Player: Like recent post Dennis Eckersley, Frank Tanana's career can be neatly divided into two distinct parts. Tanana wasn't converted to a bullpen specialist, but rather had to significantly alter his pitching style when he injured his high powered arm in 1977. Before we divide his career between flamethrower and junkballer status, let's back up to his rookie year of 1973 with the Angels. After a year and a half of seasoning in the minors, Tanana was called up to California where he made four starts. The 20 year-old did well with a shutout among two complete games while striking out 22 in 26 innings.
The former first round pick paired with Angels ace Nolan Ryan to give the Halos a fearsome duo that was the envy of the American League. Tanana could bring the heat close to 100 mph and in 35 starts in '74 he posted a 3.11 ERA in 269 frames. The next two years he K'd over 260 batters, posted ERA's of 2.63 and 2.44, and finished in the top five in Cy Young voting both years.
Tanana was dominating AL batters in '77 when he first started having trouble with his golden arm. His ERA was below two for the first half of the year and he was soaking up the innings like a sponge thrown into a bathtub. In one stretch he went the distance in 14 straight games. By the second week of September a sore triceps put him on the shelf. His stat line for the year showed a 2.54 ERA and seven shutouts, both best in the AL.
Tanana rebounded and had a solid year in '78 despite losing a lot of zip on his previously potent fastball. With his strikeout rate cut nearly in half he got by with good control and changing speeds. He had eight wins before May was over and in total won 18 games with a 3.65 ERA. Shoulder tendinitis caused a rocky first half to the '79 and eventually caused him to sit out for 11 weeks during the '79 season. He came back in September, rejoined the rotation, lowered his ERA under four, and helped the Angels win the AL West. Tanana went five innings in a no-decision start against the Orioles in the ALCS.
With his fastball long gone, Tanana adapted but was never the same. He was merely average in 1980 winning 11 with a 4.15 ERA. He was traded to the Red Sox in the Joe Rudi trade after the season. The lefty didn't pitch terribly (97 ERA+) for Boston but little offensive support led to him winning just four of his 23 starts in the strike shortened season.
Tanana signed with the Rangers as a free-agent prior to the '82 season but another season of low run support combined with a mediocre 4.15 ERA factored into an AL high 18 losses. Tanana found himself in the bullpen as the '83 season commenced but after allowing just four runs in 23 innings he was back into the rotation by June. Although his fastball was a tame 80 mph, he was an effective starter for the Rangers the next year and a half as he kept his ERA under 3.30 while he continued to throw various curveballs about 70% of the time.
When Tanana started off the '85 season by allowing 53 runs in his first 13 starts he was traded to the Tigers for a minor leaguer. I remember thinking Tanana was pushing 40 when the Tigers acquired him, and although his style was similar to a present day Jamie Moyer, Tanana was only 31 years old. Now back in his hometown, he pitched better for the Tigers as his 3.34 ERA indicates.
Tanana's ERA would hover around four the next three years and he was at his best late in the '87 season. As the Tigers overtook the Blue Jays in the last week of the season, Tanana was riding a hot streak having allowed just one run in his last 15 innings. He was given the starting nod in game 162 with the Tigers clutching a one game lead. Tanana delivered a six-hit shutout to seal the AL East crown. His usual fine control evaded him in the postseason as he walked four and plunked three Twins as he lost Game 4.
Tanana sandwiched a rotten '90 season with two decent years (3.58, 5.31, 3.77 ERAs). He won 13 games in '92 marking the seventh time in his eight years in Detroit that he won double digits. It would be his last year in Motown though as he left for the Mets as a free agent. He ate a lot of innings but wasn't anything spectacular in New York. A September trade to the crosstown Yankees put him in the thick of another divisional chase. Despite three quality starts, he was 0-2 in pinstripes bringing his record for the year to 7-17. His ERA+ of 93 showed he wasn't nearly as bad as his win-loss mark indicated but at age 40 the lefthander decided to retire.
Oddball: In a 4-2 win over the Rangers on 6/21/75 Tanana had 17 K's through 8 innings but failed to fan a batter in the ninth inning.
Tanana was an AL pitcher for all but one year in his career and reached base just 11 times in his time with the Mets. Yet Tanana has taught at least two NFL quarterbacks how to slide safely. Tanana instructed his neighbor Jim Zorn how to slide early in his NFL career. Later when Zorn was mentoring Charlie Batch, Tanana showed him how to end a scramble safely.
History: Tanana tends to get overlooked as many discredit the latter part of his career. He had an incredible peak posting 22.3 WAR over the '75-'77 seasons and was still a decent back of the rotation starter after his arm maladies, ending his career with a total of 52.6 WAR. He put up some impressive career stats including 240 wins, 616 games started (18th all-time), 2,773 strikeouts (21st all-time).
Tanana never won a World Series but will always be remembered for helping the Tigers win the AL East in '87.