#27 - Mike Cuellar, LHP (1969-1976)
Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and found out that the Orioles had traded for a 32-year-old pitcher who had bounced around in his career. Oh, and they gave up a recent Rookie of the Year winner in doing so. They did just that in December of 1968 when they made a trade with Houston for Mike Cuellar. How would you expect such a trade to go now? Never mind that. This was then. It was a different era for baseball and for the Orioles.
Cuellar showed his mettle to a new organization by winning the Cy Young award in his first year as an Oriole. He was an anchor of the rotation for seven seasons, starting at least 35 games every year. Impressively, he won 20 games in three straight seasons, from 1969-71, which you may remember as the three straight years that the Orioles made it into the World Series.
The Cuban-born lefty had his best season as an Oriole in that Cy Young-winning season. He started 39 games for the team and pitched to a 2.38 ERA in 290.2 innings, leading the team in innings pitched, strikeouts, and WHIP. That was good for a 149 ERA+, which means he was 49% better than the average pitcher in ERA. He threw 18 complete games. All of that was enough for him to split the award with Denny McLain, making him one of the four Orioles pitchers to ever win a Cy Young.
Though the Orioles ended up losing that '69 World Series, it was no fault of Cuellar, who pitched a complete game for the victory in Game One of the series. That was the only game they would win, in spite of Cuellar coming back for Game 4 and giving up only a run in seven innings; the Orioles would ultimately lose in the tenth inning, unable to get much of anything going against future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.
They were back the very next year. Cuellar was once again an integral part of getting them there. He came in fourth in the Cy Young voting that year, notching another 297.2 innings with a more pedestrian 3.48 ERA. As he did this, he threw 21 complete games, which is so far removed from anything that any pitcher of today can do that it's hard for me to even imagine. Pitcher wins may not matter, but a pitcher winning 24 is still impressive.
During the American League Championship Series against the Twins that year, Cuellar hit a grand slam - the only pitcher to ever hit a grand slam in the LCS round of the postseason to date.
In the World Series, Cuellar once again pitched in two games. He was chased early in Game Two, thanks to three unearned runs, but the Orioles came back to win it. In Game Five, with the O's having a chance to clinch the series, he went the distance, giving up three runs on six hits as the Orioles went on to win, 9-3. It was the second World Series title of Cuellar's career: he was also a part of the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals.
His career with the Orioles continued until 1976, when his age of 39 finally caught up to him. He threw at least 250 innings in six of the previous seven seasons, but in '76, things fell apart and he was out of baseball within a year.
Cuellar stands fifth in franchise history in innings pitched, ahead of even a modern great like Mike Mussina. He's also fifth in strikeouts, racking up 1,011 over his eight years as an Oriole. On top of that, he ranks in the top five in wins (143) and shutouts (30). It's not for nothing that he's ended up eighth on the franchise leaderboard for Wins Above Replacement for a pitcher. Not bad for a guy who was, essentially, a journeyman when he came to the Orioles.
Known as he was for his superstitions, Cuellar had the nickname Crazy Horse during his time with the Orioles. After he passed away in 2010, a Baltimore Sun story made note of his lucky cap that he wore for every game. He once forgot the cap on a road trip to Milwaukee. Manager Earl Weaver recalled, "We had to call the clubhouse man back in Baltimore and get him to airmail that (bleeping) hat to us."
He remains as an answer to the trivia question of the last starting rotation to have four 20-game winners in a single season, being a part of that elite unit in 1971 along with Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson, and Dave McNally.
No list of great Orioles pitchers would be complete without Cuellar. He's one of the greatest Orioles of all time - #27, in fact.