April 14, 2009

Mark Fidrych Dead At 54

The first time I ever saw Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych -- and probably the first time most of you who are old enough to have been watching baseball 33 years ago -- was on ABC's Monday Night Baseball on June 28, 1976. I was 12 and it was my first real season as a baseball fan. In his ninth major league start, he shut down the Yankees 5-1.

Fidrych -- who also pitched for the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1982 and 1983 after being released by the Tigers -- was found by a friend yesterday afternoon under a truck he apparently had been repairing. He was only 54 years old.

Throughout that nationally televised game -- at a time when only one game per week was shown nationwide (and in Vermont, Red Sox games were shown only on weekends) -- fans watched Fidrych talk to the baseball before pitching. Before he began an inning, he got down on his hands and knees to groom the mound, smoothing out cleat marks and other imperfections. He was already a celebrity in Detroit, but after that night, Fidrych became a star.
He would ... throw back balls that "had hits in them," insisting they be removed from the game ["I want it to get back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls in there. Maybe it'll learn some sense and come out as a pop-up next time."]. ... Every time he pitched, Tiger Stadium was jam-packed with adoring fans who became known as "Bird Watchers". In his 18 appearances, attendance equalled almost half of the entire season's 81 home games. Teams started asking Detroit to change its pitching rotation so Fidrych could pitch in their ballparks [He started on only three days rest 13 times in 1976] ...



Fidrych finished the 1976 season with 19 wins. He led the American League in ERA (2.34), ERA+ (158) and complete games (24). He had the 3rd lowest WHIP (1.079) and 5th lowest walks per nine innings (1.9). He started the All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Year, finished 2nd for the Cy Young Award and 11th in the MVP voting.

Fidrych tore cartilage in his knee during spring training the following year and made only 11 starts (from May 27 and July 12). He also tore his rotator cuff (though it went undiagnosed at the time) and pitched only three times in 1978, all in April.

Take a look at Fidrych's game log for 1976 and you'll see one of the clearest examples of a manager abusing a young pitching talent -- Fidrych was only 21 (he turned 22 that August) -- and quite possibly ruining his career.

The Bird completed 24 of his 29 starts and threw a whopping 250.1 innings. Manager Ralph Houk had Fidrych throw back-to-back 11-inning complete games on May 31 and June 5. He pitched at least nine innings in 23 of those 29 starts.
9, 8, 11, 11, 9, 9, 7.1, 9, 9, 9, 9, 11, 9, 4.1, 9,
7, 9, 9, 9, 10, 9, 11.1, 3.2, 9, 9, 2.2, 9, 9, 9
He faced at least 34 batters -- nearly four times through the lineup -- in 17 of his 29 starts. B-Ref does not have pitch counts for these games, but I swear I read somewhere that games of 130-150 pitches were common. (If anyone has any info, let me know.)

Out of Left Field:
Fidrych was also kind of a poster child for the abuse of young arms. The double edge of his runaway success was that the Detroit Tigers allowed a pitcher just two years out of high school to throw 24 complete games — a career for some pitchers — in 29 starts, including five extra-inning games. Using Tom Tango's pitch count estimator, one can guesstimate that Fidrych had several games where he threw 150 to 175 pitches. For instance, in his fourth career start, he pitched an 11-inning, 5-4 win, with four bases on balls; he probably threw in the area of 176 pitches.
BP's Will Carroll (my emphasis):
If a dude stood on the mound and talked to the ball today, I think they'd gently remove him from the mound, cut to an ad for Effexor, and then take him to the showers where they'd all beat him with sanitary socks filled with gravel. Of course, that would have been a good thing to do to Ralph Houk, the manager that sent a 21 year old rookie out for 250 innings in just 29 starts. While we don't have pitch counts for these games, he only had three starts where he faced less than 25 batters. ... His arm turned to mush ...
In my mind, the other prime example of the unnecessary abuse of a young pitcher's arm is Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman's mismanagement of Kerry Wood in 1998.

