The Twins’ 10 Greatest Pitchers
Walter Johnson (1907-27)
Time may have faded the legend of The Big Train on a household level, but there’s little debate among more knowledgeable baseball fans that he is ranked today as the greatest pitcher to take the mound since the birth of the modern era.
Slim but standing over six feet tall, Johnson wielded a side-armed motion to throw a sizzling fastball that was second to none in its day. He had no other pitch. He didn’t need one.
Many opponents found the heat too hot to handle; Cleveland’s Ray Chapman once took two quick fastballs from Johnson and gave up, telling the umpire before heading back to the dugout: “You can have the next one. It won’t do me any good.”
The Senators grabbed the Kansas-born, Idaho-bred Johnson after hearing unbelievable tales of his heater in the minors. Playing for a rotten Washington team that pegged more losses than wins upon him, Johnson was sharp from the start but generated little attention—but that changed toward the end of his second year when he was given the unenviable chore of starting three games in four days against the New York Highlanders. The mild-mannered Johnson accepted the task—and threw shutouts in all three games.
During the 1910s, Johnson owned opponents as no other pitcher before or since. In those 10 years, he won 265 games (losing only 143), saw his earned run average rise above 2.00 only once (2.21, in 1917), led the American League in strikeouts every year but one and averaged 348 innings per year—finishing 327 out of 361 starts. He tied an AL record with 16 straight wins in 1912, had another streak of 14 a year later, and his mere presence alone was enough to turn an otherwise mediocre Washington team into occasional contenders.
Though he would play all 21 years of his major league career with the Senators, Johnson gave the team a scare when, at the peak of his game in 1914, he signed with the Chicago entry of the newborn Federal League. Washington owner Clark Griffith and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, mutually fearful of Johnson’s move—one was losing his star, the other was looking at him as potentially serious crosstown competition—anted up enough money to match the FL offer to Johnson; he agreed and remained a Senator for $10,000 a year.
In 1920, Johnson threw the only no-hitter of his career—an error kept it from being a perfect game—but he woke up the next morning with a terribly sore arm that didn’t recover, keeping him out for the final two months of the season. It ignited a mid-career crisis in which Johnson, at age 32, lost his dominant edge. A renaissance didn’t occur until the Senators’ championship season of 1924, when Johnson returned to ace-of-aces form with AL bests in wins (23, against just seven losses), ERA (2.72) and strikeouts (158); he won 13 straight games down the stretch, and opponents could only hit .224 against him on the season—an eye-opening figure in the time of offensive supremacy within the game. In his first, long-overdue World Series appearance that year against the New York Giants, a nervous Johnson lost two starts but worked four critical shutout frames of relief in the 12-inning, Game Seven victory that gave the franchise its first and only world title in Washington. A year later, the Senators returned to the Fall Classic again, not just on Johnson’s pitching (20-7 with a 3.07 ERA) but his bat as well, hitting .433—a record for a pitcher.
When Johnson wrapped his career in 1927, he had logged 417 wins—the most by any pitcher since 1900—a major league-record 110 shutouts (only 12 modern-era pitchers have even half that total), and 3,509 career strikeouts, the high-water mark in the majors until the 1980s.
Johnson tried his hand at managing but found the going turbulent. Despite leading the Senators to three 90-plus wins in four seasons, he was let go because Griffith didn’t find his laid-back personality aggressive enough; it was worse for him during a three-year stay in Cleveland, where it seemed everyone grew to dislike him for a complex, almost inexplicable range of reasons. He was among the first five men voted into the Hall of Fame in the late 1930s.
Johan Santana (2000-07)
The Venezuelan-born southpaw, in his first three years with the Twins, showed great raw talent but uneven results; used initially as a reliever, his early wildness was best reflected in the fact that he led the AL in 2002 with 15 wild pitches—despite accumulating only 108.1 innings. Still frustrated a year later, Santana finally got his first crack at the starting rotation because the low-budget Twins couldn’t afford a star pitcher to take up a rotation spot in their run for the playoffs; when Santana won eight straight decisions down the stretch, it became clear that, all along, they never needed to get one.
Santana’s strong second half of 2003 would pale in comparison to what he had in store after the All-Star break a year later; after a sluggish start to the year, the fastballer slyly mixed in change-ups and the curve to go 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA, allowing just 55 hits in 104.1 innings, to finish the year at 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA and the AL Cy Young Award. Two years later, in 2006, Santana won a second Cy—with a 19-6 mark and 2.77 ERA—to cap an outstanding three-year stretch in which he was 67-22 and led the AL in strikeouts all three seasons.
After a modest 2007 campaign (15-13, 3.33 ERA) highlighted by a franchise-record 17 strikeouts in one game, the Twins sent Santana to the New York Mets for four prospects a year before he was to become eligible for a huge free-agent payday. He finished the Minnesota portion of his career with 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings, tops in franchise annals—even higher than Walter Johnson. He would win one more ERA title in his first year with the Mets—and eventually give that franchise its first-ever no-hitter—but frustration would set in with a lack of big numbers in the win column and evolving shoulder problems that would cost him major time on the mound.
