#39 -- The 50 Greatest Rangers of All Time

One of the problems I have in putting together the top 50 rankings is how to deal with players who have long, illustrious careers, but spend only a portion of their time in Texas.  How to compare someone like that to a player who had a shorter, less dominant career, but spent most of that career with the Rangers?

That's part of the problem I had in deciding where to slot the latest entry in the list of the 50 greatest players in Ranger history.  This pitcher had two great seasons as a Ranger starter, a season and a half of not-so-great work in the rotation, and then was gone.  Moreover, he toiled during a period when the Rangers were about as bad as they have ever been.  However, he was also one of the best pitchers in baseball for a short time, a dominant flamethrower who was overworked early, and had to rebuild himself as a finesse pitcher in his mid-20s.  He was successful enough at this that he managed to hang around past his 40th birthday, win 240 games, and strike out 2773 hitters in 21 major league seasons.  His Ranger performance was almost a footnote to his career, an interlude between his team with the two teams he spent most of his career with, and is most readily identified with.

This pitcher, the 39th greatest Ranger of all time, is Frank Tanana.

Frank Tanana was your classic phenom, a hard-throwing lefty who was drafted in the first round of the 1971 draft by the California Angels.  Tanana went #13 overall in a remarkably unproductive first round.  Danny Goodwin went #1 overall (the first of two times he was the #1 overall selection in the draft), followed by the immortal quartet of Jay Franklin, Tommy Bianco, Condredge Holloway, and Roy Branch.  Other than Tanana, the only other impact players from the 1971 first round were Jim Rice (#15 overall), Rick Rhoden (#20), and Craig Reynolds (#22).  On the other hand, a pitcher from Detroit named "Sugar Bear Daniels" went to the A's at #17, which I feel redeems the draft somewhat.

Tanana tore through the minor leagues, dominating the Midwest League by striking out 134 batters in 129 innings in his first full season of pro ball in 1972, posting a 2.79 ERA.  Tanana moved up to El Paso in the AA Texas League in 1973, and continued to impress, pitching a whopping 206 innings in 26 starts (with 15 complete games), striking out 197 batters and logging a 2.71 ERA before jumping up to AAA Salt Lake City for two starts.

By early September, Tanana (who had just turned 20 years old two months earlier) had logged 220 innings, and nowadays, he would have been shut down for the season.  But this was a different era, and the Angels, impressed by what he'd done in the minors, brought him up to the majors for a cup of coffee at the end of the season.  

The 20 year old Tanana, along with 21 year old Andy Hassler, joined 26 year old Nolan Ryan in the Angel rotation in September, as the struggling California team was looking to its future.  His September 9, 1973, debut was rather inauspicious, as Tanana took the mound in game 2 of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals, and gave up 4 runs on 5 hits (including a homer by the immortal Rick Reichardt) and 4 walks, striking out 3 in 4 innings and picking up the loss.

Tanana bounced back just five days later, though, in his second major league start.  Facing the Royals again, Tanana picked up a complete game victory, allowing two runs on six hits, walking just one and striking out six.  

What is particularly striking about this game, looking back on it over 30 years later, is the way manager Bobby Winkles handled Tanana.  In 2006, a 20 year old making his second career start in a meaningless September game would be handled with kid gloves.  Winkles, however, sent Tanana out for the top of the 9th with a  3-1 lead, and stuck with him even after Hal McRae homered to bring the Royals within a run, and after Paul Schaal's two-out single brought the go-ahead run to the plate.  

Most managers nowadays would have brought in the closer for the 9th, or at the very least would have yanked the rookie after the McRae homer, wanting to preserve the youngster's confidence and make sure he didn't get saddled with a loss.  Things were different in the early 70s, though - particularly with the Angels, who were last in the A.L. in saves that season (with just 19), and first in the league in complete games with 72.  Consistent with that philosophy, Tanana was left on the mound to sink or swim, and was rewarded with a complete game and his first major league win.

