Sammy Ellis: 20-game winner

Sammy Ellis

Sammy Ellis was a 22-game winner for the Reds at age 24, and then won just 29 more in a seven-year career before becoming a pitching coach for five major-league teams and an instructor for another. Ellis died last week at 75. Ellis made the majors at age 21 in 1962 after starring at Mississippi State. He went back to the minors before returning to pair with teenager Bill McCool in the Reds’ bullpen in 1964. At 23, Ellis was the older of the Reds’ relief aces, and he was 10-3 with 14 saves and a 2.57 ERA in 52 games, all but five in relief. Ellis fanned 125 in 122.1 innings in ’64. He was at his best in the last five weeks of the pennant race as the Reds made up six-and-a-half games on the Phillies in the last two weeks, only to lose to the Cardinals by a game. In his final 12 appearances, Ellis won two games and saved six; in his final 20, from Aug. 22 on, he pitched 36 innings without allowing an earned run, giving up 20 hits, six walks and fanning 40. The only run he allowed in that stretch was unearned, in a three-inning save against the Phillies on Sept. 23 in relief of McCool (one of his three starts in 40 appearances; having turned 20 in midseason, McCool was ready for greater responsibility). The loss was the third of 10 straight for the Phillies. The next year Ellis was predominantly a starter, winning 22 games and losing 10 with two saves and a 3.79 ERA. That was the highlight of his short career: Ellis lost 19 games in 1966 and threw an NL-high 35 home runs and never had a winning record again, pitching for the Angels in 1968 and the White Sox in ’69. For all the skeptics who say today’s pitchers are babied, the careers of Ellis and McCool are a must study. Ellis started 39 games and threw 263.2 innings at age 24 and he threw his last big-league pitch at age 28; McCool threw 105.1 innings in 1965 and ’66 each, starting only twice, at ages 20 and 21; he threw his last-big league pitch in 1970 a week before his 26th birthday. There’s a reason pitchers aren’t used as Ellis was in ’65, when he threw a complete game four-hitter, fanning 12, at the Dodgers on July 28 and then saving a game against the Astros with two scoreless innings three days later, or, pitching seven innings and losing against the Cardinals on Aug. 15 and then saving a win over the Cubs two days later with a scoreless ninth. You wonder what kind of career Ellis might have had if today’s rules for pitchers applied. Ellis was 16th in the NL MVP vote with 13 points, one place above a left-handed pitcher for the Dodgers named Sandy Koufax. And Ellis was an All-Star in ’65, his 22-win season, even though he led the NL in earned runs allowed with 111 (he did so again in ’66, with 130, when he was far less effective, his ERA at 5.29). Career numbers: 63-58, 4.15 ERA, 229 games, 18 saves, 35 complete games, 3 shutouts, 1004 innings, 967 hits, 378 walks, 677 strikeouts, 88 ERA+, .714 OPS, 6.7 WAR (3.1 in ’64, 3.8 in ’65).

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