Ed Figueroa in . . . the Nagging Question

March 15, 2009


Let’s sneak in a conversation about baseball before the yearly sickness descends upon me, changing me from a guy who does not care at all about college basketball into a fanatic whose entire existence depends upon it. This malady, which is not altogether unpleasant despite the overwhelming outward appearance of suffering in all its many subcategories, such as disappointment, frustration, anger, dyspepsia, insomnia, helplessness, self-loathing, and shame. Ah, March Madness! But more on this later in the week, when I throw myself onto the tines of that 24-hour-a-day bracket-shaped mania. For now, let’s talk some baseball. The sun is shining in my window as I write this, spring edging closer. You might think I’d want to celebrate that development with something other than a mustachioed crater-faced sourpuss in a Yankees uniform, but, firstly, I have to admit some grudging respect for the unsung achievements of this key figure in the Yankees dynasty that soured my childhood, and, secondly, he’s a good illustration for the Nagging Question that’s been on my mind.

Ed Figueroa epitomizes the prolonged dominance of my least favorite sports team. I didn’t realize this when I was a young kid, but as I studied the baseball encyclopedia I realized that the Yankees were always loaded with pitchers that were very good but not Immortal. Isn’t it odd that the Yankees, by far the most dominant team in baseball history if not in all of organized sports, do not have a single candidate to put forth in the discussion of the greatest pitcher of all time? Even their all-time best starter, Whitey Ford, despite his excellent career and postseason heroics, seems to be a cut below the titanic legends of the game, such as Grove and The Big Train and Seaver. But the Yankees always had an overflowing handful of guys who could rack up the innings and the wins, from Pennock and Shocker in the early days of the dynasty to Gomez and Ruffing a little later to Reynolds and Raschi in the very peak of the team’s dominance and all the way up to El Duque and Cone and Wells in the last of the pinstriped plagues to have descended upon us. In my childhood, Guidry was the ace of the Yankees staff, and for one season he actually seemed to be on the brink of ascending to the level of the legendary, but the true key to the Yankees’ success from 1976 through 1978 was that they had a battalion of worthy arms behind Guidry, and chief among them was Ed Figueroa, who went 55 and 30 in those three years, including what must have been one of the least celebrated 20-win seasons a pitcher has ever had, in 1978, in that it paled in comparison to Guidry’s otherworldly 25 and 3 mark.

Figueroa’s worth to the Yankees should have been underscored in 1979, when arm troubles reduced him to a virtual nonfactor and the team stumbled from its throne. It’s entirely possible, however, that as he had been taken for granted in good times, he was likewise forgotten in a litany of woe for the Yankees that year. They stumbled out of the gate without the services of Goose Gossage; by the time the relief ace had returned in July from an finger injury stemming from his April locker room fight with Cliff Johnson, the Yankees were nine games out of first place. Later that month, Figueroa, ineffective all season, was finally shut down for the rest of the year with an elbow injury. But if anyone wanted to reflect on how much Ed Figueroa’s injury-related dropoff hurt the team, they didn’t have much time to make those reflections—less than a week after Figueroa’s season ended, catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash.

Munson was the captain of the team and one of the most beloved Yankees in team history; however, thinking strictly in baseball terms, his death did not really ruin the team’s chances in 1979. They had already been ruined. The team ended up finishing 13.5 games out of first place, a half-game closer than they’d been on Munson’s last day. It’s certainly reasonable to think that Gossage’s early-season absence was the chief factor in the team’s 1979 failures, but in the end the injury only amounted to Gossage pitching 76 fewer innings for the team in 1979 than he had the year before; by contrast, the dropoff in innings pitched by Figueroa was nearly twice that. Moreover, focusing solely on wins, admittedly a very hazy statistic in terms of value, Figueroa went from 20 wins in 1978 to just 4 wins in 1979. Had he been able to duplicate his efforts from 1978, all other things being equal (and the team did score just one slim run less than they had in 1978, and took three fewer games to do so, so the offense was not the problem), the team would have finished with 105 wins and another AL East Division crown.

At the beginning of 1979, I doubt any Yankees fan would have thought that losing the services of Ed Figueroa would be as disastrous as it proved to be. I imagine, in fact, that they might have even been tempted to think that if Ed Figueroa ever faltered they’d just go out and get themselves another Ed Figueroa. They’d always been able to do so in the past. (In fact they did, in 1979, get a nice season from new acquisition Tommy John, but I think the 36-year-old John must have been seen going into the year as a replacement for the rapidly declining Catfish Hunter, and not for the still-young Figueroa, who had only left his 20s at the tail end of 1978.)

