Detroit Tigers: Analyzing Mark Fidrych’s Usage in the Summer of “The Bird”

Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Forty years ago, Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers was a phenomenon throughout baseball, but endured an incredible workload for a 21-year-old rookie pitcher.

On August 29, 1976, Mark Fidrych took the hill for the Detroit Tigers in a road game against the Oakland A’s. The Tigers scored a run in the top of the first and the A’s responded with a run in the bottom of the third. After the initial scoring, the game remained tied at the end of nine innings. Both Fidrych and A’s starter Mike Torrez continued to pitch in extra innings through a scoreless tenth and eleventh. Torrez was replaced by Rollie Fingers in the top of the 12th and Fingers set the Tigers down in order. Fidrych remained in the game in the bottom of the 12th. Oakland rallied with a single, a sacrifice bunt, an error by the third baseman, and a game-winning single by Gene Tenace.

The loss gave Fidrych a record of 15-6 and a 2.08 ERA for the season. It was his 22nd start and 19th complete game. He would finish the year with a league-leading 24 complete games. He had celebrated his 22nd birthday just 15 days before this game.

It was very obviously a different time, in more ways than one. In 1976, social media was non-existent, there was no Extra Innings Baseball package, no games online because no one was online, and pitchers were still expected to complete what they started. Into this world of baseball came Mark Fidrych, a tall, gangly, curly-haired, 6’3” right-handed pitcher from Northborough, Massachusetts. He had been a 10th round draft pick out of Worcester Academy High School in 1974. He moved quickly from A ball to AAA in 1975, then received a non-roster invitation to spring training in 1976.

With so little experience in professional baseball, Fidrych couldn’t crack the opening day rotation for the Tigers, so he languished on the bench for the first month-and-a-half of the season. He pitched just twice in relief in the team’s first 23 games. Heading into the Tiger’s game on May 15, 1976, Fidrych was unknown to the baseball world. This would change quickly.

Fidrych took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his first start, which he won 2-1. It was a complete game victory, one of many Fidrych would twirl in this magical season. He also endeared himself to the hometown fans with his childlike exuberance and quirky behavior on the mound.

After losing his second start, Fidrych got on a roll. He won eight straight decisions and had a record of 9-1, with a 1.85 ERA by July 3. The game that really launched the Fidrych phenomenon had come nearly a week earlier. It was a Monday Night Baseball game against the vaunted New York Yankees.

A Star is Born on Monday Night Baseball

The Monday Night Baseball Game on June 28th, 1976 was broadcast by ABC, with Bob Uecker, Bob Prince, and Warner Wolf in the booth. The main topic of conversation was Fidrych and he really put on a show. He would bound from the mound to the dugout after third outs. With a landscaper’s touch, he got down on one knee and smoothed the dirt on the mound. Sometimes he appeared to be talking to the ball as he held it out in front of him and pointed it towards home plate.

The packed house at Tigers Stadium couldn’t get enough of “The Bird.” He got the nickname because of his resemblance to the Sesame Street character, Big Bird. When the game was over and the Tigers had defeated the vaunted Yankees, the hometown fans cheered and cheered until Fidrych came back out, like a rock star making an encore. He looked overwhelmed and humbled by the attention as he emerged from the dugout and acknowledged the crowd with a toothy smile.

Following the big Monday Night Baseball victory over the Yankees, Fidrych kept rolling on. He shut out the Orioles in his next start, then lost a 1-0 complete game to the Royals. He pitched an 11-inning complete game shutout against the Oakland A’s on July 16 and followed that with another complete game victory over the Twins on July 20.

The Idiosyncrasies of “The Bird”

The great thing about Fidrych was that he was 100% sincere. His antics weren’t for show, it was really him. He was genuine, the proverbial guy who was just glad to be there. After games, he would shake the hands of his teammates and thank them. He always looked like the happiest guy on the field.

