Jim Kaat is going to go into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Minnesota Twins. Rightfully so since his most acclaim as a pitcher came while he was in the Twin Cities. All of the Gold Gloves, most of his innings and wins, all in Minnesota.
However, he still does have a connection to Philadelphia. He was here with the Phillies for three seasons, serving as a veteran presence in a rotation that was still learning to win. It wasn’t the smoothest of rides while he was here, mostly because he didn’t pitch up to the expectations of his 1975 season.
It was no secret, heading into the 1975 winter meetings, that general manager Paul Owens was looking for starting pitching. When discussing what his plans were for his meetings with other teams, Owens was pretty blunt.
“I’ve spent 80 per cent of my time talking to other clubs about a pitcher...There are five or six available I’m interested in.”
The targets of their desires: Wilbur Wood, Larry Dierker and Jim Kaat. Looking at their numbers the previous 1975 campaign, it was pretty obvious why the team would have wanted all three, but focusing on Kaat, it’s really obvious why he was a target. He had started 41 games for the Chicago White Sox, throwing a whopping 303 ⅓ innings to the tune of a 3.11 ERA. Never one to rely on strikeouts, his veteran craftiness meant hitters only had an OPS against of .638, one of the better numbers in the American League. It was perhaps his finest season as a pro to that point, the only one in his long career where he got Cy Young votes, eventually finishing fourth. For a young Phillies team at the time, one that didn’t have much stability on the mound yet outside of Steve Carlton, Kaat would have been rightly seen as a consistent force on the mound, albeit one that relied more on his defense than on striking people out himself. Since the Phillies had the solid glovework of Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa and Dave Cash in the infield, it seemed to be a match made in heaven.
Eventually, Owens would swing a deal with the White Sox to get Kaat, a move that was seen around the league as one that would put the Phillies over the top. When talking to the White Sox manager Chuck Tanner, Jay Johnstone said, “‘You’re going to give us (Jim) Kaat?’ ‘If you get him, you’ll win the pennant,’ he said.” Indeed, since the team had already acquired Ron Reed to help bring some veteran leadership to the bullpen, adding Kaat to Carlton, Jim Lonborg and Larry Christenson gave the up and coming Phillies lineup some pitching to help lead them and take that step forward many around the game saw as a foregone conclusion. At the time, names you’re now familiar with - Schmidt, Boone, Luzinski, Maddox, Bowa - names that are now legendary in team history, hadn’t, to use the popular lexicon of the time, “learned how to win.” In 1975, they had gone an admirable 86-76, a good jump from the 80-82 mark they put up in 1974, but most people around the league saw the talent in the lineup and knew that they were ready to take that next step to become part of the league’s elite. All they needed was the pitching and adding Kaat was seen as part of that plan to help the team move forward to becoming a consistent playoff contender, something they did in 1976.
During that season, the team did indeed take that necessary jump, going 101-61 to dominate the National League East for the right to face off against….the Big Red Machine. The Reds, of course, were in the midst of their own dynastic run, taking on the young Phillies team that showed in their NLCS against the Reds that they weren’t quite ready for primetime. Getting swept in three games is nothing to sneeze at when facing the powerful Reds, but it did bother them a bit. They knew they were on the verge of something great, but they still lacked something important that the Reds had. As Larry Bowa said,
“The thing that made the difference, I think, was experience...No matter what happens, they’ve been through it.”
Kaat, for his part, was pretty much exactly what the team needed. He gave them 227 ⅔ innings of 3.48 ball, winning only 12 of his 35 starts, but giving the team the stability they needed at the front of the rotation.
In his lone playoff start, the Game 3 finale, Kaat was actually quite good, going six innings, allowing only two runs on two hits, walking two and striking out one. The harbinger of the season, though, was that all of the indicators were there that Kaat was beginning to slow down. His innings total dropped (though that should be expected after he threw 300 innings), but so did his strikeout rate and walk rate. His home run rate doubled in fewer innings, something that should have alarmed someone in the team’s front office. Of course at the time, front offices valued things much differently than they do know and the fact that Kaat was brought in for veteran leadership and seemingly supplied that in spades meant that his season was a success.
For all of that success Kaat had in 1976, it still looked like the team had other ideas for him the following season. When spring training camp opened, Kaat looked like he was headed to the bullpen to begin the 1977 season, something that caught him off-guard.