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over the following Figueroa-inspired Nagging Question in terms of my own team, and I’ll probably post my final answer later this week (until I change my mind, that is) over at Baseball Digest, my new dumping ground for all my Red Soxian thoughts. Ace Josh Beckett? Slugger David Ortiz? Reigning MVP Dustin Pedroia? Versatile gloveman and offensive lynchpin Kevin Youkilis? Those are some of the names I’m mulling, but I think I’ll be better able to choose after hearing some thoughts from other fans on the Nagging Question, so thanks in advance for the conversation and for any help you can give in offering thoughts on this pressing issue:

Who can your team least afford to lose in 2009?


(Love versus Hate update: Ed Figueroa’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


  1. I suspect the guy who could least afford to be lost on the Red Sox would be Jon Lester, or maybe Josh Beckett, but overall I think the guy who could least afford to be lost by his team is the guy who looks like he might indeed be lost: Joe Mauer. Redmond’s a good backup, but that’s quite a drop off. Maybe Chase Utley in Philly, too. Having a bat at catcher like Mauer or at second like Utley is a huge leg up.

  2. Aren’t we avoiding the real question here? Which of the five vowels can Figueroa least afford to lose? No question it comes down to a dog-fight between U and E.

    Anyway, I feel like Beckett proved last year that he’s the guy for the Sox. People talk about the lineup and how we needed one more clutch hit here or there. But take last year’s Beckett and make him just 75% of what he was the year before, and we’re in the World Series and possibly repeat World Champs because the opponents don’t score.

  3. For the Dodgers I think the answer is certainly Russ Martin. Losing Manny or Billingsley would be huge, but the for the past 3 years the team seems lost when Martin is on the bench.

  4. sb1902:
    Good point about Mauer and Utley. That big bat at a non-big bat position works as a good argument for Pedroia possibly being the essential guy on the Red Sox, I think.

    I agree that the loss of Beckett (or ace 1A, Lester, for that matter) would be crippling, but the Bosox getting within a sliver of the World Series last year without him at his best makes me think they could possibly sustain another off year from him and still contend. It’s their offense that seems thin to me, not their pitching, as unusual as that still seem to me. I’m leaning toward Youk or Pedroia. Take one of those guys away and they’ll have some long lean stretches at the plate (unless maybe Big Papi returns to his prime).

  5. The pitching is better 1-11 looks better in ’09, so you have a point in that losing a pitcher this year would hurt less than last year.

  6. Ed Figueroa mentioned by Castiglione on the Red Sox broadcast just now…. (There’s a Figueroa playing for the Orioles.)

  7. sanctimoniouskid:
    Interesting. I wonder if there’s a plan to cut back on Martin’s games behind the plate to help ensure he’s around all year.

    I didn’t happen to hear that, but I was already thinking Figueroa turned out to be a timely subject today, a day after Puerto Rico destroyed the US in the WBC. I think Figueroa was the first Puerto Rican to win 20 games in a season.

  8. “For the Dodgers I think the answer is certainly Russ Martin. Losing Manny or Billingsley would be huge,”

    The Dodgers better hope losing Manny isn’t as big as losing Martin because Manny’s already starting his act by leaving games with a sore hammy. Everybody knows Manny quit on the Sox last year, but it’s under-reported how he quit in ’07 (20 homers, 88 RBIs) which I think was actually worse than ’08.

    As for the Sox, at this point Lester and Beckett have each had the same amount of dominating seasons (one) and I have no reason to believe in one more than the other. I have to admit, before last year I had no faith in Lester at all and boy was I ever wrong. I also think I’m the only one who has a big belief in the Sox lineup. I see Youkilis and Pedroia taking small steps back overall staying about where they were last year, one of the top three in runs scored. I think it’s a shame the Blue Jays have lost so many pitchers, otherwise I think four of the five best teams in baseball might be in the AL East (they finished first in ERA last year, I believe).

  9. Good question.

    Whenever I see Figueroa’s name, I think of the Angell line-for a brief time, he was the answer to the question, “Who is the only American League pitcher who has all five vowels in his last name?”

    For Boston, I think it’s Youkilis. You can lose one pitcher, or even two, and anybody can DH, but the only guy who can do everything but run is Youk.

  10. sb1902, I’m sorry, but you’re completely off base.

    I really hate the ‘Manny Quit’ crap. He’s gone. Did anyone else watch the Sox last summer? Manny quit? Really? Did I miss something? Sometimes I think people read more newspaper articles than watch baseball. And this ‘under-reported’ stuff about 2007? Are you kidding? Manny hit .284 in the first half, .317 in the second half. He played a lot less in September of that year, but the guy isn’t 25 anymore. Also, he hit .389 in the 6 games he did appear in. Yeah, that’s mailing it in. His average went up in each month from May thru July. He hit .316 with RISP and 2 outs in ’07. He hit .385 in tie games. He hit .392 against the Yankees. He hit .375 in the ’07 ALDS, .409 in the ’07 ALCS.

