Mark Fidrych: What If?

June 9, 2022

After stopping a losing streak for my imaginary Worcester Birds squad with his 5th straight win in his last 5 starts, Mark Fidrych’s win-loss record now stands at 15-6. Barring injury (always a distinct possibility  with the brittleness embedded in the Strat-O-Matic card based on his 1977 season), Fidrych will get 9 more starts, i.e., 9 chances to collect the 5 wins needed to reach the 20-win plateau.

Who cares? It’s not real, for one thing, and for another, the 20-win mark isn’t seen the way it used to be. It used to be everything, and now it, or win totals in general, are viewed by many as a somewhat arbitrary echo of a pitcher’s performance, the decibal level of the echo leaning heavily on factors beyond the control of whatever original yawp was made by the pitcher. Jacob deGrom’s exploits in recent years, for example, revealed that judging his performance by his wins, or lack thereof, would be in the same neighborhood of illogical thinking as deeming Buddy Biancalana as a better shortstop than Ernie Banks because the former was, unlike the latter, a “World Series winner.”

But I still care about pitcher wins, at least in the context of this experiment. I want Fidrych to reach the 20-win milestone he fell just short of in 1976, and I think I’m also trying to prove, or at least suggest, that if Fidrych hadn’t gotten hurt, he would have gone on to have a good career.

There are some indications against this, chiefly Fidrych’s low strikeout rate, along with a very low batting average by opponents in 1976 against Fidrych on balls hit in play. Virtually every pitcher who has had a long, productive career has had, at the start of their careers, a significantly higher strikeout rate than Fidrych. (I am almost positive I learned this from the great baseball writer Rob Neyer, but I can’t find the article in which I remember him exploring vividly the disillusioning indications of Fidrych’s strikeout rate.) And batting average on balls hit in play seems to level off into a general average for all pitchers, a fairly clear indication that Fidrych was, in 1976 (and in Strat-O-Matic terms), getting all the rolls, something that surely would have leveled off as the years went on.

That’s why his 1977 Strat-O-Matic card is the better starting point for a “what if” experiment than his 1976 card. In 1977, his great control and his ability to limit the number of home runs he allowed are still in play, but more hits were falling in safely than they had the previous year. He wasn’t blowing anyone away. But could his approach—basically, throw strikes at the knees over the black edges of the plate—have carried him through a productive career if injuries hadn’t intervened?

Indications thus far through my online Strat-O-Matic season are that he just might have pulled that off. Of course, some middle aged schmo’s online fantasy team results hardly rate as compelling evidence, but if you can take a leap of faith into considering them as such, the Strat-O-Matic card at the top of this page adds an interesting extension to that evidence. It’s a Strat-O-Matic representation of Lew Burdette’s 1958 season, one of Burdette’s best in a long, successful career, and it’s virtually identical to Fidrych’s 1977 card: no walks, no home runs, and a fair but not overwhelming number of hits.

Through his career, Burdette generally allowed more hits than innings pitched, didn’t strike out many guys, didn’t walk many guys, and didn’t allow a lot of home runs. He pitched like Mark Fidrych. This isn’t just a statistical mirroring. Burdette was, like Fidrych, exceedingly fidgety on the mound, often to the distraction of batters, and as he navigated his way through games he talked out loud to himself, which is what Fidrych was doing when people thought he was talking to the ball. Burdette stayed healthy, unlike Fidrych, and piled up 203 career wins, including two 20-win seasons.

The most fascinating element in playing “what if” with Mark Fidrych is that when injures were erasing him from the game, a tremendous core of young players was materializing on his team, the Tigers. What’s more, they were exactly what a pitcher who relies heavily on his defense would pray for: gold-glove-level fielding at every position in the middle of the field: Lance Parrish at catcher, Chet Lemon in centerfield, and Hall-of-Fame shortstop Alan Trammell and his (should be) Hall-of-Fame partner at second base, Lou Whitaker. The only up-the-middle defense equal to what Fidrych would have had behind him was that of the Big Red Machine.

Half of that Reds core, Joe Morgan and César Gerónimo, is backing Fidrych on my imaginary team, and they’re joined by fellow gold glove winners Thurman Munson and Larry Bowa. With this core behind him, a core similar to what he would had in Detroit had he been able to stay healthy, Fidrych’s record stands at 15-6.

Based on this, I see an alternative history taking shape, not for my benefit but because I wish it for Fidrych, who deserved more than what he got. I see several seasons, none of them as golden as 1976 but good and full of winning, sometimes deep into October.