Dutch Leonard (1938-46)
No relation to the namesake from the deadball era who owns the mark for the lowest-ever season ERA (0.96), the right-handed Leonard was the best knuckleballer of his time and tops of a collection of four knucklers who ruled the Senators rotation during World War II.
Leonard didn’t develop the knuckleball until after a failed stay in Brooklyn in the mid-1930s; with the Senators, the unique pitch paid off quick dividends. In his second year at Washington in 1939, Leonard was 20-8—a particularly impressive mark considering the Senators in general where a lame 65-87. Hard luck caught up to Leonard the next year when he led the AL with 19 losses despite a slightly better ERA.
Classified a 4F and thus rejected for military service, Leonard found it increasingly easy to confound wartime replacement players with his full assortment of pitches beyond the knuckler. By the numbers, Leonard had his most efficient season in 1945, finishing at 17-7 with a career-low 2.12 ERA. Despite the often unpredictable, wayward nature of the knuckleball, Leonard never suffered control problems, walking barely two batters per nine innings pitched.
Leonard completed 130 games and threw 23 shutouts for the Senators; with plenty of life left in his arm, he would pitch seven more seasons in the National League, finishing his career at age 44 with 191 lifetime wins.
Camilo Pascual (1954-66)
The Havana-born Pascual, one of the more prized players to come through the Senators’ active “Cuban Express” pipeline before Fidel Castro shut it off, was 28-66 through his first five seasons and lost 66 more games over the next six years—but this time, with 100 wins, thanks to the development of a curveball that was widely regarded as one of the best in baseball. When Pascual finished below the .500 mark (at 15-16) for the only time during the latter stretch, he did so with a career-high eight shutouts to lead the AL.
As Pascual’s increased fortunes mirrored those of the franchise as it settled into Minnesota and became contenders throughout the 1960s, he racked up numerous accolades almost through anonymity, despite his appearance on five All-Star Game rosters. A two-time 20-game winner (in 1962-63), Pascual led the league three times each in shutouts, strikeouts and complete games. The more strikeouts he collected, the less walks he gave up—overcoming early control problems.
Pascual’s potential moment in the Twins’ World Series spotlight of 1965 was dimmed when, after an 8-0 start to the season, he missed much of the second half and was not at top form by the time he made his one and only postseason appearance, an uninspiring outing that led to a 4-0 loss to Los Angeles. Two years later, he was traded to the second version of the Senators where he enjoyed a few more solid years before rough times set in.
Joe Nathan (2004-11)
Drafted as a shortstop and groomed as a starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, Nathan struggled to find his place in the majors until the Twins stole him, along with pitchers Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser, for catcher A.J. Pierzynski (who bombed with the Giants); at Minnesota, Nathan was given the ninth-inning role and instantly developed into one of the game’s premier closers.
In his first six years with the Twins, Nathan earned 246 saves, an average of 41 a year—and blew only 25 other opportunities. During this stretch, he produced a 1.87 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning) and opponents hit below .200 against him. Perhaps the one thing that kept Nathan from absolute greatness was his failure in the postseason; in six playoff appearances for the Twins, he saved one game, blew one, lost another game and walked six batters in 7.2 innings for a 4.70 ERA.
Nathan’s terrific run came to a screeching halt prior to the 2010 season when he had to bow to Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow. He didn’t regain his form until after he left for the Texas Rangers in 2012, a year after struggling to bounce back with the Twins.
Jim Kaat (1959-73)
A four-decade pitcher whose career began in 1959 and ended in 1983, the tall (6’4”) southpaw was a solid mainstay in the Twins’ rotation throughout the 1960s, and currently lists as a distant second to Johnson as the franchise’s winningest pitcher with 190 victories.
After starting his career with a 10-24 record through his first three seasons, Kaat changed course and won 18 games in 1962; staying true to Sparky Anderson’s adage that every good pitcher has at least one great year, Kaat enjoyed his one sensational effort in 1966 when he led the AL with 25 wins, 19 complete games and 304.2 innings pitched to go with a 2.75 ERA. He would remain a Twin until 1973, when he and teammate Jim Perry became the first pair of American Leaguers to assert their right to refuse or accept a trade via the newly-established ten-and-five rule—having played 10 years in the majors, five of them for one team. Kaat accepted a move to the White Sox, where he would compile his two other 20-win seasons in back-to-back years, 1974-75.
Kaat’s best friend was his glove; he would win 16 Gold Gloves at the pitcher spot throughout his career, the most by any player at any position until Greg Maddux. He was also known to throw the quick pitch, which occasionally riled opposing batters; he confirmed the assertions, because “if the game lasts more than two hours, my pitches turn into pumpkins.”