One of Fidrych’s idiosyncrasies that he became well known for was the landscaping he would do on the mound. It looked strange for the pitcher to be on his hands and knees moving dirt around, but there was method to his madness. As he explains in the video below, he was just trying to keep the mound to his liking. In 1976, baseball diamonds weren’t kept up as meticulously as they are today. Different pitchers would create different holes on the pitcher’s mound when they pitched. Fidrych didn’t want to step into the other pitcher’s hole. He wanted to create his own, so he would fill in the dirt to get the mound the way he liked it:

“It was a thing of, why go into someone else’s hole? That’s the way he pitches. Pitch the way you pitch and if he wants to go in your hole, let him. You know. So I just always filled it up. It was weird, people thought it was weird. I was not conscious of it. I just did it naturally. People thought it was weird. That’s what made writers start going, ‘Oh, we got someone different here.’”

Fidrych also became known for talking to the ball. He explained that as well: “They said I was talking to the ball. Here I am, I’m on the mound going, ‘Okay, I got a guy on first base, now I got this guy coming up.’ I’m talking to myself. It was like getting some nerves off you, going, ‘God, I’m in trouble again. How am I going to get out of this?’ Okay, calm down, relax. That’s just what I do.”

One thing that Fidrych really appreciated was that the Tigers just let him be who he was. They didn’t try to change him, didn’t tell him to get a haircut or shave. They just let “The Bird” be “The Bird.”

Fans Flock to See Fidrych

Once the fans took note of Fidrych, they started flooding into stadiums. The Tigers noticed. Whether it was Houk’s decision on his own or he got instruction from the front office, it appears that Fidrych’s schedule was altered to give him as many starts at home as possible. During the season, he started 18 games at home and 11 on the road.

Looking at the attendance numbers for the Tigers in 1976, it appears that fans started to take notice after Fidrych’s first two starts. His third start was June 11, against the Angels, at home on a Friday night. There was a crowd of 36,377 for that game. The next two days had crowds between 24,000 and 25,000. His fourth start was on the following Wednesday. After drawing 16,095 on Monday and 13,834 on Tuesday, the Tigers had 21,659 on Wednesday for Fidrych’s start.

Fidrych’s next start was the Monday Night Baseball game at home against the New York Yankees that drew 47,855. The following day, still at home, the Tigers drew 21,350. They went on the road for a two game series with the Orioles before coming back to Detroit for two more games against the Orioles. Fidrych started the first of this two-game set and 51,032 fans showed up. The next day was a 4th of July game that drew 14,454.

As the team neared the all-star break, fans kept packing Tigers Stadium when “The Bird” was scheduled to pitch. Fidrych started two games of a seven game home stand that spanned the all-star break from July 10 through July 18. In Fidrych’s two starts, the team drew 51,041 and 45,905. In the other five games of this home stand, the Tigers averaged 23,636 fans per game.

It would continue like this over the rest of the season, and not just in Detroit. Fans at Tigers’ away games started to show up en masse to catch a glimpse of “The Bird.” In a two-game road series against the Twins on July 19-20, the game Fidrych started drew 30,425 fans. The other game drew 5,005. Later in the month, the Tigers played in Cleveland. For a Friday night game that Fidrych did not start, the attendance was 13,273. Fidrych was on the mound the next day and 37,405 fans showed up.

Even Yankees fans wanted to see the kid from Detroit. In early August, the Tigers played a two-game series in New York. On Monday, the attendance was 22,245. With “The Bird” on the mound the next day, attendance more than doubled to 44,909. At the end of August, the Tigers had a three game set in Oakland. The first game was on a Friday and drew 5,884 fans. The attendance for the Saturday game was 9,252. The third game of the series drew 25,659. Guess which one “The Bird” started. Back in New York for a series against the Yankees in the middle of September, the game started by “The Bird” drew 52,707. The other games in the series averaged 21,443 fans.

It was incredible what a drawing card Fidrych was. Fans across the country just loved watching him pitch, as did the hometown fans in Detroit. The Tigers average attendance per game in 1976 was 19,728. In the 16 games Fidrych started once fans began to take notice, they averaged 35,825. Twelve of the 14 largest crowds at Tigers Stadium that year were games started by Mark Fidrych.

Riding the Rookie Down the Stretch

With Fidrych pitching so well and drawing big crowds, he was sent out to pitch often. The Tigers were never higher than fourth in their six-team division after July 20 and were at least 12 games behind the leader every day from that point forward. Despite being so far back in the pennant race, they continued to put a significant workload on the young pitcher’s arm. He started seven games in August and completed six of them, including two extra-inning complete games. Five of these starts came on three days rest.

