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Forgotten Greats: Seven A’s starting pitchers we should remember more often

Not the most famous names, but they dominated in Oakland

Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles
Ken Holtzman
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

On Saturday, we took a look at some forgotten stars from Oakland A’s history, with seven hitters we should remember more often.

The inspiration was a tweet from Fox Sports analyst Ben Verlander:

What player was absolutely dominant for a period of time but is mostly forgotten about today?

I’ll start: Travis Hafner

The A’s hitters we discussed were:

  • Bill North
  • Mitchell Page
  • Dwayne Murphy
  • Tony Armas
  • Carney Lansford
  • John Jaha
  • Mark Ellis

North and Lansford were overshadowed members of loaded championship teams, Murphy and Ellis had long underrated careers here, Armas nearly won an MVP, and Page and Jaha burned brightly for one amazing season apiece.

Now let’s check out some pitchers! There are lots to choose from, so I’m making this list about just starters and then we’ll do another post for the bullpen. Remember, we’re not looking for the most famous stars here, but rather players who were briefly and/or quietly great.

Ken Holtzman

The 1970s three-peat champions were loaded with big names, from pitchers like Catfish, Rollie, Vida, and Blue Moon, to hitters including Reggie, Campy, Sal, Rudi, Tenace, and Fosse. I don’t understand why Holtzman isn’t toward the top of that list of legends.

The lefty was a star during the regular season. He made the All-Star team in both 1972 and 1973, and then was strong again in 1974, throwing at least 250 innings each year with a combined 2.85 ERA (115 ERA+). Toss in another similarly solid campaign in 1975, and he racked up an impressive 11.0 bWAR or an even better 16.5 fWAR during four summers in Oakland.

He was even better in the postseason. During the three title runs he made 10 total starts, eight of them resulting in A’s victories, with a sparkling 1.97 ERA to show for his effort. Among his top performances, he finished an 11-inning complete game win in the 1973 ALCS, won Game 7 of the World Series that year, and tossed a shutout in the 1974 ALCS, and he was the starter for two Oakland victories in each Fall Classic — that’s half of all their WS wins those years.

He even chipped in at the plate in October, hitting a double and later scoring in 1973 World Series Game 1 and again in Game 7, then doubling and scoring yet again in 1974 World Series Game 1, and homering in Game 4. Overall he went 4-for-13 in the playoffs, with all his hits going for extra-bases, and he came around to score a key run after each of them. If he did that today we’d call him Ohtani, or at least Bumgarner.

He didn’t make the Hall of Fame, and he was only in town for four years during a long career in the majors, and he didn’t have a cool nickname, but Holtzman was one of the absolute pillars of the Swingin’ A’s dynasty. He helped them get to the playoffs, and once there he stepped up each time to lead them through. It’s easy to conclude that they would have won fewer than three rings without him, and he deserves a lot more attention among the pantheon of Oakland heroes.

Mike Torrez

The A’s were swept out of the 1975 ALCS, and the dynasty officially ended as the championship team broke up. Some of the stars left as free agents and others were traded, but just about everybody was gone within a few years of the final champagne cork in ‘74. One such trade sent Holtzman and Reggie to the Orioles for a package including Torrez, an established veteran starter in his prime who was coming off a 20-win campaign.

While losing a pair of longtime favorites was a shock, Oakland didn’t come out of the deal empty-handed, getting everything they could have hoped for out of Torrez. In 1976 the right-hander finished fourth in the league with a sparkling 2.50 ERA, in a heavy workload of 266⅓ innings, earning him between 3-5 WAR depending which scale you ask. What’s more, Vida was still in town, and they combined for a fearsome duo atop the rotation and earned 34 wins between them, which was a thing people counted back then.

The A’s nearly returned to the playoffs again that year, missing by only 2.5 games in the AL West with an 87-74 record, and maybe if they’d made it we’d remember more about that summer. Instead it serves as a marker for the end of an era, a forgettable epilogue tacked onto the end of a brilliant novel. They also acquired a young Don Baylor along with Torrez in that Reggie/Holtzman swap, but he only played one modest season here before leaving as a free agent and winning an MVP for the Angels.

As for Torrez, his time in Oakland didn’t last, as owner Charlie Finley continued to tear down the roster. After making clear that he wouldn’t re-sign after 1977, and getting into a bonkers contract dispute fittingly absurd for Finley’s turbulent reign (it involves a typo and some chili), Torrez was traded to the Yankees a few weeks into the season for pennies on the dollar. He went on to spend a half-decade with the Red Sox, though unfortunately he’s best known in Boston for allowing the infamous homer by Bucky Dent.

