Saying goodbye to the Bird

From a book I wrote a few years ago:

    In 1976, Mark Fidrych struck out only 97 hitters in 250 innings. It didn't matter, because he allowed only 217 hits, 53 walks and 12 home runs. But as we've learned over the last few years, the number of hits a pitcher allows is largely a function of how many batters he strikes out. Fidrych allowed 217 hits in his 250 innings, a very low number of hits for a pitcher who didn't strike out many batters.
    Statistically, the most similar pitcher to Fidrych -- including their ages -- is Bill Stafford, and Stafford's career petered out pretty quickly. Focusing only on age, innings, home runs allowed, walks, and strikeouts, the two most similar pitchers to Fidrych (and his 1976 season) are Rich Nye and Dave Fleming. Not exactly household names.

    On the other hand, if Fidrych was "hit-lucky" in 1976, then he was hit-lucky in 1977 and '78, too. He was able to start only 14 games over those two seasons ... but when he did pitch, he was outstanding. In those 14 starts, Fidrych went 8-4 with a 2.80 ERA. We can fool around with the numbers 'til the cows come home, but the fact is that we'll never know how good Fidrych could have been, absent the arm injury. And that's the real shame, isn't it?

That's the biggest question, of course: "How good could he have been?"
The second-biggest question is, "Was Fidrych terribly overworked in 1976?"

At that time, 250 innings was not considered an immense number of innings, even for a 21-year-old (he turned 22 in August); Jim Palmer threw 315 innings that season, and 11 other American Leaguers topped Fidrych. But Fidrych did pack his 250 innings into a short period.

His major league debut came on the 20th of April, and was far from auspicious as Fidrych faced one batter (Oakland's Don Baylor) and gave up a walk-off single. He didn't pitch again until the 5th of May -- another late-inning relief job, this time in a lost cause -- and didn't pitch again after that until the 15th, when he started ... and what a start!

Having throwing one official inning and facing six batters all spring, Fidrych beat the Indians 2-1, giving up only two hits and one walk in nine innings. Again, that was May 15; from then through the end of the season, Fidrych started 29 games and completed 24 of them, averaging nearly nine innings per start (in five of his starts, he pitched at least 10 innings).

Those are some of the stats, and I'm sure you know about Fidrych's quirks and the huge crowds who showed up to watch him and the Sports Illustrated covers (here and -- especially -- here).

What was Fidrych like as a pitcher, though? Here's Roger Angell writing, back then:

    On the mound, Fidrych represented the classic profile and demeanor of a very young hurler -- long legs and a skinny, pleasing gawkiness (he is six-three); a pre-delivery flurry of overexcited twitches, glances, and arm-loosening wiggles; and a burning anxiety to get rid of the ball, to see what would happen next, to get on with this, man! The results were something altogether different. His pitching was cool and intelligent, built around some middling-good fastballs and down-slanting sliders, all delivered with excellent control just above or below the hemline of the strike zone ..."

You know the rest of the story, I guess. Fidrych hardly pitched in 1977 and '78, but was outstanding when he did pitch, great control and only three home runs in 103 innings. One might argue that he was even better in those seasons than he'd been in '76. But the next two years were disasters, and he was finished at 26. We'll never know, for sure ...
A few testimonials after Monday's sad tidings:

  • Like me, Joe Posnanski was nine when Fidrych hit the headlines. Unlike me, Joe was really paying attention.

  • Mike McClary chose his grandfather over the Bird, but got to enjoy them both.

  • Michael Rosenberg writes that Fidrych was 1976.

  • Josh Wilker on Fidrych: short and sweet (and yes, just a little bit profane, so just for us big kids).

  • And if you don't do anything else today, you should watch this video, featuring Fidrych and the young Steve Stone.