Fidrych’s predecessor in statistics and Strat-O-Matic cards and twitches and self-babble, Lew Burdette, once won three games in a single World Series.

What if Mark Fidrych had gotten that far, with Whitaker and Trammell behind him? Is it so hard to imagine him winning and winning and winning?


Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G112: L 6-0
    • A reliever I don’t remember, Bruce Taylor, tosses 4 scoreless innings to help Dennis Martinez totally stifle the Birds.
  • G113: L 5-2
    • Another weak offensive showing, and Lee struggles, dropping to 2-7.
  • G114: L 9-0
    • The team follows its return to first in its previous series with its weakest series of the year, getting outscored 20 to 2 (and dropping like a rock out of first). 
  • G115: L 4-1
    • Stagnant hitting (now with 3 runs in 36 innings) wastes a decent start by Tiant. 
  • G116: W 4-3 (Fidrych 15-6)
    • Fidrych stops the losing streak with 1 earned run in 6 innings, notching his 5th win in his last 5 starts. Singleton homers and drives in 2.
  • G117: W 9-5
    • Bostock leads a revived offense with 3 runs, 2 hits, and 4 RBI. Campbell hurls 4 scoreless innings for save.


  1. (“not to mention congratulatory handshakes…”)

  2. That was part of a long ramble about the greatness of The Bird in 1976 that disappeared into the digital ether…how appropriate. Mark Fidrych was as much an analog dude as the 70’s which enabled him to exist. I can imagine him now, dealing that nasty movement at the knees, reducing the Yankees batters to ground ball machines. Garcia and Veryzer look every bit the polished professionals they are, much more than their mediocre Strat-O-Ratings. Did they transform into 1’s behind The Bird, inspired by the electricity and mid-game congratulatory handshakes?

  3. Very interesting Burdette comparison. The Bird had natural movement without the aid of foreign substance. Like you, I never tire of watching that 1976 Monday Night Game. The late movement is astounding, and everything is at the knees. Pedro Garcia and Tom Veryzer look like the polished professionals they are, gobbling up grounders and firing to Jason Thompson. In Strat-O-Matic, Fidrych would certainly benefit with Trammell and Whitaker. But I wonder this about him in 1976: Did his nasty combination of location and movement reduce the most skilled batsmen to hitting routine grounders? And did the sheer excitement of playing behind him (not to congratulatory handshakes during games) elevate his teammates, turning Strat-O 3’s and 4’s into 1’s?

  4. Yes. People forget that Fidrych was really good. Threw strikes, kept the ball down, and threw hard. Competitor The eccentricity was just fun stuff. The Tigers let him go way too many innings because he sold tickets. Lots of tickets. Young pitchers would never work that many innings today.

  5. 75reds: great comments (your first one got snagged for some reason in an “unapproved” folder but should be appearing now). I agree that Fidrych’s fielders rose to the occasion in ’76.

    Gary Trujillo: I was thinking that Fidrych might have been better served if Sparky Anderson (aka Captain Hook) could have arrived with the Tigers sooner. Houk was great, and it made for some incredible feats in ’76, but man did the Bird’s arm get taxed that year. Sparky would have been yanking him much sooner, I would imagine.

  6. Burdette was accused of yelling racist and anti-Semetic comments while on the mound. Kind of an evil version of Fidrych.

    Banks v. Biancalana – an interesting thought experiment. If you had the choice, would you rather have a long career of individual greatness but no team success, or a brief career but the opportunity to make an important contribution to a world championship? Would Banks have traded some or all of his career success for a championship? Would Buddy have traded the ’85 postseason for a HOF career without a postseason at bat?

  7. Josh – The strikeout rate critique you referenced is from Bill James, The New Historical Abstract, p. 289: “Bird Thou Never Wert.”

  8. Strat has been a big part of my life for quite a while. I have been lucky enough to be involved with a twenty team FTF league for almost 40 years in tiny Newark, DE. The John B Wockenfuss Strat-O-Matic league, named after one of the few big leaguers from our tiny state. I started in 1983 as a high school junior, the youngest manager in the league. Played for a few years, then had to drop out while in college, majoring in chemical engineering was not compatible with draft preparation in the middle of spring semester. Picked it up again after college for about 8 years, then along came two kids, a wife, and a mortgage. Dropped out again but got the bug again in 2008 and have been playing ever since. We still are plugging away with cards, dice, paper and pencil.

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