In both cases, it seemed like the Tigers and Cubs worked Fidrych and Wood as much as possible, squeezing as much out of them as they could, and not giving a damn about any future consequences. For the major league club, after all, there's always another young arm right around the corner. And what could Fidrych or Wood do -- complain about pitching too many innings? It's an crucial aspect of the game that is almost always forgotten when fans and media gripe about excessive players' salaries.

20 comments:

FenFan said...

Unfortunately, I was just a little too young to be watching Monday Night Baseball in 1976. I have seen that game, though, replayed on ESPN Classic several years ago. RIP...

Bill Monbouquette is a name that springs to mind of a young pitcher overworked to the point that it shortened what was a promising career. He averaged 236 innings over six seasons between 1960 and 1965 and nine complete games per season in eight years with the Sox in the midst of a span where Boston was less of a ballclub and more of a "country club."

In 1963, at age 26, he led the team with 20 games in 36 starts, which included 13 complete games, and pitched 266-2/3 total innings (a career high). He made it a surprising 11 seasons but was done by age 31.

I'm sure there are others from the time frame that the Sox abused to the same extent (Don Schwall and Dick Radatz are candidates).

L-girl said...

That was the real beginning of my baseball time too. Fidrych was one of the first players I recognized and enjoyed. I don't actually know if I watched that game, but it's likely I did.

His death at way too young an age is so sad.

* * * *

For the major league club, after all, there's always another young arm right around the corner. Teams can still treat players like cash machines, with no regard to their lives and health. No one even questions the inherent conflict of interest in having a "team doctor".

The Omnipotent Q said...

Actually in 1976, there were two nationally scheduled games per week: NBC on Saturdays and ABC on Mondays. I watched both religiously every week (the Red Sox were on a lot on Saturdays). I remember seeing The Bird's June game against the MFY. He was a breath of fresh and a joy to watch on the mound. Very sad he's now gone.

Good piece on how he was abused as a rookie...

James said...

To be fair, the majority of teams are now over-protective of their pitchers, especially their young pitchers. You hear some fans complaining when guys throw 110-115 pitches, which doesn't make any sense. A lot of experts think a four man rotation is no worse for pitchers than a five man, as long as you don't have them go over, say, 110 in blowouts, don't leave them out for a bunch of stressful innings, and you keep an eye on their velocity, arm slot, and mechanics.

Teams aren't doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, they're giving out multi-million dollar signing bonuses and nine figure player contract. It's causing everyone to subscribe to some silly groupthink.

If I were the Royals, I'd try a four man rotation, getting my pitchers like Meche and Greinke 40 stars a piece, limitting them to about 110 pitches each game, and pulling them once the game is decided. How many games are over by the fourth? How much value is there in removing 30 Sidney Ponson starts, and replacing them with starts by better starters and by leveraged bullpen innings?

L-girl said...

Just to be clear, I said teams *can* still treat players like machines, not that they necessarily do. There's nothing to stop a stupid manager or greedy front office from overworking a pitcher and shortening his career. I'm sure we haven't seen the last of what happened to Fidrych or Kerry Wood.

Suldog said...

He was a lot of fun to watch. I was 19 then, and "Bird" represented something of a counter-culture hero to baseball fans my age. I was greatly saddened upon learning of his death.

redsock said...

Actually in 1976, there were two nationally scheduled games per week: NBC on Saturdays and ABC on Mondays. I watched both religiously every week (the Red Sox were on a lot on Saturdays).Thanksk. I don't recall that. I'm not sure if my local ABC affiliate carried Sox on both Saturday and Sunday.

I do recall being highly annoyed that every time I watched them, Jenkins was pitching. Then I go to Fenway for the first time and guess who is starting!

redsock said...

To be fair, the majority of teams are now over-protective of their pitchers, especially their young pitchers. You hear some fans complaining when guys throw 110-115 pitches, which doesn't make any sense.There is absolutely no consensus about this. I would disagree with the term "over-protective". 120 seems to be a dividing line.

redsock said...

