Things I meant to write just after Mark Fidrych died; or, They don’t make ’em like Ralph Houk any more

ADDED 3/26/16: I have updated this post here.

When Mark Fidrych died after a truck fell on top of him on his farm earlier this year, most of the tributes focused on his unique personality.  But my first thoughtMark Fidrych bird was of his unique pitching record.  As a rookie in 1976, under manager Ralph Houk, Fidrych pitched one inning in the Tigers’ first 23 games.  But he went on to win 19 games while completing 24 of his 29 starts.  It was a workload the likes of which we don’t see in the 21st century, and it deserves a closer look.

In Mark’s first major league appearance, he entered a tie game in the bottom of the ninth with one out and runners on the corners.  Gave up a hit to the first batter he faced, Don Baylor, game over.  Two weeks later he pitched one mop-up inning in relief.  Ten days after THAT–the Tigers’ 24th game of the season–he pitched a complete game two-hitter.  And he was off to the races.

In Fidrych’s third major league start, he pitched an 11-inning complete game.  He pitched the entire 11th inning even though he gave up three hits, a walk and the go-ahead run (the Tigers came back to win in the bottom of the inning).  He faced Mark Fidrych47 batters–that’s right, two guys batted against him SIX times.  (Believe it or not, that wasn’t the most batters a pitched faced in a game in 1976.  Catfish Hunter shut out the Angels for 13 innings, faced 52 batters, and didn’t get the decision as the Yankees won in 15.)

Five days later, he pitched ANOTHER 11-inning complete game, facing 41 batters.  The most batters any pitcher has faced in a game in 2009 is 37; Fidrych topped that twice in a week.  He was 21 years old.  (For what it’s worth, the last time a major league pitcher faced 41 batters in a game was 2002.  The last time a pitcher faced 47 batters was 1986, and that was knuckleballer Charlie Hough.  For a non-knuckleballer, you have to go back to 1983 and 40-year-old Tommy John.  For a pitcher who hadn’t yet turned 27, you go back to 1980.)

Six days later, complete game. Five days later, complete game.  Five days after that he was lifted in the 8th–and then he threw six straight complete games, including another of 11 innings that came three days after he started and pitched two innings in the All-Star Game.

There would be another stretch of six straight complete games in August, two of them going extra innings in which he faced 43 and 42 batters.  And five of the six games–including both the extra-inning games–were thrown on just three days rest.

Get this stretch in late August: complete game, four days later a 10-inning complete game (gave up four runs in the 10th), four days later another complete game, four days later a complete game that he lost in the bottom of the 12th. That’s 39-1/3 innings in less than two weeks.

Then he finished the season with five complete games in his last six starts (although he was knocked out in the third in the other one). He led the league with 24 complete games (in just 29 starts!) and went at least seven innings in two other

Mark Fidrych, mound maintenance expert

Mark Fidrych, mound maintenance expert

games.  He had four games in which he faced at least 42 batters; no pitcher has had more such games in a season since 1969.  He pitched at least 11 innings in four games…no pitcher has had more of those in a season going all the way back through 1954 in the games Baseball-Reference.com has chronicled.

Did I mention Fidrych didn’t turn 22 until August?

In 1976 Fidrych started 13 games with just three days rest…it’s been 22 years now since a pitcher had more such starts in a season.  Fidrych completed 11 of those 13 starts, going 9-2 with a 2.61 ERA.  But in eight starts with at least five days rest, he completed them all and had a 1.32 ERA in 75 innings.  Wow.

Despite a workload that would be beyond what any pitcher–let alone one so young–has done for a generation now, the injury that started Fidrych’s road to early retirement wasn’t to his arm.  It was torn cartilage in his knee from a fall in the outfield while shagging flies in spring training in 1977.  But that injury may have led to his more serious arm injury because of changes to his pitching motion caused by the knee injury.  At least that’s the way Fidrych saw it.  Gary Smith wrote, in a 1986 profile of Fidrych for Sports Illustrated:

Nobody knew what caused the crippling pain [in his pitching arm], but many suspected it was Fidrych’s overeagerness to be a superstar pitcher again, that he’d begun throwing too hard too soon after he had injured the knee. “Maybe it was my stupidity,” he says. “I kept throwing. I didn’t want to give up. If you can’t perform, you’re gone, so you fool them as much as you can. I had to. I saw what was going on in my life.”