“As soon as I came to camp, reporters started asking me how I felt about going to the bullpen this year...I didn’t know what to tell them. To be honest with you, I had no idea that’s what he (manager Danny Ozark) was planning to do with me.”
Fact is, it wasn’t the first time that it could be found that Kaat was not going to make the Opening Day starting rotation. Ozark had come to camp excited by a young pitcher named Wayne Twitchell, excited enough that he was already planning on putting him in the rotation as early as the beginning of camp. “Wayne Twitchell came into camp with unbelievable enthusiasm and determination...The way he’s throwing now, I don’t see how he won’t be in the starting rotation.” With Twitchell gaining the affection of Ozark, Kaat, who’s role was quoted as “fuzzy”, was going to be the odd man out and would be sent to the bullpen to start the year off. Was he happy about that?
“I told them I thought they’d be better off going out and making a deal for a guy who’d been trained to do that job.”
Clearly he was not.
He would remain in the bullpen for all of April, giving the team 4 ⅔ innings of 15.43 ERA pitching for their troubles, maybe due to his starting to decline, maybe due to his unfamiliarity with bullpen roles. At that point, Tug McGraw was hurt and with no lefties in their bullpen, Kaat and Tom Underwood were needed to get outs from the south side. In early May, Ozark would need a starter, so it was Kaat who was called upon on May 4 in San Diego. In that game, Kaat would throw six innings of two run ball, getting the loss when the Phillies were able to push across only one run off of Padres starter Randy Jones. After two more appearances in the bullpen, Kaat would get another start on May 14 that lasted on two innings, then become a permanent member of the rotation from May 19 to September 18. During this stretch, Kaat had 25 starts (139 ⅓ IP) where he had a 5.40 ERA and allowed hitters to tag him to the tune of an .845 OPS. After a particularly poor start on September 19 against the Cardinals (1 ⅓ IP, 9 H, 7 R), he’d only make two more appearances out of the bullpen, then no appearances during their playoff series against the Dodgers.
The writing was on the wall for Kaat that October when Bill Conlin wrote how Kaat was “rarely effective” when describing his season, something that can be seen in his usage at the end. Though he would win another Gold Glove that year (his second in as many years in Philadelphia), many writers were suggesting he had won it more on reputation than anything. The team clearly had other plans for him when the winter meetings hit that offseason. By December, the whispers of his losing his spot on the team were growing just a bit louder. While in Honolulu, the team was on the prowl, looking to get some starting pitching and also deal off some veterans.
“And it became more and more apparent as emissaries trooped from suite to suite bearing various proposals, that the days have dwindled down to a precious few for veteran Phillies utility men Tommy Hutton and Terry Harmon and for veteran lefthander Jim Kaat.”
Kaat’s name was peddled around as a possibility for teams that were looking to add veteran pitching, even if he wasn’t all that effective the previous season. One rumor of that day saw the Pirates and Kaat’s former manager in Chicago, Chuck Tanner, interested in acquiring his services, but ultimately nothing transpired. Even Montreal was rumored to be looking to “scramble into the action.” Ultimately, nothing came of the rumors though and Kaat headed to camp still a member of the team.
As camp opened, it was beginning to look doubtful that he would head north with the team to start the season with Ozark again mentioning that the team was looking for starting pitching. Countless stories and news bites were written regarding Kaat’s status with the team with some backhanded praise being given in the hopes his value might be boosted. He was being described as “bionic” at age 39, but his pitches “provided little mystery to opposition batters” and appeared “destined to become an ex-Phillie” once the season began. When interviewed in mid-March, Kaat knew that that spring, he was fighting for his job with the team, working to stay in shape and perform well in spring training. He had taken a pay cut down to $100,000 over a two-year deal, but that kind of guaranteed money meant that it would be hard for the team to move on from him or move him to another team (it included a “no-cut” clause). “If I get defeated through honest competition, fine. I just don’t want to be written off because of my age.”
In mid-March, a story emerged that showed some of the deepening disdain that existed between Kaat and his manager, Danny Ozark. The story spoke about Kaat and his dissatisfaction about how Ozark had used him as a pinch runner the day after he pitched a game for the team in 1976, a game Kaat hinted at as being the one that started his decline as a pitcher. Looking back, we can see that the game in question was August 8, a day after Kaat went seven innings in a 4-1 loss to the Cardinals. In Kaat’s words,
“We hadn’t had any pregame activity. The seventh or eighth inning the Bull got a hit in a tie game and Danny ran me in off the bench with a cold jock. Going into third base I tripped.”