The Tigers dropped into fifth place at the end of August and were 20.5 games back after the first week of September. Despite having no chance to make the postseason, the Tigers had Fidrych pitch five complete games in his last six starts. He finished the year with 250 1/3 innings over 29 starts, 24 of which were complete games. He started 13 games on three days rest.

Whether it was his workload during the season or teams adjusting to him, Fidrych wasn’t as good in the second half as he’d been in the first. Before the All-Star break, Fidrych was 9-2 with a 1.78 ERA. After the break, he was 10-7 with a 2.72 ERA.

Old School Manager Ralph Houk

The Tigers were managed by Ralph Houk in 1976. Houk had been a player with the Yankees in the 1940s and 50s, then took over the as manager of the team after Casey Stengel was fired for being too old, as the story goes, following the Yankees’ loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series. That series is memorable for the first walk-off home run in World Series history, a Bill Mazeroski solo shot off Ralph Terry that gave the Pirates a 10-9 victory in Game Seven.

Houk took over as manager of the Yankees in 1961 and led the team to three straight World Series appearances, winning two titles. He was replaced before the 1964 season by Yogi Berra, but took over as manager of the Yankees again in 1966. After his initial success in his first three years as a manager, Houk never again took a team to the playoffs and had a losing record more often than a winning record. He managed the Tigers for five years, from 1974 to 1978. Before Fidrych arrived, the Tigers had been 57-102 in 1975, finishing in last place, 37.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox.

Houk’s usage of the 21-year-old Fidrych in 1976 was extreme even for his time. Remember that Fidrych pitched just two innings in the team’s first 23 games. He made his first start on May 15th, then his second on May 25th. From that point on, he was a regular in the rotation and Houk kept his foot on the gas all season long.

Workload Compared to His Peers

We know the 1970s were very different times for pitchers when compared to current baseball, but Fidrych’s workload was still an anomaly. In 1976, 27 percent of all starts were complete games. Fidrych completed 83 percent of his starts. In 1976, starting pitchers averaged 6.5 innings per start. Fidrych averaged 8.6 innings per start. Finally, let’s look at batters faced per start as a proxy for pitch counts, which are unavailable. In 1976, starting pitchers faced an average of 27.5 batters per start. Fidrych faced 34.1 batters per start.

Even among the workhorse pitchers of the 1970s, Fidrych stands out. This era included guys like Randy Jones (315.3 IP in 1976), Jim Palmer (315 IP), Catfish Hunter (298.7 IP), Vida Blue (298.3 IP), and Bert Blyleven (297.7 IP). Fidrych was 24th in innings pitched among starters, with 249.3, but he led all starters in innings pitched per start, batters faced per start, and complete games percentage.

Consider the way Fidrych was used during the season:

  • He pitched an 11-inning complete game on May 31, facing 47 batters. After four days of rest, he pitched another 11-inning complete game on June 5, facing 41 batters.
  • On July 16, he pitched an 11-inning shutout, facing 40 batters. With just three days rest, he pitched a nine-inning complete game on July 20, facing 37 batters.
  • From August 7 through August 29, he had six straight complete games, five of which were on three days rest, and two that went 10 innings or more.

Remember also that this was a 21-year-old rookie pitcher. After being drafted in 1974, Fidrych pitched 34 innings in the Rookie League. The next year, he pitched at three levels and threw a total of 171 innings. Then came the bump to 250 1/3 innings in 1976.

Going back to 1901, there had been 11 pitchers in baseball history who were rookies at the age of 21 or younger who threw at least 250 innings in a season. Mark Fidrych became the 12th. Ten of the previous 11 had pitched in 1914 or earlier, a very different era. In fact, it was called the “Dead Ball” era. The 11th was Frank Tanana, who had pitched 268 2/3 innings as a 20-year-old rookie in 1974. A manager could never use a 21-year-old pitcher like this today. He would be fired and never manage again.

