Mike Cuellar, one of the greatest yet forgotten pitchers of the 1960s, is dead at age 72.
Featuring a devastating screwball that, as Hall of Fame teammate Brooks Robinson said "had a way of making good hitters look bad, making them take funny swings," Cuellar toiled (although posting very good stats) for four years with terrible Houston teams before coming into his own with Baltimore at age 32 in 1969.
To that point Cuellar had never won over 16 games (while still posting a 2.74 ERA and a 1.162 WHIP in 4 seasons with Houston). But in his first season as an Oriole Mike went 23-11 with a 2.38 ERA and a 1.005 WHIP. His mastery helped lead Baltimore to their eventual World Series demise at the hands of the improbable "Amazing Mets" but garnered him the Cy Young award in the process.
The very next season Cuellar would lead the league in wins (24), winning percentage (.750), and complete games (21), this time notching a World Series ring as Baltimore would defeat the emerging Cincinnati "Big Red Machine" Reds in five games, helped in no small part by Cuellar's grand slam in the first game of the ALCS against the Minnesota Twins (the first grand slam in a champion series). He would make one more trip to the World Series in 1971, going 20-9 as a member of the last pitching staff to feature four 20-game winners (a feat that had not been accomplished since the 1920 White Sox featured four of their own).
Cuellar was an ace on a staff populated with such greats as Jim Palmer and Dave McNally. And although he never received the recognition that Palmer did, in his prime there were few better during the pitching-heavy era of the late 60s and early 70s.
Cuellar may not have been Sandy Koufax but his 1.197 career WHIP shows that even though his all-time record (185-130) isn't Hall of Fame material, Cueller was an excellent pitcher — even on bad teams — and maintained his effectiveness throughout his career.
Perhaps the best testament to his intrinsic pitching ability: at age 37 Cuellar led the league in winning percentage once again in '74, going 22-10 (.688) on the last gasp of manager Earl Weaver's 60s/70s Baltimore dynasty. While in '71 all four pitchers on the staff won at least 20 games, this time Cuellar was the lone hurler to reach that benchmark.
Mike Cuellar won't be inducted into the Hall of Fame nor will he be placed in a class with Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, or his teammate Palmer. But he was an All-Star, a Cy Young winner, and an integral part of one of the greatest pitching staffs and overall collection of players in baseball history.