October 9, 2019 By: Mario Impemba
Zeeland, Michigan is a small Dutch town located on the west side of the state with a population of roughly 5,500 people. It is home to several world-renowned companies including Meade Johnson (the baby formula company) and automotive and aerospace manufacturer Gentex. While Michiganders may also know Zeeland for its recreational areas, and proximity to the lake, few know it as the hometown of one of baseball’s all-time winningest pitchers, Jim Kaat..
Although Kaat reached fame in cities such as Washington D.C., Minneapolis and Philadelphia, his roots can be traced to his youth in West Michigan. He attended Zeeland High School and eventually pitched at Hope College in Holland, MI. Kaat remains the only major leaguer ever produced by Zeeland High and he is one of three players ever to play at Hope and in the big leagues.
Signed by the Senators out of Hope in the late 50’s, Kaat joined a short list of players to play professionally from the small college. Doc Lavan played at Hope in the early 1900’s and spent the majority of his 12-year major league career in St. Louis. A light-hitting shortstop, Lavan finished his career with a lifetime .245 average. George Zuverink played at Hope in the 1940’s before spending parts of eight seasons in the major leagues with Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and Baltimore. A right-handed pitcher, Zuverink was 32-36 in his career. Kaat clearly was the most accomplished of the three
Kaat became a consistent winner in the big leagues, finishing his career with 283 wins and an ERA of 3.45. In the two-decade span of the 60’s and 70’s, only Gaylord Perry won more games that Kaat in the major leagues.
He also started three games in the 1965 World Series, all against Sandy Koufax. He out-dueled Koufax in Game 2, spinning a complete game in a 5-1 over the Dodgers.
Changing his Delivery
As his career progressed, Kaat became know for two things: his pitching motion and the ability to field his position with the best of them. A double-digit winer for 12 straight seasons, Kaat found himself struggling during the 1974 campaign while with the White Sox. His pitching coach at the time was Johnny Sain, an accomplished pitcher in his own right who had won 20 or more games four times in his career. Sain suggest a change in Kaat’s delivery, a shorter stride that today would be known as a slide step. The change did wonders, as Kaat went on to win 21 games in 1974 and 20 more in 1975, his age 36 and 37 seasons.
Fielding his Position
Kaat also took extreme pride in his ability to field his position. Kaat won 16 Gold Glove Awards in his career, a number bested only by Greg Maddux who accumulated 18. Kaat became serious about his defense as a youth. On the smaller side as a high school player, he became a fan on Philadelphia’s Bobby Shanz who stood only 5’6″ tall. Shanz was a three-time All-Star and won the MVP in 1952, winning 24 games for the A’s that season. He also won eight Gold Gloves.
Kaat never won a Cy Young Award, but he had three Top-5 finishes in his career, including 1966 when he finished second to Sandy Koufax. He made 41 starts that season, winning 25 games and throwing 19 complete games. His 304 innings led the league in what would be his best season in the big leagues.
Sitting Atop the Charts
With 283 victories, Kaat has won more games than any Michigan-born pitcher in the history of the game, including Hall of Famers Hal Newhouser and John Smoltz. Smoltz did spend a portion of his career as a closer, saving 154 games in his career.
The odds are steep that a kid can rise from a small Michigan community of 5,500 to the major leagues. Yet, Kaat’s perseverance paved the way. Nearly 300 wins later, he is always proud to say he is Michigan-Made.
The following is a list of the top 10 winningest pitchers born in the state of Michigan:
Note: Each city listed is the player’s birth city. Player may have grown up in different area.