Workload Compared to Today’s Workhorses 

The five current pitchers with the most innings pitched since 2011 are James Shields, David Price, R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw, and Madison Bumgarner. Since 2011, these five pitchers have averaged 6.7 innings per start, 27.2 batters faced per start, and completed nine percent of their starts. As mentioned above, in 1976 Mark Fidrych averaged 8.6 innings per start, 34.1 batters faced per start, and completed 83 percent of his starts.

The five modern day workhorses combined to average 103.4 pitches per start since 2011. Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t have pitch counts for pitchers in the 1970s, but we can try to estimate Fidrych’s pitch counts based on batters faced.

Over the last four years, starting pitchers have averaged around 3.8 pitches per batter. As we know, strikeouts have gone up over time and it’s likely that the increase in strikeouts has contributed to an increase in pitches per batter. Since 2011, the strikeout rate has increased from 17.7 percent to 20.1 percent and pitches per batter has increased from 3.78 to 3.84. If we go back to 2002, the strikeout rate for starting pitchers was 16.0% and they averaged 3.7 pitches per batter.

Baseball-Reference goes back to 1988 and has all pitchers averaging 3.58 pitches per batter, with a strikeout rate of 14.7%. In 1976, starting pitchers struck out 12.7% of the batters they faced, but we don’t know how many pitches per batter they averaged. I think a fair estimate would be around 3.5 pitches per batter for Fidrych during the 1976 season. He faced an average of 34.1 batters per start, so he would have averaged around 120 pitches per start.

Fidrych had six starts in which he faced at least 40 batters. A rough estimate for the number of pitches he threw in these six starts would be:

  • May 31, 11-inning complete game on five days rest, 47 batters faced, estimate of 165 pitches.
  • August 21, 10-inning complete game on three days rest, 43 batters faced, estimate of 150 pitches.
  • September 7, 9-inning complete game on three days rest, 43 batters faced, estimate of 150 pitches.
  • August 29, 11.3-inning complete game on three days rest, 42 batters faced, estimate of 147 pitches.
  • June 5, 11-inning complete game on four days rest, 41 batters faced, estimate of 144 pitches.
  • July 16, 11-inning complete game on six days rest, 40 batters faced, estimate of 140 pitches.

For comparison’s sake, in his entire career Clayton Kershaw has started 258 games. He’s faced more than 33 batters one time. Mark Fidrych faced more than 33 batters 17 times in 29 starts in his rookie year.

In fact, all five pitchers with the most innings pitched over the last five-plus years mentioned above (James Shields, David Price, R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw, and Madison Bumgarner) have combined to start 936 games since 2011 and have faced more than 33 batters 17 times, the same number of times as Fidrych in 29 starts in 1976.

1977: The Dead Arm

After a very successful debut season in which he was an AL All-Star, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, finished second in Cy Young voting and 11th in MVP voting, Fidrych’s second year in the big leagues did not go as well. It started with a mishap in spring training. Fidrych was shagging balls in the outfield and doing it in the goofy way that a 22-year-old might. Unfortunately, at one point he took a wrong step and strained his knee.

The injury kept Fidrych out for the first quarter of the season. He made his first start on May 27th and it was a good one. He pitched a complete game against the Seattle Mariners, allowing two runs (one earned) in a 2-1 loss. His next start was not so good (6 IP, 10 H, 5 ER), but then he got right back on track and pitched six straight complete games, winning all of them. In these six starts, he faced an average of nearly 34 batters per start, almost exactly the same grueling workload he’d had the previous season. At this point of the season, he was 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA. It looked like “The Bird” was just as good as ever.

And then he wasn’t. After making seven starts and pitching 60 innings in June, Fidrych had two ugly starts in July. He gave up 12 earned runs in 11 1/3 innings. He faced just three batters in his next start before coming out of the game. He knew something was wrong. His arm was dead. The narrative for the last 40 years has been that the knee injury in Spring Training caused Fidrych to alter his mechanics and ultimately injured his arm. At the time, they didn’t have the technology we have today, so his injury was simply thought to be a case of a pitcher’s arm going dead.

Pitching With a Broken Wing

Fidrych spent the next seven years trying to come back from the arm injury, most of that time in the minor leagues. He did get 16 more starts in the big leagues from 1978 to 1980, but was 4-6 with a 5.67 ERA. He last pitched in the Major leagues in 1980. He had one final, glorious start on September 2, 1980, when his Tigers beat the White Sox, 11-2. Fidrych pitched nine innings, allowed two runs (0 earned) and eight base runners.