Tanana continued the up and down pattern in his next (and final) two starts of the season, first getting slapped around by a bad Texas Ranger team that touched him up for 5 runs in 4 1/3 innings in the second game of a doubleheader in Arlington in front of a whopping 2,583 fans, and then finishing off the season outdueling Bert Blyleven with an electric 2 hit complete game shutout against the Minnesota Twins, in which he set down 9 Twins on strikes.

Tanana ended 1973 with a 2-2 record and a 3.08 ERA, striking 22 batters in 26 1/3 innings in his major league debut, a performance that was strong enough to get him a spot in the Angels rotation in the 1974 season and keep him in the majors for good.

Tanana's rookie campaign in 1974 was quite solid.  Joining Ryan and Hassler at the top of the rotation, Tanana started 35 games, completing 12 of them while logging 268 2/3 innings, striking out 180 men while recording a 3.12 ERA.  Even in a pitcher's park in a pitcher's era, the 3.12 ERA was impressive, good for a 111 ERA+, but Tanana still ended the season with a 14-19 record, owing largely to a bad offense that finished last in the A.L. in runs scored (and that also featured fellow Ranger top 50 member Mickey Rivers and future Ranger manager Bobby Valentine), as the Angels finished last in the A.L. West.

Tanana broke out in a big way as a 21 year old in 1975, and his next three seasons were remarkably similar.  After a solid first half in 1975, Tanana cranked it up a notch in the second half of the season, posting a 2.11 ERA over 15 second half starts, giving him a 2.62 ERA (136 ERA+) on the season and a 16-9 record.  Tanana tied for 4th in the Cy Young balloting with Jim Kaat, was 4th in the A.L. in ERA and WHIP, 1st in strikeouts and K/BB ratio, and tied for third in shutouts.

1976 and 1977 was more of the same for Tanana.  In 1976, he posted a 2.43 ERA (137 ERA+) in 288 1/3 innings with a 19-10 record, finishing 3rd in the Cy Young balloting, ERA and ERA+, tied for 4th in wins, tied for 1st in WHIP, 2nd in strikeouts (to teammate Nolan Ryan), 1st in K/BB ratio, 3rd in complete games, and 6th in innings pitched.  

1977 was more of the same, as Tanana posted a 2.54 ERA (154 ERA+) and a 15-9 record in 241 1/3 innings.  He was "only" 9th in the Cy Young balloting, despite finishing 1st in ERA, ERA+ and shutouts, 2nd in K/BB ratio, and 3rd in WHIP and strikeouts.  

Unfortunately for Tanana, he was performing this brilliance in a near-vacuum.  Tanana and Ryan were the only bright spots on bad Angels teams, as during this three year stretch, the Angels failed to finish above .500, and followed up a last place finish in 1975 with 5th place finishes in 1976 and 1977.

Nevertheless, during this period, Tanana posted some truly dominant performances.  He had 8 double-figure strikeout games in his breakout 1975 season, including a 13 K, 3 walk, 4 hit complete game shutout against a Boston team that would advance to the World Series that October, allowing just 2 runners to advance past second, and striking out Jim Rice and Freddy Lynn a combined 5 times in 7 plate appearances.

Later that season, on June 21, 1975, Tanana struck out an incredible 17 Ranger hitters while walking none in the first game of a doubleheader at Angels Stadium.  Despite giving up 2 runs and 9 hits, Tanana struck out every Ranger hitter once, and only Roy Smalley and Tom Grieve avoided whiffing twice in the 4-2 Angel victory.

Probably the defining Tanana game, though, was on September 22, 1975, against the Chicago White Sox.  The ChiSox and Angels came into the game tied for last in the West, and Tanana faced off against Jim Kaat in an absolutely meaningless game between two great pitchers pitching for two bad teams.

Tanana went 13 innings against Kaat and reliever Goose Gossage (who came in with two on and one out in the bottom of the 9th), allowing no runs on six hits, striking out 13, walking 3, and leaving the game with a no decision.  Gossage would end up going seven innings and picking up the loss, as Angel pinch hitter Adrian Garrett hit a 3 run walkoff homer in the bottom of the 16th to give California reliever Don Kirkwood the victory.

