“The Professor and the Bird: A Tale of Ks and Cuffs” by Todd Vandenberg

That’s cuffs, as in rotator cuffs. Mark Fidrych, known as the Bird for his most excellent hair, was an absolute phenom in 1976. The 21 year old had spent all of two seasons in the minors, showing a nasty slider and a fastball that would go exactly where he wanted it to go. In 1975, he pitched his last 6 games for the Tigers’ AAA team in Evansville, going 4-1 with a 1.58 ERA, with 29 K and 9 BB. That ERA, combined with 4 complete games in just 6 starts, plus the .900 WHIP (no, that is not a typo), earned him an invitation to Spring Training in 1976.

bird

The Tigers had just finished 1975 with a stellar 57-102 record, so they had every reason to take a long look at the 6’ 3” kid. He stuck, but didn’t get into a game until mid-April. He finally got his first start on May 15th, winning a 2-1 complete game. By the All-Star break, he was 9-1, led the league with an ERA of 1.85, and had taken Detroit, and America, by storm. 1976’s Rookie of the Year finished at 19-9, leading the league in ERA (2.34), and complete games, 24. Sadly, the 24 complete games is not a typo.

1977 started with torn knee cartilage in Spring Training. He didn’t pitch until May 27th, but he looked to be even better than in his Cy Young runner-up debut. Through eight starts, he completed seven, with only one bad outing, a six inning effort in which the Indians shellacked him for ten hit and five runs. He bounced back to shut out the Angels, then only gave up three runs once for the rest of the month. By the end of June the Bird had reeled in six straight wins, for a 6-2 record with an ERA of 1.83.

Then came the Fourth of July, and it all ended. Pitching against the Orioles, Fidrych felt his arm “go dead”. The injury wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for another eight years. Hard to pitch with a torn rotator cuff, but he tried. He gave up 6 runs in 5 2/3 innings that day. Ralph Houk apparently thought the kid could bounce back, as he had from his only other bad outing all year, so Fidrych pitched again on July 8th, unfortunately with the same results: 5 2/3 innings, 6 runs. In two games, his ERA went up a full run. The Bird made one more start on July 12th, and walked off the mound after recording just two outs.

Although he tried to come back several times, he was done on Independence Day, 1977.

So now that our appetizer is done, let’s move on to the main course. I’ve read far too many times that while the injury was tragic, inasmuch as career-ending injuries can be tragic (Fidrych’s accidental death on his farm in 2009, that was tragic), the Bird simply wouldn’t have panned out over the long term. The reason given for this is always his low strikeout totals. I don’t buy that. It’s true, his strikeout numbers were low. But his ratio of K/9 improved from his rookie season to his second, while his K/BB ratio saw drastic improvement from 1976 to 1977. It’s chart time, kids!

Fidrych

Year W L W-L% ERA WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1976 19 9 0.679 2.34 1.079 7.80 0.40 1.90 3.50 1.83
1977 6 4 0.600 2.89 1.160 9.10 0.20 1.30 4.70 3.50

I’ll attach all the data, but that’s a pretty sweet ERA and WHIP, right? Ahhh – but it gets better when we take out the post-injury games of 1977.

Fidrych pre-injury, 1977

Year W L W-L% ERA WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1977 6 2 0.750 1.83 1.000 7.96 0.13 1.04 5.09 4.88

That’s almost 5 strikeouts per walk. Does this look like a career that couldn’t be sustained, especially as the Bird was improving? Let’s take a look at another guy who wasn’t exactly blowing them out of the batter’s box; that would be the Professor, Greg Maddox. First, a look at some minor league stats:

WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1.244 7.77 0.22 3.42 6.72 1.96
1.185 7.90 0.30 2.70 5.70 2.06

Those are the stat lines for the minor league careers for the Professor and the Bird. While one had better control, the other apparently had better stuff, with a few less hits allowed and more strikeouts. Now before you point out that this proves Maddux, with his higher K/9 ratio was better suited to make it in the Big Leagues, think again. Because the first line is the Bird’s; the second is the Professor’s. Psych.

Maddux

Now let’s look at Maddux’s first two great years in Chicago; I’m cutting him some slack and eliminating his first two years in the bigs, when he complied ERAs of 5.52 and 5.61, going 8-18 in 32 starts. So after the two years of growing pains, here’s Maddux dealing on the mound:

Year W L W-L% ERA WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1988 18 8 0.692 3.18 1.249 8.30 0.50 2.90 5.10 1.73
1989 19 12 0.613 2.95 1.276 8.40 0.50 3.10 5.10 1.65

Looks a helluva lot like Fidrych in 1977, before his arm fell off, doesn’t it? Except that Fidrych was better in every category, with the exception of an infinitesimal difference in K/9. Had the Bird induced one more whiff, his ratio would have been 5.22.

Before everyone fires off the hate mail, no, I am not implying Maddux was a lesser pitcher than Fidrych, nor am I stating that the Professor was anything less than an astoundingly great pitcher. Maddux is one of my favorite players of all time, precisely because the man knew how to pitch, as well as anyone in the history of the game. My point is, Fidrych had a very similar skill set, and showed every sign of being more than capable of not only surviving as a big league pitcher, but of being a dominating figure, as much as the Professor. When no one’s getting walks or homers, you can win striking out five a game; you can win a lot. There’s no reason to think the Bird wouldn’t have continued to win, and improve, just as Maddux did.

Except for that little issue of 24 complete games, and that rotator cuff. But that, friends, is another story for another day.

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