McDowell seemed capable of becoming the greatest strikeout pitcher the game had ever known, but by 1976 he was out of baseball, a victim of alcoholism.
A lanky 6’5″ lefthander with a ferocious fastball, a good changeup, and just enough wildness to keep hitters nervous, McDowell was overwhelming from 1965 to 1970, winning five strikeout titles and twice fanning over 300 batters by the age of 28 (only Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Walter Johnson, and J.R. Richard have struck out 300 batters as many times). McDowell started one game for the Indians as a 19-year-old in 1961, and found little success in Cleveland in 1962-63, walking almost seven batters per nine innings. By 1964 he was beginning to harness his tremendous talent, and in 1965 he dominated AL hitters. McDowell led the AL with a 2.18 ERA, despite walking a league-high 132 batters, and allowed only 178 hits in 273 innings while striking out 325, at the time the fourth-best total in modern ML history. He struck out 15 Tigers in 10 innings June 5, and his 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings set a ML record broken by Dwight Gooden in 1984.
Sudden Sam continued to terrorize AL hitters in 1966, leading the league in strikeouts and shutouts and pitching back-to-back one-hitters. After losing the strikeout title to Jim Lonborg in 1967, he regained it in 1968, with 283, and recorded a 1.81 ERA (second-best in the AL). He also walked a league-high 110. He struck out 279 in 1969, and in 1970 McDowell was TSN Pitcher of the Year with 20 wins and 304 strikeouts. He fanned 16 Angels on May 1, 1968, and 15 batters three more times.
His biggest problem was not batters. “I was the biggest, most hopeless, and most violent drunk in baseball,” McDowell would admit later. He won only 13 games in 1971, walking a career-high 153, as his drinking began to affect his on-field performance. He was traded to the Giants for 1972, winning 10 games for the last time. He finished in the Pirates’ bullpen in 1975.
McDowell struck out 2,453 batters in his career. His total of 74 games with 10 or more strikeouts is fourth behind Ryan, Koufax, and Steve Carlton, and his career average of 8.86 strikeouts per nine innings trails only Ryan and Koufax. He led the league in walks five times and wild pitches three times, but averaged only seven hits allowed per nine innings for his career. McDowell has been employed by the Texas Rangers as a counselor to drug- and alcohol-addicted players.