Take a step back and think about that...a 22 year old pitcher, left in for 13 innings in a meaningless September game, facing 46 batters, throwing, I'd estimate, 160-180 pitches.  

Little surprise, then, that by the end of the 1977 season, Tanana was showing the strain of the workload.  After a complete game shutout of the Baltimore Orioles on August 5, 1977 (his 9th shutout of the season), Tanana had a 2.06 ERA.  Tanana followed that up by allowing 5 runs in 5 innings at Boston.  Although Tanana would last at least 6 innings in his next five starts - and went 9 in his next two - he was clearly off his game, with his run and hit totals going up and his strikeout totals declining.  When Tanana allowed 9 runs and 21 hits in 13 1/3 innings in his final two starts, with just 7 strikeouts, the Angels shut him down for the season.

1978 saw Tanana begin to pay the price.  California finally turned the corner, record-wise, going 87-75 and finishing just 5 games back of first, but Tanana had his worst season, posting a 3.65 ERA (99 ERA+) in 239 innings, although his 18-12 record apparently was good enough to garner him a 10th place MVP vote.  After establishing himself as a dominant strikeout pitcher, Tanana's strikeout rate declined precipitously, as he K'd only 137 batters on the year.  And Tanana fell apart in the second half, posting a 4.41 ERA after the All-Star Break.  Although California was in or near the lead as late as early September, Tanana's second-half struggles contributed significantly to the Angels fading out of the race late.

By the end of the 1978 season Tanana, who had just turned 25 years old, had logged 1,541 innings in the previous six seasons (including the minors).  To put that in perspective, before the 2006 season, Kevin Millwood had thrown 1559 1/3 innings in his major league career.  

And looking at Tanana's most comparable pitcher list after 1978 (his age 24 season) is like reviewing a "Who's Who of Pitchers With Slagged Arms."  The top 10:

    Fernando Valenzuela
    Chief Bender
    Larry Dierker
    Denny McLain
    Don Drysdale
    Dennis Eckersley
    Gary Nolan
    Hal Newhouser
    Vida Blue
    Don Gullett

I count 1 dead-ball era pitcher, 1 success story, 1 guy who re-invented himself as a closer, and 7 guys on that list whose careers were de-railed by arm problems.  

1979 was the turning point for the Angels, as California finally got over the hump, winning the A.L. West on the strength, ironically, of a powerful lineup led by Brian Downing, Rod Carew, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich, and rather mediocre pitching.  Unfortunately for Tanana, he was a bit player for the team.  Struggling with arm problems that sapped him of his electric fastball, Tanana made just 17 starts, pitching just 90 innings, posting a 3.89 ERA and missing most of the summer after undergoing elbow surgery.  

After 38 games in his first four full seasons of at least 9 strikeouts, Tanana had no 9 strikeout games in 1978, and, incredibly, struck out as many as 5 batters only once in 1979.  The pitcher who completed 43 games over a two year stretch averaged barely 5 innings per start in 1979.  The pitcher who had been, with Nolan Ryan, an anchor for bad Angels teams was relegated to being the game 3 starter in the 1979 ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles, and scuffled to go just five innings for a no-decision in the only game California would win.

Tanana spent the next few seasons trying to re-invent himself.  Robbed of his killer fastball, Tanana became a finesse pitcher, relying on guile, offspeed pitches and a dynamic curve to hold on to a major league job.  

1980 was a disaster for the Angels, and not much better for Tanana.  The four top starters on the division winning Angel team were Nolan Ryan, Don Aase, Dave Frost, and Jim Barr.  Ryan departed after the 1979 season, signing with the Houston Astros as a free agent, Aase struggled and bounced between the pen and the rotation, and Frost and Barr were awful.  Brian Downing missed most of the season, Don Baylor and Joe Rudi were awful, Carney Lansford slumped, and the first place Angels ended up winning just 65 games and finishing 6th in the A.L. West, ahead of only the expansion Seattle Mariners.

Remarkably, the scuffling, mediocre Tanana was the Angels' best starting pitcher, going 11-12 in 31 starts, going 204 innings with a 4.15 ERA (95 ERA+).  The Angels, however, dealt Tanana that offseason, sending him, Rudi and Jim Dorsey to the BoSox for Freddie Lynn and Steve Renko.

