The game I most remember Frank Tanana pitching was the final game of the Tigers 1987 season. They had a one game lead over Toronto who they were playing that day. If they won they would be in the playoffs. If they lost they had to play an extra game against the Blue Jays for the division title. Frank Tanana wasn’t the pitcher mid to late 70s, where he had three years of over 7 WAR.
He didn’t throw the fastball as fast due to injuries. He used a lot more off-speed stuff and kept the opponents off balance. This worked, but he was no longer the ace of the staff. He was a third or fourth starter. A good solid one most years, but not an ace. However, the best pitcher can’t pitch every day and lots of times the 3rd and 4th starter pitch in key games, especially if the race is still in doubt on the last day of the season. Tanana pitched a great game. He shutout the Jays, Larry Herndon hit a second inning homerun and the Tigers won the game 1-0.
What I didn’t know until I researched this article is his two previous starts were great efforts. Two series earlier he faced Toronto in Toronto and pitched 7 scoreless innings. However, the relief pitchers lost the game 3-2. In the series between the two Toronto-Detroit series he beat Baltimore giving up 1 run in 8 innings. So, down the stretch Tanana pitched 24 innings giving up 1 run. Sometimes those hanging on people can help you a lot and it shouldn’t be discarded in evaluating a players career.
Frank Tanana peaked in his early 20s. As I said earlier he had 3 years where he had over 7 WAR. Let us look at those seasons closer.
In 1975 as a 21-year-old he went 16-9, ERA of 2.62 and led the league in strikeouts with 269. He finished 4th in the Cy Young Voting. He easily out pitched Nolan Ryan that year who missed some starts. That year the Angels finished below .500. They had three good starters. Ed Figueroa had a good year. However, on offense, most of the lineup had solid years, but no one had a great year and there were a couple of holes in the lineup.
In 1976 Tanana had the same type of year. His win loss was better at 19-10. That impressed the voters more as he finished third in the Cy Young voting and 15th in the MVP voting. Nolan Ryan came back and led the league in strikeouts, but overall didn’t have a great year. Gary Ross was now the third starter pitched well but didn’t have much luck as he went 8-16. They improved by a couple of game, but the offense was actually a little worse than the year before.
In 1977 Tanana had an even better year according to WAR as his Baseball Reference WAR. He had a WAR of 8.3 which turned out to be his career high. He led the league in ERA with 2.54. What happened was more runs were scored in the league and Angel Park where Tanana pitched his home games was a little less of a pitchers park. He had a lot less strikeouts than the previous two years with only 205. He came in 9th in the Cy Young award voting. In part because Nolan Ryan had a comparable year and led the league in strikeouts. Tanana had slightly more WAR. With Tanana and Ryan having great seasons and Bobby Bonds having an all-star like season with the bat and stealing 41 bases and hitting 37 homers to just miss becoming the first 40-40 player, they won less games than in 1976. That goes to show that you need more than three good players to have a winning team in baseball.