All-Time Indians: Ray Narleski

Name: Raymond Edmond Narleski     Position: Closer
Tribe Time: 1954-1958             Number: 20  
Accolades: 2 Time All-Star (1956, 1958), Top 6 MVP 1955 DOB: 11/25/1928
Stats W L W% ERA G GS SV IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP K/9 BAA
Best Season (1957) 11 5 0.688 3.10 46 15 16 154.1 136 53 15 70 93 1.34 5.4 .227
Career 39 21 0.650 3.23 224 42 53 597.2 501 214 60 276 383 1.30 5.8 .219

Ray Narleski was the Indians' first true closer and remains one of the best in team history. He was originally signed as a free agent in the Indians last World Series winning season (1948), then made his Major League debut in their first season back to the Fall Classic. He was immediately made the team's closer, where he saved 13 games in his rookie season. This made him the first Indians' reliever with at least 10 saves since Al Benton in 1949. In general prior to this point, closers were generally starters who had something left in their arm on that particular day. Narleski's priority was always on the back-end however, starting just three games in his first two seasons, while saving 32.

At the end of the 1954 season, the Indians were swept in four games against Willie Mays and the New York Giants, but Narleski deserved no blame. He pitched in two of the four games for four innings and allowed just a single hit and run. This made him, along with fellow reliever Don Mossi, the Indians two best pitchers during the series, while staff ace, Bob Lemon, allowed 10 runs in 13.1 innings. While he would never return to the post-season again, the career of Ray Narleski was just getting started.

In just his second season, Narleski lead the league in appearances (60) and saves (19) and even managed to win nine games. Showing an overvaluation of the save even then, he came in sixth in the MVP voting that year, despite a 3.71 ERA, the worst in his first four seasons. Narleski was beaten out by Yogi Berra for the award, but he did receive a first place vote, while teammate, Al Smith, tied Berra with seven first place votes.

Narleski's peak continued for two more seasons until he was considered too good to be a closer and was transitioned into being a starter in 1957. On the fourth of July, the Indians moved Narleski out of the bullpen and into the rotation. Prior to the move, he held an ERA of 2.91 and after 15 starts and just five more relief spots he ended the year with a 3.09. While he had no issue stretching his arm out (he completed seven of the 15 starts), he was obviously less effective, allowing a 2.63 ERA overall as a reliever that year in 48 innings while keeping an ERA of 3.30 in 106.1 innings as a starter.

This was the beginning of the end for Narleski, who was turned primarily into a starter. With Early Wynn, Bob Feller and Lemon (all of whom are in the Hall of Fame) gone in 1958, the Indians were scrambling for starters and made up their entire rotation of pitchers who were primarily relievers. Along with Narleski, Gary Bell, Cal McLish and Mudcat Grant made up the rest of the staff and were more successful than they had any rights to be. Despite an ERA over four, Narleski still made the All-Star game for the second time and was the second pitcher used in the game for the American League. 

The time had come for a dismantling and Ray Narleski wasn't immune. He was sent, along with Don Mossi to the Tigers for Al Cicotte and Billy Martin in the same period that saw Frank Lane trade Rocky Colavito, Herb Score and the rest of the talented young roster as well. Narleski struggled in his only season with Detroit and retired completely afterward, ending his career after just six professional seasons. 

While his numbers don't really compare with the closers of the future, he represents an important turning point for the franchise. When he died in 2012, he still ranked in the top ten in Indians history in saves, winning percent and BAA, all while keeping an impressive 3.23 ERA. He is likely to be surpassed on these lists within a few years, relegating him to the obscurity of the hundreds of other relievers to have pitched in Cleveland, but he deserves recognition as the first great Indians closer.

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since it's inception in 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona.

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