Firpo Marberry (1923-32, 1936)
Worried that an aging (yet still good) rotation would start losing stamina in the late innings during the mid-1920s, the Senators decided to let the fastball-throwing Texan take over to preserve leads built up through the first six-to-eight innings. And with that, Marberry became baseball’s first iteration of the modern closer.
In 1924, he set a major league record with 15 saves; a year later, he tied it and, a year after that, reset the mark with 22. That figure would hold in the record book until 1949, when the New York Yankees’ Joe Page erased it. All told, Marberry would lead the AL in saves five times and appearances six times. Showing off his pure colors as reliever, Marberry set a then-big-league mark in 1925 by taking the mound 55 times without a single starting assignment.
For Marberry, the transition to full-time reliever would begin to reverse itself in the late 1920s, proving that he was just as good at starting as he was finishing. He would throw 64 complete games for Washington, five of them by shutout; in 1929, he pulled off the rare feat of leading the team in both wins (19) and saves (13). He would finish his Senator career with a 117-71 record, and is currently seventh on the franchise list in saves—an impressive placement considering the proliferation of full-time closers over the last 50 years.
Frank Viola (1982-89)
One of 11 rookies who endured a baptism by fire for the 1982 Twins (who lost 102 games in their first year at the Metrodome), Viola regrouped and paved over those bad memories with a much sweeter existence later in the decade.
In his first two seasons, the wiry, mustached southpaw was a collective 11-25 with a 5.38 ERA; in his sophomore 1983 campaign, he gave up more runs (141) than anyone else in the majors. But when Minnesota pitching coach Johnny Podres helped arm Viola with a change-up to go with an existing fastball and curve, Viola became a new man—turning in an average record of 19-11 over the next five years, and becoming a highly dependable ace for a 1987 Minnesota rotation that lacked serious depth but still managed to snag the World Series trophy—with Viola taking series MVP honors with two wins despite a hardly-wowing 3.72 ERA.
Viola’s run in Minnesota peaked in 1988 when he led the majors with 24 wins (against just seven losses), authored a fine 2.64 ERA and became the second Twin (after Jim Perry, in 1970) to win the AL Cy Young Award. After a blasé 8-12 start in 1989, Viola was dealt to the Mets for four players in a trade that was uncannily similar to the Johan Santana deal 18 years later—except that in this case, the Twins benefited from the players they received, as closer Rick Aguilera and starting pitcher Kevin Tapani would be critical components of the world champion Twins of 1991. Viola, meanwhile, gave the Mets a 20-win season in 1992—but slipped to common status in the few years to follow before injuries and age ended his career in 1996.
Jim Perry (1963-72)
A starter through his first four-plus seasons with Cleveland, where he was good enough to lead the AL with 18 wins in his second year, Perry was sent to the Twins in 1963 and, over the next five years, found himself being shuttled back and forth between the rotation and bullpen despite achieving some consistently good numbers. It took Billy Martin, a former teammate from Cleveland who was given the Twins’ managerial reins in 1969, to restore faith in Perry as a full-time starter, with electric results.
In his first year under Martin, Perry produced a 20-6 record and 2.82 ERA—and followed it up a year later with a 24-12 record (tying two others for the AL lead in victories), a 3.04 ERA and his name on the AL Cy Young Award. Sudden control problems took hold over the next few years and heavily affected his game; he was let go by the Twins after 1972, but not before three more years of mixed results that finished his career with 215 wins. Combined with the 314 won by his more famous brother Gaylord, the Perrys’ 529 wins became the most accumulated by a pair of major league brothers.
Bert Blyleven (1970-76, 1985-88)
A model of quantity as much as quality, the Netherlands native was an eternal workhorse who was one of a handful within the game to claim a major league victory before turning 20—and after turning 40. In two separate stays at Minnesota nearly 10 years apart, Blyleven accounted for nearly half of his career victory total of 287—and half of his 250 lifetime losses—wearing the uniform of the Twins.
In his first tour with the Twins, Blyleven was consistently eating up innings and posting sub-3.00 ERAs—but still had a hard time shaking the .500 mark; when he won 20 games for the first and only time of his career in 1973 with a career-low 2.52 ERA, he still lost 17. He left the Twins on an extremely hostile note midway through the 1976 season, giving Minnesota fans the finger after being removed in an unsuccessful attempt to win his 100th career game; after the game, he publicly called vilified Twins owner Calvin Griffith a “fat (bleep)” for paying him too little. A day later, he was gone—traded to Texas.
Following time with the Rangers, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Blyleven returned to Minnesota (under new ownership), practically picking up where he left off with a multitude of numbers, both good and bad; he continued to eat up innings and rack up .500 records, earned a 3-1 record with a 3.42 in the Twins’ successful 1987 postseason campaign, but also gave up a major league-record 50 home runs in 1986 and an AL-worst 17 losses in 1988.
Although he never won a Cy Young Award nor led a league in wins or ERA, Blyleven’s career sum total of numbers was enough to land him in the Hall of Fame, albeit on his last eligible ballot.
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