I'm sure we haven't seen the last of what happened to Fidrych or Kerry Wood.***

Look at Tim Lincecum last August and September . The Giants were well .500 and there he is Bruce Bochy having him throw 138 pitches in a 7-0 shutout.

That came in a sequence of starts with 132, 92, 127, 138 and 118.

James said...

I'm with you, L-girl. One only has to look at what Dusty Baker is doing to Edison Volquez (incredible name) and Johnny Cueto. It drives me nuts that the only managers who don't follow the accepted wisdom are backwards thinking, not forward-thinking. I feel like an average team could pick up an extra 7-10 wins just by leveraging pitcher innings differently and using their bench a little more creatively.

L-girl said...

Some of the "experts" who advocate a four-man rotation are former pitchers who come from the "players today are too soft" school of thought. Before any team goes to 4 man rotation, I would hope they'd consult physical therapists, orthopedists, and other actual experts who might know better what the human body can withstand over time.

Mike Florio said...

Hey, great post - thanks!

I remember watching that game on TV too (with the one and only Howard Cosell hyping the whole "Bird" thing). I also remember Saturdays on NBC with Joe Garragiola doing the games.

I'm a native New Yorker, but I really liked the BoSox a lot back in the 70's. (I was always a Mets fan first anyway, at least until they traded Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Kingman away...)

redsock said...

That's the other thing that is ignored. We always hear about the pitchers who threw 300+ innings and felt great -- freaks of nature like Nolan Ryan.

We never hear about the young men whose shoulders and elbows were blown out in the minors or in their first or second year in the bigs, a lifetime of promise gone needlessly down the drain.

Their names are forgotten, yet they are an essential part of the discussion.

James said...

The experts I'm referring to are researchers at places like Baseball Prospectus and the Hardball Times, as well as guys like Tom Tango. Most of the studies they've done have found that high pitch counts + long innings correlate more with injury and fast decline a lot more than pitching on 3 vs. 4 days rest. Bill James feels the same way.

I'm not denying that a lot of the way pitchers were used in the past contributed to their downfall (look at Sandy Koufax, for one!). The problem is, when salaries ballooned and it became necessary for owners to treat their players less like cattle and more like stock market investments (treating them like humans hasn't crossed anyone's mind, yet), teams started having pitchers throw less innings per games and less games per year.

Everyone realized that pitchers should probably pitch less to stay healthy, but they didn't really consider that some ways of pitching less would be more helpful than others.

1 45 pitch inning shouldn't be treated the same as 3 15 pitch innings, the former is a lot more stressful, as player will be more likely to throw hard when they're in trouble, and they'll have less time to rest. If it seems like guys like Johan Santana and CC Sabathia (and Pedro Martinez, in his prime) don't get hurt despite pitching a ton, I'd wager that a lot of that is due to efficient innings. It takes Santana a lot less effort to get through an inning than guys like, say, Scott Kazmir.

My point is this: most pitchers can handle somewhere between 180-220 innings a year if they're managed smartly. The Sox used 23 pitchers to pitch 1450 innings last year. Over 300 of those innings went to Lopez, Timlin, Byrd, Aardsma, Colon, Hansen, Chris Smith, Tavarez, Pauley, Hansack, Corey, Zink, and Snyder. I think a smart and creative manager could spread about half of those 300 innings over Lester, Wakefield, Beckett, Dice-K, Papelbon, Delcarmen, Masterson, and Okajima. That's less than 19 addition innings for each one of them. How many runs does that save you over the course of a year? 30? 40?

And the Red Sox don't have any real need to do this, because our pitching is so deep and we're so good already. But a team like Kansas, or Seattle, or Washington with really shallow pitching and nothing to lose could stand to gain a lot more than 30 or 40 runs by taking runs away from Sidney Ponson and whatever AAAA relievers no one's ever heard of they're going to give 30 innings to.

James said...

