UPDATE: Things I meant to write just after Mark Fidrych died

BirdI started this blog in 2009; I now have some additional resources so I thought I might revisit and revise some of my earlier posts. In this case I want to embellish a post I wrote a few months after Mark Fidrych died when he was just 54 years old; like his life, his playing career ended far too soon. Known as “The Bird” for his resemblance to “Sesame Street”‘s Big Bird, Fidrych was a nationally-known phenom in 1976 when he led the American League in ERA, won Rookie of the Year honors and was runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting for the Detroit Tigers, but because of injuries he won only 10 more games in his major league career.

Much of what was written about Fidrych both during his heyday and after his death focused on his unique personality, but I want to focus on the unusual way in which Tiger manager Ralph Houk used him. It’s something the likes of which we rarely saw before and haven’t seen since.

Fidrych had played just one-and-a-half seasons of pro ball before 1976 and had pitched just 205 innings, only 54 of them above Class A; he wasn’t even on the Tigers’ 40-man roster going into spring training and didn’t turn 22 until August 1976. Despite his youth and inexperience he pitched 250-1/3 innings for the Tigers in 1976, which certainly sounds like a lot by today’s standards; no one has thrown more than 250 innings in a season since another Tiger, Justin Verlander, worked 251 in 2011. (And, as we will see, he actually pitched even more because he started three in-season exhibition games and the All-Star Game.) It certainly was a heavy workload for one so young; since Fidrych the only pitchers to throw 250 or more innings in a season at such a young age are Dwight Gooden (twice), Fernando Valenzuela and Roger Erickson.

Fidrych RS

Not many baseball players have made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone…Mark Fidrych did when he was 22

But his innings pitched don’t tell the whole story of Fidrych’s unusual workload, because he didn’t start a game until Detroit’s 24th game of he season and had worked just one inning in relief prior to that (at least in games that counted); essentially it’s as if he pitched in a 138-game season (the Tigers played only 161 because of a rainout). Despite the late start he pitched 24 complete games; since World War II, the only pitcher who had more in a season at anywhere near as young an age was Bert Blyleven, who threw 25 complete games as a 22-year-old in 1973. And Blyleven entered that season with two-and-a-half years of major league experience. Fidrych’s 24 complete games came in only 29 starts, meaning he went the distance 82.8% of the time. Since then, the only pitcher who has started at least 20 games in a season and completed more than 75% of them is Rick Langford, who completed 28 of 33 starts (84.8%) for Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s in 1980, when he was 28. The only other pitchers who have completed more than 75% of their starts in a season since 1954 are all Hall of Famers: Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Bob Gibson (twice) and Juan Marichal. And Gibson (who completed 28 of 34 starts in his fabulous 1968 season) is the only man aside from Fidrych and Langford to complete more than 80% of his starts (in a season with 20 or more) since 1953.

What’s more:

  • In five of Fidrych’s starts he pitched at least 10 innings, the most such starts in a season for any pitcher that young since at least 1913, the period covered by Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index. (Seattle Bill James…not to be confused with Kansas Bill James…had seven such games as a 22-year-old for the “Miracle” Boston Braves of 1914. James won 26 games that year, plus two in the World Series, pitching a total of 343 innings. Perhaps not coincidentally, he developed arm trouble and won only five games in the rest of his major league career.) The only pitcher of any age who has had as many 10+-inning starts in a season since Fidrych was Mike Norris, who had five in 1980 (as a teammate of Rick Langford) at age 25.
  • Four times Fidrych pitched at least 11 innings; no pitcher of any age has had as many  such games since.
  • He also faced 40 or more batters in six starts; no pitcher of any age has had more such games in a season since, and only four have had as many.
Fidrych fans

Fans loved The Bird in ’76

Fidrych’s first major league appearance on April 20 came in an unusually stressful situation. Houk called on the 21-year-old to pitch to Don Baylor in Oakland in the Tigers’ seventh game of the season, bottom of the ninth, tie game, one out, runners on the corners. (That’s how you break in a rookie?) Baylor singled, game over.