According to the story, Kaat sustained a hairline fracture of his kneecap, which could have affected his performance. He was also bothered by his usage when he was healthy and available during his time under Ozark. According to Kaat, he was most effective working on four days’ rest, something he told the team once he was traded to Philadelphia. Ozark, instead, went with a five man rotation that meant Kaat and all the other starters would work on five days’ rest. It would be beneficial to the other members of the staff (Jim Lonborg was 34 in 1976 and Larry Christenson had back issues), but for Kaat, it wasn’t optimal.
Even with this sour situation between the two, Kaat would make the roster because the team couldn’t acquire another starter (his contract didn’t help matters). In essence, no one else wanted him and the team couldn’t cut him. There were countless articles written about the “Kaat dilemma”, but there wasn’t much the team could do. When it came to cutdown day, Kaat remained on the roster thanks mostly to his contract. Wrote Bill Conlin, “Whoever drafted Jim’s current two-year, $200,000 no-cut contract should be dispatched immediately to the Middle East to patch up relations between Israel and the Arabs.”
On Opening Night in Philadelphia on April 7, Kaat was one of the Phillies to receive the most boos, fans no doubt influenced not only by what was being written at the time, but also at the expectations brought about by his contract. He would not start a game until the 25th, throwing a complete game shutout against the Cubs that saw him allow only four baserunners the whole game. He relieved on May 3, but didn’t get another start until May 13, a five inning affair that saw him take the loss against the Reds. From that point forward, Kaat remained a fairly regular part of the rotation for the rest of the season, finishing with an 8-5 record over 160 ⅓ innings and a 4.10 ERA.
After the season, one in which the team never really wanted him in Philadelphia anyway, they continued looking for ways to get rid of him, once again not finding any takers. That offseason was dominated by the news of the team trying to acquire Pete Rose, so they rightfully probably spent their time finalizing that deal. Still, they weren’t exactly keen on Kaat being a member of the team when the curtain went up on the 1979 season. As Larry Christenson recovered from a broken collarbone, Kaat and fellow graybeard Jim Lonborg were being considered to replace Christenson, something Ozark said he was fine with doing, but likely didn’t want any part of. He would make the Phillies’ 1979 roster, but would only make two appearances before being placed on waivers. There was a rumor making the rounds that Kaat was headed to the expansion Seattle Mariners, but nothing ever materialized there, so he was to go back to Philadelphia. The only problem was: they didn’t want him to pitch. He wasn’t happy with that decision, but he also knew that it was business.
“He refuses to shout and scream, but he also refuses to vegetate. He throws every day, keeps his bionic body in amazing condition, quietly believing that this, too, shall pass.”
Eventually, he would make one more appearance with Philadelphia, throwing four innings of relief, innings impressive enough that the Yankees, then the world champions, decided to get into the Jim Kaat business. Sending an undisclosed amount of money to the Phillies, Kaat went to the Yankees’ bullpen so Ron Guidry could go to the rotation. Asked about his reaction, Kaat stated, “I would say at this stage, I’m pleased…only because there’s going to be more opportunity where I’m going than where I’m leaving.”
The Kaat years in Philadelphia could be defined as tumultuous at best. While he did perform admirably with the team in 1976, the final two years and change were middling. The team was clearly unhappy with being burdened with his contract, a contract they had negotiated, and did everything they could to get rid of him. For his part, Kaat was not shy to express his displeasure with his usage, but he also could not admit that his performance was slipping. Did the broken kneecap in 1976 begin his slide? It’s tough to say, but it does give some plausible reason why he never really regained the form that made the Phillies want to get him in the first place. His pitching during his age 37-40 years while in Philadelphia didn’t help things either. In the vast swath of his Hall of Fame career, Kaat’s brief stop here was pretty much just a speed bump. It had its moments, moments that the writers at the time ate up, but it was largely forgettable. He’s earned that Twins’ cap he’ll be enshrined in Cooperstown with. A Phillies cap just wouldn’t be fitting.
For this, I relied heavily on the archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. Writers like Bill Conlin, Bill Lyon, Stan Hochman, Bill Keidan, Hal Bodley, Frank Dolson and Larry Eichel were invaluable. Stats came from Baseball Reference as it feels all stats do.