    In ’08, Manny hit .347 in July. Wow, way to quit Manny! How many games did he miss in July? 2. Manny played in every July game except 2. He missed 4 in June. Youk missed 4 in June too.

    It blows me away how quickly people will throw someone that had such a huge impact in changing their lives forever as a baseball fan under the bus. Maybe I’m just growing up, and watching baseball while reading less Dan Shaughnessy and Peter Gammons.

  11. My pick for biggest loss would be Jed Lowrie. Lugo’s already out, so if Lowrie went down too, it would be devastating.

  12. redsoxeveryday and sb1902:

    My primary feelings for Manny are and always will be gratitude. After spending most of my life praying for and not getting a title, that’s my primary feeling for all of the guys on the ’04 champs, from David McCarty to Johnny Damon. And Manny was arguably not only the most important Red Sox player on that squad but also the most important Red Sox among the double-champions of ’04 and ’07, with the possible exception of David Ortiz (and Ortiz certainly benefitted from hitting in front of Manny). And not for nothing, Manny provided me more entertainment than any Red Sox player ever has. I recall during one of his enjoyable shenanigans, maybe when he was petting Julian Tavarez in the dugout, Jerry Remy, between guffaws, said something like, “Boy, we’re gonna miss Manny when he’s gone.” Jerry Remy was right.

    That said, I can’t argue with the general vibe that came from the team itself, i.e., from Francona and the players, during ’08, which was that the manager and teammates who had always enjoyed or at least tolerated Manny had reached their limit. I can’t speculate on why exactly that occured, but for whatever reason I think the other players felt they could no longer count on Manny. I guess that’s why I can’t completely discount the “quit” argument. If his teammates felt that way, who am I to argue with them?

    But I very much dislike the piling-on done by journalists, and if I was ever in Fenway on Manny’s return (if fate or reunions ever bring him back), I’d cheer my lungs out for him. It makes me sad to think my cheers might be drowned out by boos.

  13. Who can the Tigers least afford to lose? Curtis Granderson. No coincidence that the semi rebound that they experienced briefly last summer occured when Curtis came back to the line up. I think the better question for the Tiges would be: Who would you most want back, since they have essentially the same staff (minus Rogers, who was not going to last for ever, and Jones, who is addition by subtraction). For my money, a healthy Joel Zumya, would go a long way towards the team reaching the heights that were expected last year. My hunch is that he will join Mark Fydrich and Kevin Saucier on the list Tiger pitching flameouts

  14. Hmm, the Reds … tough call between Phillips, Bruce or Votto. I’m thinking Phillips, with the numbers he puts up at 2b to go with his outstanding defense. Also probably should throw Ramon Hernandez in there because the backup catcher is one Ryan Hanigan.

  15. I’m going to go with your prescient Figueroa vibe and for the Mets suggest the answer is John Maine.

    He was on a nice little trajectory but began really struggling last summer (shoulder issues requiring minor offseason surgery) and has been horrible this spring. His recent remarks in the press reveal a massive crisis of confidence that’s beginning to infect me.

  16. For the White Sox, probably Mark Buehrle. Their other least-replaceables (Quentin, Ramirez, Floyd, and Danks) pretty much came out of nowhere last year, and a couple of them will probably go back to nowhere this year. They’d probably be lost without Pierzynski too.

  17. When you look at all the hard throwers Manny ducked last year with the Sox (Chamberlain twice, Verlander, Felix Hernandez twice) taking 5 seconds to run to first, taking three pitches to protest against Rivera, refusing to get on a plane, his lackluster ’07 (until the playoffs), taking virtually all of September off in ’06 and ’07… I say he quit, no question. Manny faked an injury in ’06 and basically took two months off, faked an injury in ’08 (the point he forgot which knee he claimed was injured). He cranked it up when he wanted and sat when he wanted, and that’s not even getting into shooting his way out of town and refusing to honor the contract he signed and all the complaining he did ever year about not liking Boston. I have no respect for the guy. There are still Manny apologists out there, but I don’t feel we have to kiss his ass in order to bribe him into playing any longer.

  18. roncooley:
    Always good to have the view from Reds-land. (My in-laws are Reds fans.) I’m hoping the team might be ready to take a leap up this year, and I can see how the underrated Phillips could be the center of that story.

    Yeah, even with the greatly improved bullpen, you’d think the Mets need more than one really solid starter. I’d thought Maine was looking to be that guy, so I’m surprised to hear that he’s been looking shaky.

    Interesting thought about the out-of-nowhere and back-into-nowhere nature of some of the White Sox ’08 stars. I think one guy who won’t be going back to nowhere is Alexi Ramirez, especially if he can learn to take a pitch once in a while. He looks a lot like a younger Alfonso Soriano except way better with the glove.

