, he allegedly turned down over 100 college scholarship offers to instead pitch professionally. He was taken 13th overall by the California Angels in the 1971 MLB draft, and made his Major League debut just two years later, at 19 years old.
He found his stride early, and from 1974 until 1979 Tanana posted a fantastic 2.92 ERA, including one ERA title in 1977, three All-Star appearances, 23 shutouts, and a 123 ERA+. Together with his teammate Nolan Ryan, Tanana helped anchor a rotation that proved to be formidable in the American League, even if the Angels—as a team—didn’t make a huge impact on the American League (in fact, they only made the postseason once in his time there, in 1979, losing to the Orioles in the ALCS).
During these years in California, Tanana relied on a combination of a devastating curveball and blazing fastball to get batters out. This was, of course, until multiple arm injuries caused him to miss chunks of the 1977 and 1979 season and forced him to reevaluate his approach to pitching—or risk ending his career before he reached the age of 26. He decided to take a more tactical approach, learning how to utilize “junk” pitches like the Forkball and Screwball to change speeds and deceive hitters. It would prove to keep him around a lot longer in the show: he managed to throw another 2,777 innings between 1980 and 1993.
“… He threw 90 in the 70’s, and 70 in the ’90’s…”Todd Kalas on Frank Tanana
He became the very definition of a “solid, back of the rotation” starting pitcher: averaging 4.03 ERA and throwing another 10 shutouts for the Tigers, Red Sox, Rangers, Mets, and Yankees over his very long career, and proving that a pitcher could re-invent himself and put together a solid career—even after having to change his approach. He ranks 35th all time in total Innings Pitched, and perhaps even more surprising, 23rd all time in strikeouts, with 2,773: just ahead of Cy Young, and just recently passed by Max Scherzer.
He made his way to the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot in 1999 and managed to get ::checks notes:: not a single vote.
Look, I’m not here to make Frank Tanana’s Hall of Fame case. The truth is, it’s flimsy at best. He was one of the classic “counting stat kings,” where most of his accomplishments are due more to his longevity than to the actual quality of his performance. (He, in fact, has more career WAR than Sandy Koufax, but when you compare his over 21 seasons to Sandy’s 12, it looks a bit less impressive). But his total goose egg at the ballot box gives him the distinction of being the player with the highest career WAR to receive exactly ZERO votes on a Hall of Fame ballot since the 5% first ballot eligibility rule came into effect in 1980.
So the next time someone asks you, “Who the F*#k is Frank Tanana?” you’ll be able to tell them: he’s the best player to bat a bagel at the ballot box.
I guess there are worse things, right?
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