The experts I'm referring to are researchers at places like Baseball Prospectus and the Hardball Times, as well as guys like Tom Tango. Most of the studies they've done have found that high pitch counts + long innings correlate more with injury and fast decline a lot more than pitching on 3 vs. 4 days rest. Bill James feels the same way.

I'm not denying that a lot of the way pitchers were used in the past contributed to their downfall (look at Sandy Koufax, for one!). The problem is, when salaries ballooned and it became necessary for owners to treat their players less like cattle and more like stock market investments (treating them like humans hasn't crossed anyone's mind, yet), teams started having pitchers throw less innings per games and less games per year.

Everyone realized that pitchers should probably pitch less to stay healthy, but they didn't really consider that some ways of pitching less would be more helpful than others.

1 45 pitch inning shouldn't be treated the same as 3 15 pitch innings, the former is a lot more stressful, as player will be more likely to throw hard when they're in trouble, and they'll have less time to rest. If it seems like guys like Johan Santana and CC Sabathia (and Pedro Martinez, in his prime) don't get hurt despite pitching a ton, I'd wager that a lot of that is due to efficient innings. It takes Santana a lot less effort to get through an inning than guys like, say, Scott Kazmir.

My point is this: most pitchers can handle somewhere between 180-220 innings a year if they're managed smartly. The Sox used 23 pitchers to pitch 1450 innings last year. Over 300 of those innings went to Lopez, Timlin, Byrd, Aardsma, Colon, Hansen, Chris Smith, Tavarez, Pauley, Hansack, Corey, Zink, and Snyder. I think a smart and creative manager could spread about half of those 300 innings over Lester, Wakefield, Beckett, Dice-K, Papelbon, Delcarmen, Masterson, and Okajima. That's less than 19 addition innings for each one of them. How many runs does that save you over the course of a year? 30? 40?

And the Red Sox don't have any real need to do this, because our pitching is so deep and we're so good already. But a team like Kansas, or Seattle, or Washington with really shallow pitching and nothing to lose could stand to gain a lot more than 30 or 40 runs by taking runs away from Sidney Ponson and whatever AAAA relievers no one's ever heard of they're going to give 30 innings to.

L-girl said...

I'm a native New YorkerAs am I. Now a displaced native New Yorker.

But at least I was never a Mets fan! ;)

redsock said...

James: I generally agree with what you wrote -- stressful innings, less like cattle, etc. -- thanks for posting it.

It's the knee-jerk reactions or ignorant nostaglia of former players and media and fans that annoy me so much.

But could someone like Bot have thrown 19 more innings last year? He said he was completely cooked in the last few games of the ALCS.

If baseball is going to go back to a four-man rotation, it has to be implemented at every level from Little League on up. Pitchers can't do what they are doing now, then get to the bigs and suddenly have a different routine.

And as I have mentioned before, the average innings per start has been steadily decreasing for 120+ years. (I gotta find that article/study.) It isn't anything new and pitchers aren't suddenly soft. In fact, the former pitchers that are praised nowadays for their heavy workloads were undoubtedly called wimps by the pitchers of the previous generation who threw even more innings.

In 1883 and 1884, Old Hoss Radbourn pitched 632.1 and 678.2 innings. (BRef) Now there was a man!

Pepe Lepew said...

So sad he died young, so sad he didn't have more of a career. I can *barely* remember that great year he had.
My recollection is, and I could be wrong, because I was really little, was that Fidrych started out amazing, something like 9-1, but then faded a bit down the stretch. Maybe the damage to his arm was already happening.

Pepe Lepew said...

That was the real beginning of my baseball time too. Fidrych was one of the first players I recognized and enjoyed. I don't actually know if I watched that game, but it's likely I did.I liked Fidrych because my dad said he was a "damned hippie."
I liked Randy Moffitt for the same reason.

James said...

Yeah, I just used the Sox because this is a Sox website. I think we do a pretty good job with this. It makes more sense with the Nats or the Mariners.