    You make some strong points (as usual). To me, the points all back the fact that it was just time for a player-team divorce. He always had his own rules, but he did put a lot of work into being the kind of player that only comes around once in every few decades and the kind of player that wins championships. And in his own way, at least according to Latino teammates like Lugo and Pedro and Tavarez, Manny was a beloved teammate, so he must have been giving more of himself to his teammates (beyond all the massive offensive production) than other supposedly selfish superstars such as A-Rod and Bonds. I don’t like the way it ended, but all in all Manny did all right by me. Two rings, a lot of laughs, what more can I ask for?

  19. “I also think I’m the only one who has a big belief in the Sox lineup.”

    Wrong. I think we have an incredible lineup, which will be totally fine. Yet a lot of people will say things like, “we’ll have trouble scoring runs.” That’s just ridiculous.

    I disagree with you on Manny, though. The thing about him forgetting which knee was injured is a total bullshit story made up by the media. Please read this in-depth look at how it came to be. It’s a great lesson on not believing everything you read. Manny’s done nothing that every other player hasn’t done before. For a guy who “quit” and “faked injury” (you have NO way of knowing if this is true) and “played when he wanted to,” he sure did play a lot, and at Hall of Fame level–feel free to look up the numbers regarding which Red Sox players played in the most games each of the last five-eight years. You’ll see that almost nobody was in there as much as Manny was.

  20. I think gedmaniac is putting where i’m coming from in a much better way than I can. I think my biggest problem is the use of media during Manny’s exit. Who knew, in ’06 that ‘Manny Being Manny’ would end up becoming a reason for his exit? He was adored as a man-boy who whooped ass at the game. Then his man-boy’ishness was the root of the problem.

    I’m probably looking too deep into it, but with Manny, Pedro, Lowe to a certain extent, and Tek before he re-signed, various stories came out about clubhouse or contract issues. Though, we don’t hear about clubhouse or contract concerns with Bay, Youk, Lester, Pedroia..all of whom were signed(except Bay, where things are tabled). Maybe they’re all gentlemen and have no clubhouse craziness or absurd contract demands? Or, they’re easier to sign, therefor no PR is needed if they were to be lost?

    I wouldn’t be shocked at all if the persona of Paps as a wild man are pushed further between now and his free agency. If he’s unsignable, I wouldn’t be shocked if ‘wild man’ stories in the clubhouse or with contract matters surface. It’s a part of business, but it’s annoying when stuff is taken as gold truth, and not as a part of the business.

  21. To an A’s fan like me, it’s a silly question, not a nagging one.

    The correct answer for 2009 is probably Matt Holliday, but I can’t even grasp the fact that Matt Holliday is ON the team, let alone the concept of losing him. And by the time I do grasp that idea, he’ll either be swapped out at midseason, or he’ll disappear under Scott Boras’ armpit at year end.

    A’s fandom is a corollary to Murphy’s law: each player who becomes so good that you can’t afford to lose him will be lost. By injury, trade, or free agency, they each go away, like a sandcastle built on the shoreline at low tide.

  22. as far as the metropolitans go, i wouldn’t go with a pitcher, since there are so many question marks with both the starters and the relievers. i’d actually go with david wright, whose consistency is needed on a team with moody, injured, aging, streaky hitters (as long as wright gets his clutch numbers up).

    to jump to hockey for a moment, it would be hard not to single out sean avery, who just seems to make the rangers win, baby.

  23. Easy for the Cardinals, it’s obviously El Hombre.

    For the Rockies, they’ve already lost him — Matt Holliday. Of the remaining Rox, I’m going to go with Tulowitzki. Young as he is, with Holliday gone he’s really the heart and soul of the team.

  24. Strangely, I think losing Mike Aviles would have the biggest impact on the Royals only because they would have to replace him with Tony Pena, Jr. or Willie Bloomquist. Ranking a strong second would be Zack Greinke, our only Cy-caliber starter.

  25. i’d say eric chavez, but he’s been MIA since 2004. so i will say orlando cabrera, cos jebus knows another year with bobby crosby at short will be the death of me.

  26. Ken Arneson:
    Great to hear from you, Ken. Tough being an A’s fan these days; I hear there’s noise about moving the team, no?

    Big year for Tulo, I predict.

    Man, I have only the faintest awareness of Mike Aviles, but I’m pulling for the Royals to have a good year.

    Thanks for checking in. I love the user name. Does Grant Hart still tour ever?

  27. josh,

    yep, the mayor of south saint paul does indeed still tour (when he’s not restoring studebakers, from what i’ve read). he just played here (the twin cities) last week and will be doing some shows at SXSW. and according to his website, he’s heading out east in the near future.

    mould is cool, too, but the older i get (just turned 40, the same day michael jordan turned 46), the more grant’s genius seeps up from my subconscious. started making a top 10 list of my fave husker songs and was somewhat surprised the grant/bob ratio was skewed heavily toward the former.

    but i digress.

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