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Temporarily Dominant Pitchers
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
November 21, 2009
We all know about Fernando Valenzuela, Vida Blue, Dwight Gooden, and Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, four pitchers who had magnificent bursts onto the scene but could never match their early career brilliance. What do they all have in common? Could it be that their success, while fleeting, was also the product of their environment and not necessarily a product of their own talent? Let's have a look.
How awesome was Fernando Valenzuela in 1981? As a twenty-year old rookie, he led the league in games started, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, and strikeouts, while compiling a 2.48 ERA and a 135 ERA+.
But, there is more to the story than that. The rest of the story is the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers.
For example, guess where Fernando’s 2.48 ERA and 135 ERA+ ranked amongst the team’s starting pitchers in 1981? If you guessed first or second, you are incorrect – in 1981, Fernando finished third amongst Dodgers starters in both categories. And the two guys ahead of him aren’t exactly Hall of Famers – Jerry Reuss had a 2.30 ERA and 146 ERA+, while Burt Hooten had marks of 2.28 and 147.
The Dodgers were quite the pitcher-friendly team from 1980-1982. Consider Jerry Reuss: In 22 years prior to the 1980 season, Reuss compiled a 115-108 record with a 3.78 ERA, 96 ERA+, and a 1.54 K/BB ratio. But from 1980-1982, Reuss went 46-21 with a 2.70 ERA, 129 ERA+, and a K/BB ratio of 2.56. Hooten was definitely a much better pitcher prior to 1981 than Reuss was, but his 2.28 ERA and 147 ERA+ were still career highs, and his 2.24 K/BB was the third highest of his career. Plus, rookie Dave Stewart had the lowest ERA of his career on that team.
Fernando still had an awesome year in 1981, but it is clear that the Dodgers as a whole had excellent pitching support that year – in the form of some combination of coaching, defense, or ballpark – and it is not surprising that Fernando was not able to match that performance again later in his career.
How good was Dwight Gooden his first three years in the league? From 1984 to 1986, Gooden went 58-19 with a 2.28 ERA and 155 ERA+, striking 744 batters in 744.2 innings, giving up only 6.7 hits per nine innings, and boasting a 3.35 K/BB ratio. He also led the league in strikeouts in each of his first two seasons.
Unlike Valenzuela, however, Gooden was not pitching on a dominant pitching staff. Even with Gooden’s numbers included, the Mets had a 98 ERA+ in 1984, and finished with the fourth highest ERA in the National League. While Gooden had an amazing 276 strikeouts and 6.6 hits allowed per nine innings in 1984, no one else on his team finished anywhere near those numbers.
In 1985, Gooden’s best season, he led the NL in wins, ERA, complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA+ with a 228, which is good for 12th all time. That year, the Mets' staff improved markedly, with Ron Darling going 16-6 with a 2.90 ERA, and Sid Fernandez going 9-9 with 180 strikeouts and a 2.80 ERA in 170.1 innings. Perhaps the difference between Gooden’s 1984 and 1985 seasons was the improvement around him.
In 1986, Gooden returned to earth, and he was matched or bested by several teammates in several categories. Bob Ojeda finished with more wins, Ojeda and Darling each had better ERAs and ERA+s, while Fernandez matched Gooden’s 200 strikeouts in 46 fewer innings pitched, as well as matching his hits allowed per inning. Fernandez, Gooden, and Ojeda each also finished with 0.6 homeruns per nine innings, and Ojeda and Rick Aguilera each finished with better K/BB ratios. Gooden also finished second on the team with 17 homeruns allowed, and led the team with 13 unearned runs. Despite Gooden’s obvious dominance in 1984, and excellent season in 1985, 1986 was for Gooden and the Mets what 1981 had been for Fernando and the Dodgers.
And after 1986, Gooden was not worthy of superlatives again in his career.
How awesome was Mark “The Bird” Fidrych in 1976? He led the league in ERA, complete games, and ERA+, plus finished second in the league in Cy Young voting to Jim Palmer. Of 12 pitchers to appear for the Detroit Tigers in 1976, only two – Fidrych and closer John Hiller, finished with winning records. Dave Roberts pitched two more innings than Fidrych and went 16-17 compare to Fidrych’s 19-9, as the Tigers finished 74-87 overall. Mark was also the only pitcher other than Hiller (2.38) and Vern Ruhle (3.92) with an ERA under 4.00. Despite his absurdly low 97 strikeouts in 250.1 innings, and 1.83 K/BB ratio, he actually finished second behind Hiller in strikeouts and led the team in K/BB.
The Detroit Tigers allowed the fourth most runs/game in all of baseball in 1976, even including Mark’s numbers. Despite the fact that Mark finished third in the AL in WHIP, the Tigers finished third from the bottom of the league in that category as a team. And despite the fact that Mark allowed only 12 homeruns all season while pitching a sixth of his team’s games, the Tigers still finished fourth in the majors in homeruns allowed.
I don’t know how Mark the Bird would have sustained his success without striking out more batters than he did, and you never know what’s going to happen with a 21-year old kid in the next five, ten, or fifteen seasons. But Mark the Bird was playing on a bad team with pitchers who were not performing well, and he was a dominant major league pitcher. Mark the Bird was awesome in 1976.
How awesome was Vida Blue in 1971? At the age of 21, he led the league in ERA, shutouts, WHIP, hits allowed per inning, and strikeouts per nine innings. He also struck out 301 batters in 312 innings, won 24 games, completed 24 games, and had a 3.42 K/BB.
But he was also pitching for the Oakland Athletics.
The BaseballReference.com three-year park factor for the A’s in 1971 was 97, which favors pitchers. Blue’s catcher in 1971 was Dave Duncan, the same Dave Duncan who has been Tony LaRussa’s pitching coach/guru/miracle worker for 20 years. Blue’s league-leading ERA came on a team that finished second in the AL behind the amazing Orioles pitching staff in team ERA. Oakland also finished 101-60, and featured five other pitchers with winning records, including 15-5 Chuck Dobson and 21-11 Catfish Hunter. Of full time regular starters and relievers, only Blue Moon Odom finished with more hits than innings pitched.
This is not to say that any Oakland Athletics pitcher came close to Blue. No other pitcher had more than 181 strikeouts or an ERA+ over 118. Only Blue and Rollie Fingers topped a K/BB of 3.0, and no other starter finished with a WHIP under 1.114, while Blue’s was 0.952.
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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