Fidrych’s next outing was in an exhibition game against the Reds in Cincinnati on April 29, a fundraiser for the Greater Cincinnati Knothole program; he started and pitched at least six innings (I can’t find a box score, the line score I found shows Jim Crawford relieved him in the seventh). His next regular season game was an inning of mop-up relief on May 5. That would be his last ever major league relief appearance. On May 10 he started another exhibition fundraiser against the Reds, this one at Tiger Stadium on behalf of amateur baseball programs in the area, and went five innings. He was roughed up for eight hits and five runs.

Five days after that he made his first regular season start…and a legend was born.

First start

From the Detroit Free Press, May 16, 1976

Fidrych held the Indians hitless until Buddy Bell singled to lead off the top of the seventh; he finished with a complete game two-hitter and a 2-1 win. Houk followed that up by using Fidrych to start yet another exhibition game, May 20 against the Tigers’ top farm team in Evansville, Indiana (none of the brief accounts of that game I’ve found show how long Fidrych pitched, but it was long enough to give up five hits and strike out four).

The rookie returned to facing American League competition on May 25 at Fenway Park; Carl Yastrzemski hit a two-run homer in the fourth and Luis Tiant blanked the Tigers, 2-0, with Fidrych working an eight-inning complete game.

Fidrych TSNIn his third major league start, on May 31, Fidrych pitched an 11-inning complete game. Houk left him in to pitch 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 47 batters — that’s right, two guys (Robin Yount and Don Money) batted against him SIX times. The last time a pitcher faced at least 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. Fidrych is the only pitcher to do it before his 22nd birthday since 1967.

Five days later, he pitched ANOTHER 11-inning complete game, facing 41 batters. No pitcher faced more than 36 batters in a game in the entire 2015 season; Fidrych topped that twice in a week, just over a month into his major league career when he was 21 years old, and would do it five more times that season. (For what it’s worth, the last time a major league pitcher faced at least 41 batters in a game was 2002.)

TV

From the nationally televised win over the Yankees June 28, 1976

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 the nationally televised win over the Yankees that cemented his fame (you can watch it here) and an 11-inning shutout that came three days after he started and pitched two innings in the All-Star Game. (There have been only three shutouts of 11 innings or longer since then, the last of which was in 1990.)

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.

The last four of those games were as follows: complete game, four days later a 10-inning complete game (why the hell did Houk let him pitch to nine batters and give 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.

Fidrych finally showed he was human when he was knocked out in the fourth inning in his next start, but 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 pitched at least seven innings in 26 of his 29 starts.

Fidrych S&SIn 1976 Fidrych started 13 games with just three days rest (and that doesn’t include his post-All-Star shutout)…the last pitcher to have that many was Tom Browning in 1988.  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. (Of course, that does include the 11-inning shutout that came six days after his last regular season start but only three days after the All-Star Game.)

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 (that no longer appears to be online):

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 knee 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.

Fidrych 1977

1977 headline

From the Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1977

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.

Fidrych Sport

Sport magazine, July 1977

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. He later came to believe he tore his right rotator cuff in the first of those two games, July 4 at Baltimore, although the injury wasn’t diagnosed as such until 1985. (In the 1986 SI piece, Gary Smith wrote Fidrych’s right shoulder popped “ten days after he returned from the disabled list,” which would be early June, which seems unlikely based on his performance.) On July 12 he was pulled while facing the fourth batter of the game and was done for the year. (Jim Crawford came in to relieve Fidrych and threw 8-1/3 shutout innings.) According to the next day’s Detroit Free Press, team doctor Clarence Livingood diagnosed Fidrych’s problem as “a tired arm.”

“It don’t hurt,” Fidrych said. “I only can’t throw.”

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.