He also won the final start of his career on October 1, but it was a pedestrian five-inning/four earned run effort that was a victory primarily because he was supported by a good offense. The Tigers won the game 11-7.

Fidrych never pitched again in the Major Leagues, but did spend three more years in AAA. The first of those years was with Evansville of the Tigers organization, and his final two seasons were with Pawtucket, the Triple-A franchise of the Boston Red Sox. In 254 1/3 innings with Evansville and Pawtucket during these final three seasons, Fidrych was 14-16 with a 6.12 ERA. His career ended at the age of 28.

A couple years into retirement, Fidrych learned that he had a torn rotator cuff, which he had tried to pitch through for seven painful years after the initial injury. As mentioned above, the narrative is that Fidrych hurt his knee and altered his mechanics, which led to the injury. That may be true, but his workload has to be considered as well.

If Fidrych’s “dead arm” was due to altered mechanics from the knee injury, you have to wonder how he had been so effective in his first eight starts. During this stretch, he was as good as he’d ever been. He had a 1.83 ERA. It doesn’t appear that anything was wrong. He had also started 37 games in his young career and completed 31 of them, while averaging 8.6 innings and 34.1 batters faced per start, a workload a young pitcher hadn’t endured in more than 30 years. The last time a starting pitcher 21 years old or younger had faced as many as 34 batters per start was 1940, when a young Bob Feller endured that heavy workload. The knee injury in spring training may have been a factor, but the sheer number of pitches thrown by Fidrych in his first year-plus in the big leagues was likely just as a big a factor in his torn rotator cuff.

The Legacy of “The Bird”

After retiring, Fidrych returned to where it all started, his hometown of Northborough, Massachusetts. He worked a number of jobs over the years, purchased a farm, and became a licensed commercial truck driver. He was married and had a daughter that he adored. At charity appearances that he attended, the fans still loved seeing him as much as ever.

Tragically, Mark Fidrych died in April of 2009 while working underneath his truck. According to the Detroit Free Press, former teammate Willie Horton spoke at the funeral. “I told everyone that Mark was a beautiful young man, a special human being who loved life and people. He is one of my heroes. Mark really helped baseball by bringing attention back to the game, and I think he should be recognized in some way at Cooperstown.”

One of the legacies of “The Bird” is the Mark Fidrych Foundation. According to their website: “This is a charity organization with a purpose of enhancing the lives of children and adults with disabilities and/or special needs through and with a focus on sports and sports education and various other means of promoting, maintaining, improving, and creating opportunities and benefits aimed at improving the lives of such individuals.” They host an annual softball tournament that his wife describes here:

Earlier this year, Boston’s Teamsters Local 25 made a $10,000 donation to the Mark Fidrych Foundation. The grant was awarded to Northborough’s famous “Fist Bump Kid” Liam Fitzgerald during an Autism Awards Reception on April 28. The grant went to Fitzgerald’s charity of choice—the Mark Fidrych foundation. Liam Fitzgerald became Internet famous as “The Fist Bump Kid” when a video of him giving fist bumps to Boston Bruins players as they came off the ice went viral.

Fitzgerald was born with Down syndrome in 2006 and diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia in 2009. After four years of treatment, he is now cancer-free. He has been a participant in a challenger league run by the Fidrych Foundation that allows kids with disabilities to play baseball with the help of players and coaches. “The Fist Bump Kid” chose “The Bird’s” charity to show his appreciation for what the Fidrych foundation had done for him.

Mark Fidrych is remembered as one of the all-time “what might have been” players, along with guys like Joe Charboneau and Herb Score. He burst upon the scene in the summer of 1976 like few players in history ever have. The enthusiasm from the crowds is amazing to watch in video from those days, as is the pure joy on his face. In his first 37 starts, he was 25-11, with a 2.23 ERA. He tossed 31 complete games and averaged 8.6 innings per start. And it seemingly ended in an instant. His baseball career and his life ended too soon, but his legacy continues with the Fidrych Foundation and young people like Liam “The Fist Bump Kid” Fitzgerald.

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