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Luis Tiant: Cooperstown Injustice?

We put Tiant under the microscope to examine his HOF case.

Boston Red Sox Luis Tiant (23) on mound during game at Fenway Park. Boston, MA Photo by Dick Raphael /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Come Tuesday, January 24, the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2023 class will be unveiled. Regardless of who gets in this year via the BBWAA ballot, it’s an absolute certainty that the results will spawn debates.

Consider two returning names, Mark Buehrle and Andy Pettitte, who have seen gradual upticks in support amid a weaker class of first-time candidates. As of Monday morning, Ryan Thibodaux’s renowned tracker had compiled votes from nearly half of the voting body. Buehrle (in his 3rd year of eligibility) and Pettitte (5th year) were polling at 10.1 percent and 17.3 percent, respectively, with 179 ballots out.

And then there’s Luis Tiant.

Most who tune into Fish Stripes for Marlins-centric content may not even be fully aware of who Tiant was or why we’re dedicating prose to him and his career. After all, he first appeared on the BBWAA ballot in 1988, years before the Marlins franchise even came into existence.

Receiving 30.9 percent of the vote in his ballot debut, it wasn’t a stretch to think Tiant’s support could grow through the years and lead to an eventual enshrinement. Alas, that encouraging start would be but a tease—the native Cuban never garnered more than 17.2 percent on any future ballots before falling off in 2002. A closer examination into Tiant’s body of work suggests he was unjustly treated by voters throughout the process.

I have a track record of lamenting on HOF snubs who never got their day on the podium, including Kevin Brown, Reggie Smith and Dwight Evans. Why not add “El Tiante” to this historical series?

Through the lens of numbers—advanced and traditional—here’s why Luis Tiant may be more of a viable Hall of Fame candidate than you or I once considered.


“War, huh, yeah. What is it good for?” Well, it’s a good starting point for our discourse on Tiant.

WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, “measures a player’s value in all facets of the game,” according to, “by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position (e.g., a Minor League replacement or a readily available fill-in free agent).”

Using Baseball-Reference’s model, we see that Tiant was worth 66.1 WAR during his career. For context, the average for starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame is 73.

Tiant falls below the mean for enshrined starters, so why do we reference it here? We’ll defer to two Dons for argument’s sake, Drysdale and Sutton, both of whom are in the Hall:

Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Luis Tiant career comparisons

You have three pitchers from similar eras with nearly identical accrued value. Sutton, who paced the three with 68.3 pitching WAR, did so despite throwing 1,796 more innings than Tiant, or combining the latter’s innings total with that of Charlie Morton. If they’re in, so should he.

Further bolstering Tiant’s argument, the two pitchers with the highest career “Similarity Scores” to him, Catfish Hunter and Jim Bunning, are also immortalized on plaques in Cooperstown.


Baseball fans will remember this as the year of the pitcher, and for good reason. The league’s 7.91 H/9 from 1968 is tied with 1909 for the second-lowest mark in Major League history. That season’s .269 BABIP was the lowest in more than a quarter century, and the collective 2.98 ERA made for the first time since 1914 that MLB arms pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA.

Baseball fans will also recall 1968 as the year in which Detroit’s Denny McClain won 31 games for the eventual World Champion Tigers, something not accomplished in the 54-plus years since. Is it hyperbole to say that McClain’s magical season wasn’t even the best in his own league that year, though?

Look at what Tiant did in 1968:

Denny McClain vs. Luis Tiant 1968 comparison
Denny McClain vs. Luis Tiant 1968 comparison

Despite throwing 77 23 fewer innings than eventual Cy Young Award winner McClain, Tiant led the AL in shutouts (8), H/9 (5.23), FIP (2.04), Situational Wins Added (5.4), WPA (6.4) and pitching WAR (8.5). To boot, the then-27-year-old captured his first of two ERA and ERA+ titles, posting sterling 1.60 and 184 marks, respectively. Since Tiant and Bob Gibson—who authored a 1.12 ERA in the senior circuit that same season—only twice has a pitcher qualified for the ERA title with an ERA <1.60 (Gooden’s 1.53 in 1985, Maddux’s 1.56 in 1994).

Cleveland Indians Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

If only Tiant’s Cleveland crew had reached the ‘68 postseason, perhaps his individual dominance would be properly celebrated all these years later.

204, 118

Between 1964-1979, Tiant averaged 204 innings a season, pitching to the tune of a 3.21 ERA and 118 ERA+. His workload would’ve been higher had he not suffered a fractured right scapula in 1969 that some thought would signal the end of his career. Tiant also averaged 4.1 pitching WAR per season in that span, right in line with the Hall of Fame average of 4.5.

There is a surprisingly apt comparison to be made between Tiant and one of his contemporaries, Steve Carlton. Lefty, unlike Tiant, was consistently recognized among the sport’s top pitchers, winning 4 NL Cy Young Awards and 329 games before a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 1994. But from the period 1967-1984, was he really that much better than our article subject?

Yes, Carlton did throw nearly 1,500 more innings across this period, but the variances in ERA (3.04-to-3.21), ERA+ (121-to-118), and WAR/season (4.7-to-4.1) are so slim, they appear trivial in the grand scheme of things. Carlton’s career 115 ERA+ is also just 1 point better than Tiant’s 114. At their best, they were near equals.

But Is It Enough?

How is it that so many baseball writers determined that Tiant did not merit a checkmark in the box adjacent to his name on the HOF ballot?

For one, he never won a World Series. In his parts of 6 seasons with Cleveland from 1964-69, Tiant’s then-Indians never won more than 87 games, nor did they ever finish above 3rd in the American League. You certainly can’t shovel much of that blame on Tiant, of course.

When he did get to the postseason as a starter with Boston in 1975, he was awfully good, throwing 3 consecutive complete games, including a shutout in Game 1 of the 1975 World Series, finishing with a 2.65 ERA.

If Tiant’s aforementioned regular season numbers haven’t persuaded you, I’ll leave it to a first-person account:

Buehrle and Pettitte

Circling back to Buehrle and Pettitte, we see a vast array of similarities by way of WAR, adjusted ERA+, and win probability added.

Luis Tiant, Mark Buehrle, Andy Pettitte career comparisons

Buehrle’s career is predicated on durability, as he pitched at least 202 innings for 14 consecutive seasons. For what that’s worth, only 14 pitchers in MLB history have more than 14 200-inning seasons total. For Pettitte, it’s the five World Championship teams in New York. Those deep October runs allowed him to accumulate a record-setting 276 23 postseason innings.

Adjusting for the eras in which they pitched, Buehrle and Pettitte prevented runs in a similar fashion to Tiant.

With all of this in mind, where are you with regard to assessing the career of Luis Tiant? Will he attain baseball immortality once the Modern Baseball Committee reconvenes to vote in late 2023? That remains to be seen, but if it’s any consolation for being denied the sport’s highest honor, we ask that you not forget the man who beguiled hitters with his combination of stuff and stealthy hesitation.