Fidrych 1978

From the Detroit Free Press, April 8, 1978

Four days later, another complete game win. But he was pulled after four innings of his third start, when his shoulder stiffened up. “I was going to stay out there until they knocked me out,” Fidrych said after the game, “but Ralph told me after the fourth inning that he was going to take me out. I guess it was a good thing he got me out of there before I hurt myself.”

“He said his wasn’t hurting, but when he threw, nothing happened,” Houk said. “He’s such a competitor, if I didn’t take him out, he would have kept going out there. And maybe he would have hurt himself. I’m certainly not going to take any chances with him.” (Not that you ever did, Ralph…)

1978 photo

From the Detroit Free Press, April 18, 1978. “The Tigers expect The Bird to be ready for his next turn Saturday.” His next major league appearance came 13 months later.

Fidrych would not pitch in a major league game again for more than a year. From then on he completed just one of 13 major league starts, going 2-6 with a 6.86 ERA.

But those last 13 starts came after Houk retired at the end of the 1978 season (he would return to the dugout with the Red Sox in 1981). During his time pitching for Houk, Fidrych completed 33 of 43 starts (76.7%) 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. And the way Houk used him was even more remarkable.

Here’s another way Ralph Houk was unusual in using his pitchers. Since 1967, a relief pitcher has worked 10 or more innings in a game only five times. Three of those were pitchers managed by Houk – for three different franchises:

  • Lindy McDaniel worked 13 innings in relief for the Yankees in 1973 (when he was 37) after Fritz Peterson suffered a leg injury in the second inning. That was the longest major league relief appearance since Eddie Rommel pitched 17 innings in 1932. McDaniel also had two relief outings of more than six innings in the three weeks prior to his marathon and pitched more than six innings in relief a total of five times that season. He worked 138-1/3 innings in relief that season in just 44 appearances (h also started three games and completed one!).
  • Jim Crawford (the man who pitched 8-1/3 innings in relief of Fidrych in 1977) went 10 innings for the Tigers in 1976. He entered the game in the first inning after starter Frank MacCormack walked three of the four hitters he faced (and threw two wild pitches) and took a no-hitter into the ninth before giving up a single to George Scott. Crawford pitched more than six innings in relief two other times that season.
  • Bob Stanley pitched 10 innings for the Red Sox in 1983, the last time a major leaguer pitched 10 or more innings in relief. Stanley pitched 168-1/3 innings in relief for Houk in 1982 and 145-1/3 in ’83. Only Mike Marshall (1973 and 1974) pitched more innings in a season without starting a game than Stanley did in 1982. And he did that in just 48 appearances, an average of more than 3-1/3 innings per relief appearance. That’s crazy off the charts; no other pitcher who has worked at least 20 games in a season without starting one has averaged more than 3 innings per appearance. Stanley is the last pitcher to work enough to qualify for the ERA championship in a season in which he didn’t start a game (and the others who did it all pitched significantly more games). In his career Stanley had 18 relief appearances of six innings or more, 11 of them for Houk.

In his first season managing the Tigers, 1974, Houk’s relievers had 16 appearances of six innings or longer; no team has had as many since 1941. John Hiller pitched 150 innings in relief for the ’74 Tigers (going 7-2/3 innings twice) with a record of 17-14, the most decisions in a season for a relief pitcher.

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3 thoughts on “UPDATE: Things I meant to write just after Mark Fidrych died

  1. Pingback: Things I meant to write just after Mark Fidrych died; or, They don’t make ’em like Ralph Houk any more | The J.G. Preston Experience

  2. graham64

    It was interesting to read how Fidrych pitched in exhibition games between Major League games. When was the last time that an exhibition game was played in the middle of a Major League baseball season?

    Reply
  3. Rich Looby

    The Phillies used to play the O’s in a JBF game. Junior Baseball Federation. I was at 1970 game. Might have been last one. Think Grant Jackson started.g

    Reply

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