The Orioles’ 10 Greatest Pitchers
Jim Palmer (1965-84)
The suave-looking Palmer, handsome enough to be a favorite of women by posing in underwear ads even after his Hall-of-Fame career was done, was the ace of aces on the great Orioles staffs of the 1960s and 1970s. That he never reached the 300-win barrier seems surprising, given that he was an eight-time 20-game winner and recipient of three AL Cy Young Awards. (Various injuries, some of them quite severe, were the culprits in keeping Palmer “restricted” to 268 career victories.)
Palmer introduced himself to mainstream baseball audiences when, nine days shy of his 21st birthday, he became the youngest pitcher to throw a shutout in a World Series when he blanked the Los Angeles Dodgers on four hits in Game Three of the 1966 Fall Classic. He would go on to appear in all six Baltimore World Series to date and compile a career 8-3 postseason record with a 2.61 earned run average.
Though he never got along with long-time Orioles manager Earl Weaver (with a feud that came to unfortunate light during a good-natured roast that turned ugly in 2000), Palmer made it hard for the feisty pilot to do anything but keep him number one in the rotation. And over 3,948 innings, Palmer never allowed a grand slam or back-to-back home runs.
A year after being enshrined in Cooperstown, Palmer made an ill-fated comeback attempt at age 45 with the Orioles, lasting just one appearance in spring training.
Mike Mussina (1991-2000)
The lean right-hander never won a “big” game nor a Cy Young Award, and his career 3.68 ERA is among the highest among Hall of Famers, but he was always a winner during his decade-long tenure in Baltimore, compiling a 147-81 record for the Orioles before moving on to the New York Yankees; his only full-time losing campaign occurred in his last as an Oriole, when he finished 11-15 in 2000.
What Mussina was best remembered for was his constant inability to just miss winning 20 games; with Baltimore, he twice won 19 and, twice, won 18. Had it not been for the 1994-95 players strike, Mussina (who won 16 in 1994 and 19 in 1995) would have likely reached the milestone at least once. (He finally reached 20 for the Yankees in 2008—his last season.) Even when Mussina’s ERA wasn’t scintillating, he managed to keep winning, as most notably recalled in 1996 when he won 19 games despite a substandard 4.81 mark. Mussina helped himself out on defense by winning four Gold Glove awards for the Orioles.
Urban Shocker (1918-24)
The best pitcher of the franchise’s St. Louis Browns days was given grandfathered permission to keep throwing the spitball after the pitch had been banned in 1920, but he rarely used it—instead using the threat of it to mess with opposing hitters’ minds. Scooped up originally by the New York Yankees after he had thrown 54 straight scoreless innings in the International League, he was traded to the Browns in a 1918 move that Yankee manager Miller Huggins would quickly regret. With St. Louis, Shocker won 20 or more games in four straight seasons, highlighted with an AL-best 27 victories in 1921. The Yankees got him back in 1925 and gave him four solid campaigns that somewhat paled with his time in St. Louis—and after suddenly being released in 1928, he developed heart problems and passed away in September at age 37.
Mike Cuellar (1969-76)
A master of the screwball, the Cuban-born Cuellar was a prime part of the parade of 20-game winners under the steerage of manager Weaver, averaging 21 victories per season over a six-year period (1969-74).
Following four well-thrown but frustrating seasons with Houston, Cuellar became a happy man in his first year at Baltimore by posting a 23-11 and 2.38 ERA, resulting in co-ownership of the AL Cy Young Award with Detroit ace Denny McLain. He followed that up a year later by winning an AL-best, career-high 24 games against just eight losses; he recorded his final 20-win campaign in 1974, at age 37, with a 22-10 record. Cuellar finally ran out of gas two years later when he finished 4-13.
Dave McNally (1962-74)
Like many pitchers who came to the Orioles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, McNally debuted in Baltimore before he could legally drink, making his first major league assignment at the age of 19. And like many of those pitchers, McNally succeeded—winning 20 or more games in four straight campaigns (1968-71) and leading the AL (along with teammate Cuellar) in 1970 with 24. And like Palmer, McNally threw a four-hit shutout of the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series—with his blanking finishing off the four-game sweep. His heroics at the Fall Classic extended to the batter’s box, where he homered against the New York Mets in the 1969 Series—and a year later, became the only pitcher to date to hit a grand slam in a World Series when he cleaned the bases against Cincinnati in Game Three.
McNally had a knack for winning streaks: Three times he won at least 12 straight decisions, including a run of 17 that tied an AL mark (to be later broken by Roger Clemens); 15 of those 17 wins started the 1969 season, tying another mark that still exists.
After his reign in Baltimore, McNally became known for challenging the longstanding reserve clause by playing without a contract for the Montreal Expos, in essence allowing him to become a free agent after the season; an arbitrator ultimately ruled for McNally and Andy Messersmith (who also played out his option year) to open the door for modern free agency. Rather than put himself on the market for the highest bidder, the 33-year-old McNally retired.