This deal was considered a steal for the Angels, who took advantage of a mess of a situation where Lynn and Carlton Fisk had slapped the BoSox with grievances seeking to be declared free agents because the BoSox had failed to tender them with contracts for the 1981 season by the required deadline.  Lynn was dealt in the middle of his grievance hearing to California (where he wanted to play anyway) and signed a then-huge four year deal for over $1 million per year; Fisk, meanwhile, won his hearing and signed with the ChiSox, leaving Boston with nothing in return.

Tanana was thoroughly mediocre for the Red Sox in the strike-marred 1981 season, posting a 4.01 ERA (97 ERA+) with a low strikeout rate and a 4-10 record, and after Boston failed to make the playoffs, they let Tanana and Rudi both leave as free agents.

Tanana signed a two year deal at $400,000 per year to join the Rangers, and the A.P. had this quote that one can't imagine reading nowadays:

Being able to pitch in Arlington Stadium, he said, "definitely had weight" in his decision.
"No pitcher relishes pitching in Boston," he said of his former home field, Fenway Park. "You can't compare the two parks."

Yes, kids, in 1982, pitchers wanted to come to Texas to pitch.

The 1982 season was another disappointing one for Tanana, however.  In his Ranger debut, he gave up 6 runs in 3 2/3 innings in front of 32,563 at Arlington Stadium against the Yankees, giving up a three run homer to Willie Randolph, of all people, and allowing a couple of unearned runs due to a Buddy Bell error.  Former Ranger farmhand Dave Righetti handled the Rangers, a late rally was snuffed out with a Lee "left field is an idiot's position" Mazzili strikeout, and the Rangers lost Tanana's first start for them, 10-7.

Much like 1980 and 1981, in his first season for the Rangers, Tanana had a little below-average ERA (4.21, 92 ERA+), and although he was a steady presence in the rotation, his strikeout rate remained low, and he seemed destined to be little more than your generic "innings eater."  Tanana's record was particularly ugly...at 7-18, he was tied with Matt Keough for the most losses in the A.L., and a 4.88 second half ERA didn't bode well for the following season.

And yet, it appears that something happened between 1982 and 1983.  Though just 29 years old, Tanana started his 10th full season in the majors in 1983, and after spending the first four as a flame-thrower, Tanana had spent the next five trying to learn how to be a pitcher without a great fastball.  And in 1983, it seemed to finally come together.

Tanana didn't make his 1983 debut until April 21, and pitched out of the bullpen in a long relief for six weeks or so.  The first sign Tanana might have turned the corner was his third outing of the season, coming into a May 2 game against Toronto in the 4th inning in relief of Danny Darwin, with the Rangers down 6-4.  Tanana faced 16 batters in 4 shutout innings, striking out half of them, allowing just a hit and 3 walks, and keeping the Rangers in a game they ultimately lost, 6-5.

After allowing just 1 earned run in 17 relief innings, Tanana got a spot start against the Chicago White Sox on May 29, and although the Rangers lost, 3-2, Tanana acquitted himself well, giving up 3 runs in 5 2/3 innings, striking out 2 and walking none.  Tanana joined the rotation for good on June 10, getting his second win of the season by allowing just a run in 6 innings in a 4-2 victory over Frank Viola and the Minnesota Twins, with John Butcher (who would be traded to the Twins after the 1983 season) picking up the save.  

Tanana ended the season with a 3.49 ERA as a starter, and a 3.16 ERA on the season.  The Rangers finished the season with a 3.31 ERA and a 122 ERA+, both best in the A.L. by a significant margin, but were 13th in the A.L. in runs scored, batting average, OBP, and slugging.  Remarkably, although their Pythagorean record was 85-77, their actual record was the reverse - 77-85 - and the Rangers finished the season in third place in the A.L. West, 22 games back of the "winning ugly" Chicago White Sox.

