Frank Killen: 30 Game Winner

Frank Killen

When the Pirates traded catcher Duke Farrell and $1500 to the Washington Nationals on March 21, 1893, they were taking a real chance. Farrell was a good hitting catcher who had a down year in 1892 with the Pirates, his only season with the team. They moved him strictly to 3B and he hit just .215 after leading the American Association in both home runs and RBIs the previous season. The chance they were taking was that not only were they trading a guy after a down year but they were adding a young pitcher who had control troubles the previous season.

Frank Killen was just 22 at the time of the trade and had just finished his first full season in which he walked 182 batters, hit another 20 and threw 18 wild pitches. He also was a big lefty who went 29-26 for a team that went 29-67 in every other game that season so the potential upside was definitely there. The team had Mark Baldwin the prior season as their ace. He had won 26 games with a 3.47 ERA, but he also led the team in losses and had trouble with just about everyone in Pittsburgh that season, the fans, the owners and the press. The team in the offseason offered him a lower salary so he decided to retire instead of signing, leading them to hurry for another arm that could at least cover a lot of innings. Baldwin would end up returning for just one game in late April 1893 before being released.

Acquiring Killen proved to be a wise decision for the team. Farrell did bounce back and played well for many years as he moved back behind the plate, always hitting at least .280 with some pop, which was rare from catchers. Killen, however, more than held up his end of the deal his first season, leading the National League in wins with 36 against just 14 losses. The Pirates finished with their best record ever (81-48) finishing just five games behind the first place Boston Beaneaters. Killen’s 36 wins in 1893 are the highest single season total in franchise history since they moved to the National League in 1887.

In 1894 Killen suffered the same fate of many pitchers of the mid-1890’s. When the pitching distance was moved back prior to the 1893 season many pitchers of the era had trouble adjusting to the new distance.  Some struggled with their command on breaking balls while others hurt their arm throwing to a longer distance. It also meant higher offensive numbers for the league which of course meant more pitches thrown and even more wear on arms that were already overworked. Killen pitched well through late July 1894 going 14-11 in 28 starts but couldn’t make another start the rest of the year. In the following season he missed even more time. After making his first six starts, he missed two weeks, followed by five more starts, followed by missing the rest of the season.

It would appear that at age twenty-four, his career was already done, judging by two seasons filled with injuries in a period of time when multiple arm injuries usually spelled the end of guy’s pitching careers. For Frank Killen though, it was just a speed bump on the way to his best overall season. In 1896 he posted a 30-18, 3.41 record while leading the league in wins, games started, complete games, innings pitched and shutouts. The team was just 36-45 in their other games, so they finished in 6th place in the NL, but Killen became the last 30 game winner in franchise history that season.

Frank lasted two more seasons in a Pittsburgh uniform before being released in late 1898. In 1897, he went just 17-23, but led the league in complete games for a second straight season. He played with three other teams after leaving Pittsburgh, making 37 total starts through the 1900 season, before finishing out his playing days in 1903 in the minors. His career stats were 164-131, 3.78 in 300 starts, 253 of them being complete games. With the Pirates he was 112-82 and ranks 15th in wins, 16th in innings pitched, 14th in starts and 7th in complete games in franchise history. Frank was a pretty good hitting pitcher over his career, posting a .241 career average with 127 RBIs  and even took some walks, leading to a .335 OBP. He was a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, born in the Steel City in 1870 and passing away 69 years later.

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