It’s common now to think Fidrych was never the same after his sensational rookie season.  But that’s wrong.  He started 1977 in the same groove.  The spring training Picture 1knee injury delayed his season debut, but his first start of 1977 came just 12 days later than his first start of 1976.  And that first start after the injury was a complete game in which Fidrych faced 36 batters and allowed just one earned run.

He threw complete games in seven of his first eight starts.  By that time he was 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA.  He didn’t give up a home run in his first 66-1/3 innings.  He faced 38 batters in each of those last two starts, with just three days rest between them.  Performance-wise, he was every bit the pitcher he was in 1976 (at least through the end of August), if not better.

Then he got the hell beat out of him in two starts, being knocked out in the sixth inning of each game, allowing 21 hits and 12 earned runs in 11-1/3 innings.  According to at least one account, Fidrych tore his right rotator cuff in the first of those two games, July 4 at Baltimore.  The injury was referred to as tendinitis at the time.  (In the 1986 SI piece, Gary Smith wrote Fidrych’s right shoulder popped

The Bird and his pigs, 1986

The Bird and his pigs, 1986

“ten days after he returned from the disabled list,” which would be early June, which seems unlikely based on his performance.)  Three days after the second of those games, he was pulled after facing three batters and was done for the year.  (Steve Crawford came in to relieve Fidrych in that game and threw 8-1/3 shutout innings.)

Fidrych didn’t have quite as much asked of him in 1977 as was the case in ’76.  He never pitched more than nine innings in a game or faced more than 38 batters.  He had more starts on four days rest than he had on three days.  Still, he managed to pitch 69 innings in just over a month (34 days) once he started his season.

Fidrych was apparently back at full strength at the start of spring training in 1978.  He discussed the effect of his 1977 injuries in an April 1978 Sports Illustrated story by Larry Keith:

“I was a different person,” the Bird says. “I had the bad leg and the bad arm and I was trying to get my head together. Everything I count on, my bread and butter, was missing, and it got me down. The doctors told me to relax, and some of the older players told me how they had come back from injuries, but I didn’t really know about myself until I went down to the instructional league in October. Then I knew for sure. I said, ‘Oh, wow! I can throw.’ “

He was the Tigers’ opening day starter and got a complete game win.  Four days later, another complete game win.  But he was pulled after four innings of his third start, when his shoulder stiffened up, and he would not pitch in a major league game again for more than a year.

But Fidrych’s struggles beyond 1978 are not my interest here, because Ralph Houk retired as Detroit’s manager after the 1978 season.  During his time playing for

Ralph Houk in his Tiger garb

Ralph Houk in his Tiger garb

Houk, Fidrych completed 33 of 43 starts and posted a 27-13 record.  He had a 2.47 ERA, allowing just 70 walks and 15 home runs in 353-1/3 innings.  Of course, he had only 3.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, not a strong indicator of long-term success even if healthy.  But he was certainly a remarkable pitcher in his time with Houk.

Houk had other pitchers through the years, like Fidrych in 1976, whom he used in ways that are completely unknown today.  I had set out to include some of those in this post and then I got carried away with The Bird, but I’ll work on something down the line.

Oh, and Mark Fidrych did once bat cleanup for the Tigers.  Yes, in a major league game that counted.  See details in the previous post.

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One thought on “Things I meant to write just after Mark Fidrych died; or, They don’t make ’em like Ralph Houk any more

  1. Pingback: UPDATE: Things I meant to write just after Mark Fidrych died | The J.G. Preston Experience

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