But for one year, Torrez was a star for the A’s. He led the charge in 1976 as they tried to squeeze in one more October trip, posting a 1.46 ERA over his final 21 starts that summer, not unlike 2021 Frankie Montas heating up into ace form in the second half and almost carrying his team over the hump. It was just enough to not quite get remembered, not even after a $34,000 chili bribe.

Mike Norris

Oakland spent the rest of the 70s in or around the cellar, but in 1980 they got new life. Billy Martin took over as manager, a young Rickey played his first full season in the majors, and a new rotation of Five Aces made the cover of Sports Illustrated — Langford, McCatty, Norris, Keough, and Kingman.

One of those aces was Norris, a local product born and raised in the Bay Area. The righty had already been here for a few years but enjoyed a breakout campaign at age 25, throwing a whopping 284⅓ innings with a 2.53 ERA, 180 strikeouts, and 22 wins, each of which ranked second in the AL. The A’s rotation tossed an unbelievable 94 complete games, still an MLB record since 1950 and almost twice as many as the entire majors combined in 2021, and Norris chipped in 24 of them. He also earned a Gold Glove.

He finished runner-up for Cy Young that year, but he should have gotten the award. Steve Stone of the Orioles went 25-7, which was better than Norris’ 22-9 record, and that was the extent of the analysis back then. Norris was far better in every other category, and if the vote were held today he would not only win but might do so unanimously. Instead, it just went down as a great season for a resurgent team that climbed over .500 but didn’t quite make the playoffs.

Norris was alright the next summer and got an All-Star nod and another Gold Glove, and when the A’s did reach October this time, he threw a shutout in ALDS Game 1 and a quality start in ALCS Game 1. But he never repeated his 1980 masterpiece, and injuries helped put him out of the league a few years later. A battle with addiction hastened his career decline, but he overcame that to make a triumphant return to the mound in 1990, pitching 14 games for the AL champion A’s.

He wasn’t immortalized with the Cy he deserved, but Norris’ 6 WAR season was easily one of the Top 10 best in Oakland history, or Top 3 on the fWAR scale.

Steve McCatty

The next year, another one of the Five Aces took his turn atop the pack. This time it was McCatty.

The 1981 season was shortened by a strike, so the right-hander only made 22 starts, but his 2.33 ERA led all qualified AL starters and he ranked fourth in the league in innings. When the A’s made the playoffs, he tossed a six-hitter in ALDS Game 2, going the distance in a 2-1 victory.

However, McCatty was snubbed for hardware just like Norris was. In those days it was common for relievers to snag the Cy Young with flashy enough stats, and in 1981 it was none other than Rollie Fingers winning the award, as a member of the Brewers, who were in the AL back then. It was a different time, and people wrote about it in newspapers instead of online.

Anyway, McCatty finished runner-up, well ahead of all the other starters, and there’s a decent chance he would win the vote today even with sabermetrics preferring a couple other candidates. Instead, like with Norris, the history books jotted it down as a nice campaign that you probably only remember if you were there.

In 1981, McCatty won the league ERA title and nearly won a Cy, then helped the A’s win a postseason series. The Five Aces burned out quickly after their insane workloads, but for a couple years they were magnificent, and McCatty was one of the aciest of the group.

Mike Moore

Oakland returned to glory in 1989, winning the World Series amid a three-year run as AL champs, and there was no shortage of pitching stars on that team. The rotation had Stew and Welch, and the revolutionary bullpen of La Russa featured Hall of Fame closer Eck plus the quintessential setup arms of Honeycutt and Nelson.

But who led the staff in WAR? Moore. His 2.61 ERA was third in the league, in the sixth-most innings, and he earned 19 wins. He got an All-Star berth alongside Stew, and finished third place in Cy Young voting, behind runner-up Stew. When it came time for the playoffs, Stew and Moore were the first two starters to get the ball, and both of them delivered.

Moore made three starts in the 1989 postseason and won all three. He spun seven innings in ALCS Game 2, then seven more in World Series Game 2 against the Giants, then another six in Game 4 to clinch the title. He allowed four total runs in those 20 innings, and started half of the team’s World Series victories. He produced at the plate too, hitting a two-run double early in the deciding game and also coming around to score.

