Denny McLain’s Unlikely Season

Denny McLain
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When relegated by stories of baseball heroics, one doesn’t often hear of Denny McLain. Typically, one tends to hear of names like Henry Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Babe Ruth, and the like. Those whose careers are immortalized in the brick coated halls of Cooperstown have their tales told time and again. True, all of these men deserve every accolade and award bequeathed upon them. However, there are those, like Denny McLain, who had one or two massive seasons. These are the unsung heroes who helped their teams to impressive heights, and terrific accomplishments.

In this series, we’ll be looking at those unlikely seasons whose memory has faded over time. Our inaugural subject had, quite possibly, the best pitching performance in major league history. For Denny McLain, it was a chance to prove his worth at the sport’s highest level. He had found some success, but nothing quite like the special season he had in 1968. This is the story of baseball’s last 30-game winner.

Denny McLain: An Overview

Denny McLain was a good, if unspectacular hurler for the first few seasons of his career. Certainly, the Detroit Tigers should have been very pleased with his overall performance. In 1965, he won 16 games while posting an excellent 2.61 ERA. The next season, he won 20 games and finished in the top 15 in MVP voting. He also made his first of three All-Star appearances. In 1967, he cooled off a bit, though he still won 17 contests. However, his ERA was pushing back up near four and his ERA+ had dropped to 86. He needed something of a rebound season, which is exactly what he produced.

 

The 1968 Tigers

Not only was McLain an excellent piece, he was part of one of the most astounding teams of the time. The 1968 Tigers finished at a sizzling 103–59–2. They won the American League pennant by a margin of 12 games over the Baltimore Orioles. Though their offense only managed a .235 collective average, they relied on an abundance of power (185 homers). Pitching wise, they were a machine. The entire rotation wound up in double digits in wins. They had a relief corps where most of the ERA numbers were below 2.50. At the head of this churning train was Denny McLain himself, ever consistent and ever dominant.

 

Denny McLain & The Dominant Spring

He began the year innocently enough, taking a no-decision in a game against the Boston Red Sox. His next start, against the Cleveland Indians, produced the same result. However, overall, his April was near the elite tier. He wound up going 2–0 with a 1.97 ERA while striking out 29 batters in 32 innings. Opponents were limited to a .203 mark off of him, and got on base at a minuscule .254 clip. They didn’t have much luck when putting the ball in play, either (.244 BABIP). While he did give up 24 hits, only six were for extra bases, and only three left the ballpark. All in all, it was a very confident month of April for the future Cy Young Award winner.

In May, Denny McLain suffered his first loss. However, that was in the middle of an incredible stretch of success. For five straight decisions, McLain had taken the positive outcome. He had also hurled complete games in each of those starts. If statistics are anything to be believed, he was beginning to look like a genuine superstar. Then, on May 15, he only lasted two innings against the Orioles, finally seeming somewhat human again. However, when his next start against the Minnesota Twins rolled around, he roared back with a 10-inning complete game win. Overall, he went 6–1 in May with a 1.89 ERA, 51 strikeouts, and a .202 opponents’ average in 57 innings.

 

A Roasting Hot Summer

June dawned, and the Tigers looked to stretch their lead in a tight American League. Indeed, after the last games in May, the entire grouping was only separated by 11 ½ games. McLain, at the head of the rotation, put together another spectacular month. After taking a no-decision against the New York Yankees, he won six of his next seven contests. The only blemish was a loss to the Indians on June 9, when he was out-dueled by Luis Tiant. Overall, Denny McLain went 6–1 with a 2.22 ERA for the month. He limited opponents to a .196 average, and a .228 on-base percentage with a .222 BABIP.

After his duel with Tiant, McLain put together one of the most impressive stretches in baseball history. From June 13 through July 16, he won nine consecutive decisions with eight of them coming by way of a complete game. He put up a sparkling 1.48 ERA and held opponents to a mere .217 average. It was only by running into fellow Cy Young hopeful Dave McNally and the Orioles on July 20 that McLain’s dominance was halted. Two starts later, on July 27, he would grab a piece of revenge and his 20th win on Baltimore’s home turf. The Tigers ace posted a 7–1 mark in July with a 1.93 ERA and a .181 opponents’ average. He also struck out 59 batters in 65 1/3 innings.

 

Finishing With A Bang

Then came August, where McLain would experience something he had yet to endure that season. He lost back-to-back outings. However, those were sandwiched around five more impressive victories. His 25th victory of the season came on August 16, with a complete game shutout masterpiece in Boston. He lost the next two starts, including an odd outing against the Chicago White Sox on August 20. He pitched into the sixth inning, allowing nine runs, with only two of them counting against his ERA. In any case, Denny McLain put forward another fantastic month, going 5–2 with a 1.40 ERA, a .205 opponents average, and 40 more strikeouts.

McLain finished his season by hurling 45 consecutive innings over his first five starts in September. He picked up his thirtieth victory on September 14, with yet another complete game performance over the Oakland Athletics. Ironically enough, McLain’s final two starts play as a reversal of his first two. He lost on September 23 against the Orioles and then took a no-decision in his final start on September 28 against the Washington Senators. No matter which way you look at it, it was a fitting end to an historic season. McLain went 5–1 with a 2.29 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 59 innings.

 

Denny McLain: A Legendary Season

In summary, Denny McLain’s 1968 season is the stuff pitching legends are written about. He had been a perfectly serviceable part of the rotation up until then. Once the ball dropped on that season, he found some kind of extra gear. What makes his season most impressive are the sheer amount of complete games he threw (an astonishing 28). He took home both Cy Young and MVP honors. In 1969, he backed it up by winning 24 more games, posting a 2.80 ERA, and winning his second Cy Young title. His career derailed severely afterwards, but for one fleeting moment, Denny McLain could have been considered a future Hall of Famer.

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Players Mentioned:

Denny McLain, Henry Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Babe Ruth, Luis Tiant, Dave McNally