March 31, 2009

The Legend of Mark Fidrych: baseball’s one year wonder

Filed under: Sports — Tags: , , , , , , — skeptisys @ 9:17 am
Mark Fidrych exudes boyish enthusiasm while signing autographs

Mark Fidrych exudes boyish enthusiasm while signing autographs

Mark Fidrych was a gigantic baseball star: a tremendous fan attraction seemingly created in Bill Veeck’s basement with ample portions of OCD, ADHD, and amphetamines. At a glorious time when cocaine, big hair, and disco were considered to be safe and fun, Fidrych was ultra boogie. He put his full intense positive energy into everything he did, and the fans loved him.

Before every inning, Fidrych would get on hands and knees and smooth the mound dirt with his hands. Before each pitch, he would bark at himself to stay focused; a habit often misconstrued as ‘talking to the baseball’. After good or bad plays, he would run full speed at his teammates to exuberantly pat them on the back.  If you weren’t a baseball fan in 1976, you would have a hard time believing the legend of ‘The Bird’. If you were a baseball fan in 1976, you will never forget Mark Fidrych. And then, in a flash, it was over…
Mark Fidrych was a great pitcher for only about 1 full season (I believe the standard soul contract with Satan is 1 year duration). He made his first career start about 1 month into the 1976 season, and was an active starter for about 1 month of the 1977 season before he tore his rotator cuff and was done as a dominant pitcher. This Fidrych active period lasted only 171 team games (not including his time on the injured list) producing this pitching stat line:
37 games started, 25 wins and 11 losses (.694 WP%) 2.31 ERA 319.3 innings pitched 61 walks and 136 strikeouts.
Astonishingly, of Mark’s first 37 career starts, he completed 31 games! Let’s put this in perspective, Grandpa Jaime Moyer has completed only 31 games in his entire 22 year career (584 starts)! Some people think Johan Santana is the best starting pitcher in baseball. He has 9 career complete games. CC Sabathia (26 career CG) Tim Hudson (22 career CG) and Andy Pettite (25 career CG) are considered durable pitchers by today standards, but have completed fewer games in their career than Fidrych did in his estimated one season.
Starting 37 games in a season was not uncommon in the 1970’s, but 31 complete games is such a rare accomplishment (or torture), I could not locate 1 pitcher with 31 CG in any of the last 50 seasons (1959-2008). Catfish Hunter did complete 30 games in 1975, his 1st Yankee season.  Catfish was 29 that season but only won 40 more games in his career.

Would Fidyrch have been a great pitcher if he remained healthy?  Bill James opines, “…in fact, it was always very unlikely that Mark Fidrych would have a career of more than a few seasons.  There is simply no such thing as a starting pitcher who has a long career with a low strikeout rate” – The New Bill James Historical Abstract. Bill James is probably right, but his analysis ignores the 1977 season, and Bill has also said that strikeout rates that increase in the pitcher’s 2nd season could be more indicative of long term potential. Prior to hurting his arm(and after he tore the cartilage in his knee) Fidrych pitched in 8 games in 1977, with these dominant results: 6W 2L 1.83ERA 69IP 61H 8BB 39K 234ERA+.  We should also take into account the following:

1. Fidrych’s strikeout rate was 5.1 k/g, up significantly from 3.5 k/g in 1976 – and above the 4.5 k/g threshold Bill noted in his article.  Also the 4.9 strikeout to walk ratio is extremely high (the career record in this category is only 4.4 by Tommy Bond).

2. Offense in 1977 was up significantly from the previous year (league ERA went from 3.70 to 4.28), and Tiger Stadium was an extreme hitters park.  Also, Fidrych was maneuvered to pitch at home, where he could draw the largest income for the Tigers.  In his first 37 starts, 24 were at Tiger Stadium.

3. Unique players, like Fidrych, are much harder to predict than more common types.  I looked for the most ‘Fidrych type’ seasons of the last 50 years, as a basis of comparison.  A Fidrych type season contains: a right handed pitcher with many complete games; excellent ERA+; an average to below average strikeout rate; good strikeout to walk ratio; young in age and major league experience.  By far, the most similar season I found was by Mike Mussina in 1992.

Mussina 1992: 32GS 8CG 18w 5L .783wp 241 IP 212h 2.54era 16hr 48bb 130k

Mussina won 20 games last season, to bring his career win total to 270.

Nowadays, a pitcher like Mark Fidrych could not exist.  His pitch count would be reduced to save his arm from injury.  The tiniest show of emotion on the baseball field would be criticized and possibly fined, and he would be pumped full of Ritalin before he puts on his first little league outfit.  Heck, maybe he is a baseball Big Foot, not existing at all except in grainy photographs and the memories of whiskey smelling sportswriters.

I ate Sugar Fristed Flakes until I got diabetes, and all I got was this baseball card

I ate Sugar Frosted Flakes until I got diabetes, and all I got was this baseball card

Photo via Corbis, and Vintage Baseball Cards.

Image: © Bettmann/CORBIS
Collection: Bettmann
Standard RM
Date Photographed: August 3, 1976, Bronx New York

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