The right-hander stuck around for a few more summers as a staple in the rotation, putting up another excellent season in 1991 plus quality starts in the 1990 ALCS and 1992 ALCS. His overall tenure is reminiscent of Holtzman, as an established veteran starter brought in to complete a dynasty championship core during a four-year run in Oakland, and who stepped up with an All-Star performance and then postseason brilliance both on the mound and with the bat. His legacy is overshadowed by several teammates, but he was one of the top names responsible for the 1989 ring.

Steve Ontiveros

Pop quiz! Which five Oakland pitchers have won the American League ERA title? (We already talked about one of them.)

The first was Diego Segui, who did it as a swingman in 1970 in the exact minimum number of innings. Then Vida in 1971 when he won the Cy and MVP, then Catfish in 1974 when he won the Cy. In 1981 it went to McCatty, but only on a technicality, and really he should have been second place.

The only A’s pitcher to do it since then was Ontiveros, when he posted a 2.65 mark in the strike-shortened 1994 season. It was his second stint with the team after four years in the mid-80s, and also a larger comeback after missing multiple summers to injury. He didn’t even begin the year in the rotation, gearing up with 14 relief appearances before switching roles at the end of May, but then he suddenly morphed into an ace for a couple months.

The right-hander made 13 starts the rest of the way, with a 1.59 ERA combined. Five of his outings were scoreless, including four in a row for a streak of 24 consecutive shutout innings, and he was only bad once. He took two losses due to lack of run support, but they were both complete game gems, one of them a two-hitter.

Ontiveros only threw 115⅓ innings, but that was enough to qualify when the final chunk of the season was canceled. The A’s weren’t good but the AL West was even worse, and when play stopped in mid-August they were a dozen games below .500 but only one out of the division lead. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened, both in terms of the playoff race stumble and also how much longer Ontiveros could have stayed hot.

He returned in 1995 and was rewarded with an All-Star berth, but he ultimately regressed to around average and was out of the league the next year. His ERA title goes down in history as something of an extra-small-sample fluke, but it’s a reminder that for a while during the summer of 1994, Ontiveros was an ace in Oakland.

Kenny Rogers

The next few years were dark for the A’s, and 1998 was no exception, as they lost 88 games and finished in last place. But the seeds were being sown for the next winning roster, with names like Giambi, Tejada, Grieve, and Stairs on board.

Their rotation was particularly empty at the time, so over the previous winter they had picked up a veteran starter in Rogers. The 33-year-old lefty had fallen out of favor with the Yankees but wasn’t far removed from being an All-Star, and Oakland acquired him while getting New York to pay half his remaining salary. In exchange the A’s sent over third baseman Scott Brosius, who had to go soon anyway to make room for a new rookie named Chavez. If that sounds like a classic Billy Beane trade, that’s because it was his very first swap as the club’s general manager.

The gamble on Rogers paid off. Coming off two bad seasons wearing pinstripes, he bounced back in Oakland to post a career-best campaign in 1998. His 3.17 ERA was third in the league, his 238⅔ innings ranked second, he tossed a shutout among his seven complete games, and he went 16-8 on a bad team with a bad bullpen.

His 7.5 bWAR placed third in the AL, and it meant his production was worth more value than the entire rest of the A’s pitching staff combined. It also ranks as the third-best pitching season in Oakland history, after Vida in 1971 and 1976, though fWAR clocks Rogers at a more modest 4.5 mark. He didn’t get any Cy votes, but Oakland had drawn an ace.

Of course, knowing when to hold ‘em is only half the game. You’ve also gotta know when to fold ‘em, and that time came midway through 1999. With the trade deadline approaching, Rogers’ contract about to expire, his numbers regressing, and some new options finally appearing in the rotation, Beane sent the lefty on a train back to New York, this time to the Mets in exchange for outfield prospect Terrence Long.

He wasn’t here long, but Rogers turned in a remarkable season during a dismal period in team history, just before they got good and memorable again. The trade worked out for the Yankees too, as Brosius went on to win three rings and the 1998 World Series MVP in New York, forcing Rogers’ success even further into footnote status. But the spreadsheets remember what he did here in Oakland.

***

Holtzman, Torrez, Norris, McCatty, Moore, Ontiveros, and Rogers. They’re not Hall of Famers, none of them won a Cy Young, and a few weren’t even All-Stars. Some don’t get their full due for championship contributions, and others we barely even seem to remember, but each was great for a while in Oakland and they all hold special places in A’s history.