Steve Barber (1960-67)
Barber was a wild pitcher with uneven results throughout his career due to chronic pains that kept him from stringing together consecutive campaigns of success. His inability to hit the strike zone was apparent from the outset—in his rookie year, he walked more batters (113) than he struck out in 181.2 innings and racked up a career-high 130 walks in 1961, but it didn’t stop him from still being effective, registering 10-7 and 18-12 marks in those first two years with ERAs close to 3.00. Barber won 20 games in 1963, but injury issues continued to hamper his long-term outlook. The 1967 season, Barber’s last in Baltimore, was a wild contrast of ups and downs; in his first start of the year, he came within two outs of a no-hitter, and two weeks later was but an out away from another against Detroit—and lost it when the Tigers notched a run on two walks (Barber allowed 10 on the day) and an error before being removed from the game. Barber became a mess afterward and was traded to the Yankees at midseason.
Carl Weilman (1912-20)
The tall (6’5”) Browns’ workhorse for much of the 1910s was a perennial contender for the AL ERA title—finishing as high as third with a 2.06 mark in 1919—but his team was a perennial loser and he finished his career with an undeserving sub-.500 record. Not helping matters was Weilman’s deteriorating health; he had a kidney removed early in 1917 and missed the rest of that season as well as all of the 1918 campaign. He died of an illness in 1924 at the age of 34, just four years after pitching his last major league game. Weilman may have been paid the ultimate compliment from Ty Cobb, who said he was more trouble than any other pitcher he had ever faced.
Zack Britton (2011-18)
The Texas-born southpaw, whose Average Joe personality was unfortunately matched in his first few major league seasons with an average (at best) effort as a starter, made an eye-opening transition into a top-notch closer on the strength of a remarkable slider that averaged in the high 90s.
Through his first three years with the Orioles, Britton couldn’t shake a rotation ERA that hovered near the 5.00 mark. Stuck in the minors trying to claw his way back in 2013, he was chewed out and challenged by his older brother and teammate Buck, who believed he wasn’t giving 100%. Britton took the tough-love sermon to heart and changed for the good, and beyond. Winning over the closer’s role in 2014, Britton impressed with sub-2.00 ERAs and 73 saves from 2014-15. But that was a mild prelude for 2016, when he arguably put together the greatest season ever by a reliever, successfully converting all 47 of his save opportunities while posting a 0.54 ERA—the lowest ever by any pitcher logging 50 or more innings. In the midst of this spectacular performance, he set a major league record by not allowing a run over 43 straight appearances. But in the Orioles’ wild card playoff that year at Toronto, Britton made the biggest news in their 3-2, 11-inning loss by not getting the call; he was left fresh, ready and unused in the bullpen as the Blue Jays walked off with the overtime win. In an injury-marred 2017 to follow, Britton still managed to break an AL record with 60 consecutive saves successfully converted.
Britton was dealt from a rebuilding Orioles team in 2018 to the Yankees, where he contentedly bowed to performing set-up duties in advance of closer Aroldis Chapman. He soon after changed the spelling of his first name from “Zach” to “Zack”—and it wasn’t because “k” stood for strikeouts and “h” for hits allowed.
Milt Pappas (1957-65)
One of the prime components of the so-called “Diaper Squad” or “Kiddie Korps” of the early 1960s in Baltimore, Pappas made his major league debut for the Orioles at age 18 and gradually evolved into a trustworthy member of the rotation, winning 110 games over nine years without once suffering a losing campaign for the O’s. Unfortunately for Pappas, it was he who was traded to Cincinnati in the deal that brought Frank Robinson to the Orioles; while Baltimore went on to win its first world title with Robinson, Pappas began a far less happy baseball life with the Reds, frequently butting heads with teammates and management while fans unfairly booed him for what he represented as Robinson’s “replacement.”
Harry Howell (1904-10)
Like Weilman, Howell was a terrific pitcher victimized by his presence on a deadweight second division team. His ERAs in a tremendous five-year run with St. Louis between 1904-08 were 2.19, 1.98, 2.11, 1.93 and 1.89—and yet his record during this stretch was 77-90. Howell’s stingy efforts came courtesy of a heavily-used spitball learned from Jack Chesbro in his prior time at New York—a pitch so gunked up with spit that even his infielders winced at the thought of fielding something so slobbered, as if it had been handed to them by an over-salivated dog. (It also didn’t help their defense; of the 549 runs Howell allowed as a Brown, a third of them were unearned.) In 1909, Howell tore his shoulder early and never recovered, pitching his final game a year later.
Howell was no stranger to controversy; he was a handsome ladies’ man, which was fine except that he was already married (and then divorced, in 1907); and on the final day of the 1910 season, a retired Howell—now a coach for the Browns—infamously attempted to bribe a scorer to credit as many hits as possible for Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie, who was neck-and-neck with the hated Ty Cobb in a widely followed batting race. He was banished from baseball for his actions.
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