Career Year: Sammy Ellis – 1965
In the early 1960s, right-hander Sammy Ellis had one of the most promising pitching arms in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Signed by the Reds prior to the 1961 season, Ellis won 10 games (with a 1.89 ERA) in the Sally League in his first professional season, and then won 12 games at the AAA level in each of the next two seasons.
Ellis was outstanding in 1964, his rookie season. He and Billy McCool formed the rookie bullpen tandem for a Reds team that finished second to the St. Louis Cardinals. Ellis led the team with 52 appearances and 14 saves. He was 10-3 with a 2.57 ERA. He struck out 125 batters in 122.1 innings. And he finished sixteenth in the voting for Most Valuable Player (won that season by Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer).
It’s more common than not for an outstanding rookie season to be followed by a less-than-stellar campaign. But not in the case of Sammy Ellis. His 1964 season positioned him as one of the National League’s best relief pitchers. The follow-up 1965 season would establish him as one of the circuit’s best pitchers – period – at least for one year.
Ellis moved out of the bullpen, and opened the season in the Reds’ starting rotation. And he started fast, winning his first four starts and seven of his first nine. In June, he was 5-1 with four complete games. On June 25, he beat the Milwaukee Braves 3-1 with an 11-inning complete game, striking out 10. Four days later, Ellis pitched 14 innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowing only four hits and striking out 10 batters. The Pirates won 2-1 in the bottom of the sixteenth inning on Roberto Clemente’s RBI single off McCool.
Ellis barreled through July and August, piling up innings and wins. At the end of August, he was 17-8 with a 3.70 ERA and 12 complete games. He made nine starts (with one relief appearance) in September, going 5-2.
For the entire 1965 season, Elis was 22-10 with a 3.79 ERA. His 263.2 and 183 strikeouts were both tenth in the league. His 22 wins were fourth most in the National League, and his 15 complete games were sixth most. He led National League pitchers in only one category: Ellis allowed a league-high 111 earned runs.
It would be not only the best season in the seven-year major league career of Sammy Ellis, but the last when he would post a winning record. Plagued by shoulder miseries, his record slipped to 12-19 in 1966, and in 1967 he was 8-11. After going 9-10 for the California Angels in 1968, Ellis started the 1969 season with the Chicago White Sox. He was 0-3 in five starts before being traded to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Jack Hamilton.
The Indians assigned Ellis to the AAA Portland Beavers. He never made it back to the big leagues as a player. But he continued in baseball for the next three decades as a minor league pitching instructor and as pitching coach for the Yankees, White Sox, Cubs and Reds, among others.