Nevertheless, Tanana's strong performance led the Rangers to sign him to a contract extension, and Tanana rewarded the Rangers with another terrific season in 1984.  Once again, the team was bad (69-92, which was five games worse than their Pythagorean win-loss percentage, and combined with the previous season's performance, a damning indictment of manager Doug Rader), but Tanana made 35 starts, leading the team with a 3.25 ERA (128 ERA+), and posted a 15-15 record.  With 9 complete games and 246 1/3 innings pitched, Rader seemed convinced that Tanana was all the way back from his earlier injury problems.

The pinnacle for Tanana in 1984 was probably his performance against the Twins on June 13, 1984.  In front of less than 10,000 Rangers fans, in a game that lasted just two hours and four minutes, Tanana went 9 innings against Minnesota, giving up 4 singles and a Ron Washington double, along with 2 walks against 5 Ks.  Larry Parrish's bases-loaded double provided the only runs on the day, as Tanana won 3-0, for his first shutout as a Ranger, and only his fourth since 1978.

1985 was Tanana's last season with the Rangers.  After two quality seasons, the Rangers hoped that he, Charlie Hough, and Burt Hooten could provide stability for a rebuilding Ranger team, but that was not to be.  Tanana struggled mightily out of the gate for the Rangers, posting a 5.91 ERA in 13 starts.  Doug Rader was fired 33 games into the season, Bobby Valentine replaced him, and new g.m. Tom Grieve began remaking the team, making the veteran Tanana's days numbered with the franchise.

Tanana's last start as a Ranger was on June 18, 1985, at home against the Seattle Mariners.  The Rangers jumped out to a 6-0 lead after one inning, chasing Mariner starter Bill Wilkinson after just a third of an inning, and Tanana went five shutout innings before running out of gas in the 6th, getting pulled for Dave Rozema after giving up four runs on four singles and a pair of walks.  Still, the Rangers held onto the lead, and Tanana got the win, his second of the season, to bring his record to 2-7.

Two days later, Tanana would be traded to the Detroit Tigers for Duane James.  And whatever was plaguing Tanana with Texas was put behind him with the Tigers, as Tanana would post a 3.34 ERA in 20 starts for the Tigers.  

Just a couple of years after the trade, Tanana would be a key cog in the Tigers' 1987 division championship team, combining with Jack Morris and Walt Terrell to provide the Tigers with a solid top of the rotation, and helping lead the team to a 98 win season.  Once again, though, Tanana would be denied a World Series appearance, as the Tigers fell, 4 games to 1, to the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS.  Tanana faced off against Frank Viola, but allowed runs in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings before giving way to Dan Petry.  The Twins bullpen shut the Tigers down, and Tanana took the loss in a 5-3 defeat.

Tanana settled in as a reliable mid- to back-of-the-rotation starter for the Tigers after being dealt there by the Rangers, staying with them through the 1992 season, and other than 1990, giving the Tigers 31-34 starts per season, with an ERA in the mid-3s to mid-4s each season.  

After the 1992 season, the Tigers, in rebuilding mode, let the 39 year old Tanana leave as a free agent, after 7 ½ solid seasons.  Tanana signed with the New York Mets and suffered through an abysmal season, as a motley collection of mercenaries, including Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman, Bret Saberhagen, and Eddie Murray lost 103 games on a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball.  Tanana made 29 starts, posted a 4.48 ERA, and was dealt on September 17 to the New York Yankees for Kenny Greer.

Tanana made three starts for the Yankees, going 1-2, with his lone victory being in his final game, a 9-6 victory against his old team, the Detroit Tigers.  At the end of the season, the 40 year old Tanana called it a career.

Frank Tanana is truly a remarkable baseball story.  He's a cautionary tale about abusing young pitchers, a sad "what might have been" case, and an inspirational example of how you can succeed in the face of obstacles if you pick yourself up and never give up.  He had two careers, the short one as the hard-throwing young lefty who blew everyone away, and the longer one as the savvy vet who survived on guile and guts.

The first pitcher was the greatest one, no doubt, but the second one was pretty darn good, as well.  And the Rangers were fortunate enough to have two of the best years from that second pitcher, even if they were wasted on a couple of really bad teams.

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