Wednesday, March 30, 2011

30-Year Anniversary of "Fernandomania"

Today's Los Angeles Times has an article on the 30th anniversary of "Fernandomania," a phenomenon of the 1981 season in which Dodgers rookie pitcher Fernando Valenzuela combined a hot hand and an iconic cultural appeal to rock the baseball world. (Although Valenzuela pitched a little bit toward the end of the previous season, he technically was considered a first-year player in 1981.)

As the article reminds us, "Valenzuela started the season 8-0 with an earned-run average of 0.50..." Further, "No Latino athlete before Valenzuela had been embraced in such a way by the American mainstream."

Looking in detail at Fernando's start to the '81 season via Retrosheet, one can see that he pitched nine innings in each of his first eight starts (all complete games, except for one that went to extra innings). In these games, he gave up 0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, and 2 runs. While not striking out batters in stunningly dominant fashion, he did achieve double-digit K's in four of the eight games (10 twice and 11 twice). He averaged just slightly above two walks allowed per game during the stretch.

As the Times article notes, Valenzuela won the 1981 Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, plus helped the Dodgers win the World Series that year. However, in his 17 starts following the initial eight, he fell from super-human to merely very good. He pitched nine (or more) innings only five times, had only three double-digit strikeout games (and had three games with three or fewer), and gave up four or more runs in eight games. He remained effective over his final 17 starts at avoiding walks, however, averaging 2.6.

During the 1981 Fernandomania, I was in the spring of my freshman year at UCLA and I can remember people around Los Angeles --with the Internet, I-Phones, Blackberry devices and the like not yet around -- carrying little transistor radios and even mini-TV sets when Fernando was pitching, to see how he was doing. I don't recall anything quite like Fernandomania, before or since.

Valenzuela remained with the Dodgers through 1990, typically starting 30 or more games per year. From '91 through '97, he floated around among several other teams (career statistics). He never won another Cy Young Award after '81, but three times finished in the top five in the voting (1982, '85, and '86).

It is interesting to speculate on what Valenzuela's historical legacy would have been, if everything in his 17-year major-league career (he was not on an MLB roster in '92) had gone exactly as it did -- except for those first eight starts of 1981 when he had a hot hand. With his career longevity, plus his high finishes in Cy Young voting in selected seasons, Fernando certainly would have gone down as one of the better pitchers of his generation. But would his career still have reached the exalted status it did, which resulted in the term Fernandomania still resonating with millions of fans 30 years later?

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