The Cincinnati Reds used their 1st round pick of the 1966 draft to select Gary Nolan 13th overall out of Oroville High School in California. He is one of only two players ever drafted from the school, with the other being Nicholas Brandt, who went in the 6th round to the Braves in 1980 and didn’t sign. Brandt later was selected by the Mets and played one season in the minors in 1982. Things turned out quite a bit better for Nolan.
After pitching his high school season, Gary Nolan signed with the Reds and then went to work. He would pitch for both Sioux Falls and then the Astros/Reds team in the Florida Instructional League, which was a formal league that they kept stats from. It’s a lot different than how things are today in instructional league. Teams played 50-something games following the regular season.
An 18-year-old Gary Nolan threw 104.0 innings in 12 starts for Sioux Falls, with 9 of his games being complete games. He then followed that up with another 72.0 innings in the Florida Instructional League where he made 11 starts and threw 2 more complete games.
Between the two stops, Gary Nolan posted a 2.10 ERA as an 18-year-old fresh out of the draft while throwing 176.0 innings. His 229 strikeouts in the season are the most in Cincinnati Reds minor league history dating back to at least 1960. His 11.7 strikeouts per 9-innings pitched were the most by any starter who threw more than 100.0 innings in a season in the history of the farm system dating back to 1960.
Things were interesting that season for the Sioux Falls Packers. Gary Nolan threw the most innings on the staff with his 104.0, but his 1.82 ERA wasn’t the best among pitchers in the rotation. In fact, it wasn’t close. Dave Grawe posted a 1.46 ERA that year, making 11 starts and 1 relief appearance. The Elder High School graduate was the Reds 7th round pick in 1966. It would appear that he may have succumbed to injuries as he threw just 5.0, 3.0, and then 24.0 innings over the next three seasons before his career came to an end. Grawe, had the nod for ERA over Nolan, but threw 24 fewer innings that season with the Packers (and didn’t participate in the instructional league, either).
Stacking up with the contenders
There were some very good seasons in the 1960’s among the pitchers. There were some seasons that I kept off of the list below that at first glance probably belonged, but after adjusting for the league it wasn’t nearly as impressive – such as the season where a 2.91 ERA was actually WORSE than the league average.
Gary Nolan didn’t have the lowest ERA. Nor did he have the best ERA+ of the group. But in my mind he had the best combination of age and performance thanks to his ERA/ERA+, the innings he threw, and his dominance in the way that he got there. Let’s look at a few of the other guys on the list, though.
Daniel Neville had the best ERA+ among the guys who threw at least 100.0 innings, coming in at 210 thanks to his 1.94 ERA with the Tampa Tarpons in 1961. A greater Cincinnati area pitcher who was born in Covington and went to the University of Kentucky, he joined the organization as a 19-year-old in 1960. The next year he dominated for the Tampa Tarpons, going 15-4 with a 1.94 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP in 153.0 innings over his 20 starts. The next year he was back in Tampa, and lowered his ERA to 1.44, but only threw 50.0 innings in 5 starts and 5 relief appearances. He was good for Macon the next year, too, throwing 213.0 innings with a 2.70 ERA. But he struggled a bit more once he got to Triple-A, and never did reach the Major Leagues – spending 8 seasons in the minors and throwing 1066.2 innings before retiring following the 1967 season.
Billy McCool‘s 1963 season was the one that was the real contender for Gary Nolan’s 1966 one. Another greater Cincinnati area player, McCool went to Lawrenceburg High School and signed with the Reds after graduating. His first season as a professional was pure dominance. The then 18-year-old posted a 2.01 ERA for the Tampa Tarpons in the Florida State League, throwing 148.0 innings with 165 strikeouts. He also threw another 26.0 innings with a 1.04 ERA for the Reds then Triple-A affiliate San Diego Padres. In total he had a 1.86 ERA on the season as a teenager with 174.0 innings thrown and 179 strikeouts.
The following season Billy McCool was in the big leagues as a 19-year-old and would spend the next 7 seasons there, pitching for the Reds, Padres, and Cardinals with a 3.59 ERA, 58 saves, and 528.1 innings – mostly as a reliever, throwing 272 games of relief with another 20 starts.
Milt Wilcox was the Reds 2nd round pick in the 1968 draft out of Crooked Oak High School. He’s the only player ever drafted out of that school, but if you’re only going to get one, it turned out to be a good one (but more on that later). His debut season was outstanding, but limited. He would pitch for both the Gulf Coast League Reds and the Tampa Tarpons that season, making 6 starts for the Reds and 8 starts for the Tarpons. At both stops he posted an ERA under 1.40. Over his 80.0 innings pitched, the then 18-year-old didn’t give up a single home run, allowed just 52 hits, and he struck out 81 batters. His ERA+ was the best of any pitcher on the list, by far.
After spending the 1969 and 1970 seasons in the minors, Milt Wilcox joined the Reds as a September call up in 1970, and would spend 16 of the next 17 seasons in the Major Leagues (1976 was spent in the minors). In his 16-year career at the big league level he pitched for Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, and Seattle. In 1984 he pitched in the World Series and won a championship with the Tigers. He finished 119-113 in his career with 6 saves, making 283 starts and 111 relief appearances while throwing 2016.2 innings.
As for Gary Nolan, he was in the Major Leagues at 19 and as a rookie he threw 226.2 innings with 206 strikeouts and a league best 8.2 strikeouts per 9-innings pitched. He finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting that season, with some guy named Tom Seaver taking home the award. Whatever happened to that guy?
For Nolan, he’s go on to spend parts of 10 seasons in the Major Leagues from 1967-1977, missing the entire 1974 season (he did make 2 rehab starts for Triple-A Indianapolis). Health was an ongoing issue for Nolan, who missed parts of 1968, 1969, 1972, almost all of 1973, and all of 1974. Still, he would go 110-70 with a career ERA of 3.08 while throwing 1674.2 innings. He was an All-Star in 1972 when he went 15-5 with a 1.99 ERA in 25 starts. Nolan picked up two World Series rings with the Reds in 1975 and 1976.
Here are the other winners for Season of the Decade: