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February 16, 2012

The BP Broadside

Fernandomania and Linsanity

by Steven Goldman

I am embarrassed to confess that at one time I thought Tom Seaver deserved the 1981 Cy Young Award over Fernando Valenzuela. Seaver had lost one of the closest votes ever to the Dodgers rookie, tying him in first place votes 8-8, but lost on a second-place vote, 70-67. Perhaps it was my sympathy for a great pitcher against an upstart, or simply my natural cynicism about any fad, and Fernandomania! was definitely that, though a bandwagon his fans were right about. I don’t know enough about basketball and the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin to tell you if he’s going to be a flash in the pan or a lasting contributor like Valenzuela was, but the excitement greeting his unexpected rise has some of the same flavor to it.

Thirty-one years later, it’s easy to forget just what an incredible debut Valenzuela had. The chubby 20-year-old had pitched 17 2/3 scoreless innings in relief in 1980 after posting a 3.10 ERA at San Antonio of the Texas League, a circuit in which the average ERA was 4.25. Flash forward to Opening Day 1981, when Jerry Reuss had to pull out of his scheduled start at home against the Astros and Joe Niekro. Instead of substituting Burt Hooton, Bob Welch, Rick Sutcliffe, or any other pitcher hanging around the staff, manager Tommy Lasorda went with the kid. The results were instantaneous, the lefty screwballer pitching a complete game shutout.

From there, it would be about six weeks before Valenzuela didn’t pitch a complete game or even recorded a loss. In his first eight starts, Valenzuela went 8-0 with seven complete games, five of them shutouts. In those 72 innings, he allowed just four runs (0.50 ERA) on 43 hits while walking 17 and striking out 68. He was less fun after that, posting a 3.66 ERA—above the league average—in the 17 starts remaining in the strike-truncated season, albeit with another three shutouts.

The chubby native of Mexico, the youngest of 12 children, caught fans’ imaginations with his eye roll toward Heaven as he delivered each pitch. The Dodgers didn’t have much hitting that year, but with excellent pitching from Fernando, Reuss, Hooton, and incumbent Rookie of the Year Steve Howe, they won the first half of the split schedule, won nail-biting playoff series from the Astros and Expos, then came back from being down two games to nothing to beat the Yankees in the World Series. Valenzuela went 3-1 in the postseason, beating the Yankees in a laborious World Series Game Three that saw him throw another complete game despite allowing four runs on nine hits and seven walks, including allowing home runs to Bob Watson and Rick Cerone.

Valenzuela was never 1981 good again, but came close sometimes and remained an annual Cy Young candidate through 1986, ostensibly his age-25 season—that first year, there were questions asked about the pitcher’s age. To that point in his career, he was 99-68 (.593) with a 2.94 ERA and a ridiculous 84 complete games in 200 career starts. Valenzuela wasn’t the same pitcher after that, going 74-85 with a below-average 4.23 ERA and vastly diminished command and lower strikeout rates. Let it not be said that he was a disappointment, but rather that he gave all he could to Lasorda. Assuming Valenzuela’s birthdate is correct, only a handful of pitchers have thrown more innings by the same age during the last 50 seasons:

Innings Pitched by Age-25 Season, 1961-2011

#

Pitcher

CG

IP

1

Bert Blyleven

115

1909

2

Larry Dierker

78

1625

3

Catfish Hunter

66

1587

4

Fernando Valenzuela

84

1554.2

5

Dwight Gooden

54

1523.2

6

Denny McLain

93

1501

7

Joe Coleman

61

1417

8

Frank Tanana

85

1411.1

9

Felix Hernandez

18

1388.1

10

Vida Blue

69

1367.2

When one looks at lists like these, it’s easy to see why so many excellent young pitchers in this period had short peak periods. It wasn’t Hunter’s diabetes or Gooden and Blue’s drug abuse or even McLain being the special guy that he is. Managers simply got these pitchers up young and then pushed them hard. Let’s look at the same list again but with peak innings instead of totals:

Peak Innings by Age-25 IP Leaders (to Age 25), 1961-2011

#

Pitcher

Year

IP

1

Bert Blyleven

1973

325

2

Larry Dierker

1969

305.1

3

Catfish Hunter

1971

273.2

4

Fernando Valenzuela

1985

272.1

5

Dwight Gooden

1985

276.2

6

Denny McLain

1968

336

7

Joe Coleman

1971

286

8

Frank Tanana

1976

288.1

9

Felix Hernandez

2010

249.2

10

Vida Blue

1971

312

We can’t know how things will play out for King Felix, who has been handled more gingerly than any of his predecessors, but the rest pitched too many innings at too young an age. Only Blyleven had the physiology to survive the burden.

Valenzuela’s rookie season is one of the five greatest of the last 60-plus years. Click the link, because the list is fascinating in that there are not many long careers in there. We’ve already discussed Gooden. Herb Score was derailed by taking a batted ball in the eye, but he always insisted that his arm was already going when the incident occurred. Jon Matlack stopped being interesting at 30. Gary Nolan was brilliant at times but just couldn’t stay healthy. John Montefusco started at 25 and was done as a strong starting pitcher at 28. Gary Peters went from two ERA titles to far below league average by the time he was 30. Ron Guidry started late and was inconsistent due to heavy workloads and the strain of throwing the slider… I could keep going; in so many cases, the best rookie pitchers did not have great careers. You have to go down to Don Sutton at number 14 and Tom Seaver at number 33 to find a Hall of Famer.

Again, I don’t know enough about basketball to be able to complete the Fernandomania analogy for you. I don’t know if there’s a curse for young guards that is equivalent to that of pitching too many innings, if too many minutes at too young an age can wear a player down. The one thing that I think I can say, even in my ignorance, is that nature abhors high-energy states, systems under tension. This is the “why” when we observe regression to the mean in statistics. With rare exceptions, greatness just don’t sustain itself. Maybe nature requires the intervention of Tommy Lasorda to correct things, but if it didn’t have him at its disposal it would find another way to drag the outlier back to the average. Maybe Lin is one of those rare talents that escapes this effect, but as the pitching list suggests, betting the under is the safest choice. 

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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