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Mark Fidrych, the Greatest Non-Roster Invitee

Mark Fidrych, the Greatest Non-Roster Invitee

Mark Fidrych, the Greatest Non-Roster Invitee

The minor-league deal. The non-roster invite to spring training. It’s like one of those phrases you hear in passing and ignore. There are two types of non-roster invitees, as former Dodgers GM Fred Claire pointed out to me the other day. “There’s the promising young player that you would like to take a long look at,” Claire said. “And then you have those players who may be looking at the final spring training of their careers.”

While everyone talks about the big free agent deals and its impact on the upcoming season, I thought it would make sense to jump into chatter about those players who, most likely, will never see a $214 million dollar contract. I researched the non-roster players of the last fifty years to determine who was the greatest player that was not a member of the teams’ active 40-man roster in spring training. I went through every Rookie of the Year recipient and every Comeback Player of the Year Award winner since the Sporting News version was established in 1965. My primary value metric was Baseball-Reference.com’s definition of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), though “counting stats” also played a major role.

There were some excellent non-roster performances coming from veteran players who were given one final chance to prove themselves. There was Dave Kingman’s monster first season in Oakland in 1984 (2.9 WAR) after falling out of favor with the Mets in the wake of the Keith Hernandez acquisition. Kevin Elster  also rejuvenated his career with the Texas Rangers in 1996 (2.3 WAR), somehow slamming 24 Home Runs after never hitting more than 10 when he was healthy. Stretch McCovey’s triumphant return to San Fran in 1977 (1.3 WAR) was in non-roster status, but led to his highest power numbers in over seven years. These great seasons were still not even close to the success of this one young player in 1976. We’ll get back to him in a moment; for now, let’s consider the other non-roster rookie candidates:

1) Alvin Davis, Seattle Mariners, 1984: Was taken in the 6th round of the 1982 amateur draft. Davis started at Double-A and quickly became an OBP machine, walking 120 times in his second year of pro ball. A non-roster youngster in ’84, Davis may have been the pick here, but he actually was sent down by the M’s at the end of Spring Training. After playing one game at Triple-A, a Ken Phelps injury had him in Seattle. He walked 97 times, drove in 116 runs, generated a .391 OBP, 5.6 WAR, 147 OPS, was selected to the All-Star Team, came in 12th in MVP voting and was named American League Rookie of the Year. Davis would go on to enjoy a number of nice seasons for Seattle; this was his best. One of the greatest batting displays ever presented by a non-roster rookie.

2) Mike Hargrove, Texas Rangers, 1974: The time between 1972 and the 1974 was Billy Martin’s heyday as a talent scout. He found Detroit Tigers outfielder Ron LeFlore playing in prison through a tip from an acquaintance who happened to be an inmate. In 1973, now as manager of the Texas Rangers, Billy first spotted this 25th-Round selection in the Florida Instructional League late that year, according to the 1975 “Complete Handbook of Baseball.” Not on the spring training roster, Hargrove was the type of player Billy Beane would’ve coveted: lots of walks and consistently on base. Ultimately, he pushed starting first baseman Jim Spencer to the DH spot. Hargrove batted .323 in 477 plate appearances with a .395 OBP and generated 3.4 WAR for the upstart Rangers, who nearly knocked off the mighty Oakland A’s before settling in second place under Martin. The Rangers would backslide the following year- Billy would be fired by August- but Hargrove enjoyed another fine season, accepting a selection to the All-Star Team as he played to the same .395 OBP clip, but this time in 609 Plate Appearances. Although Hargrove would achieve many excellent seasons with Texas and eventually in Cleveland (coming in with a +.420 OBP in three different years), he was a wonderful surprise in 1974 for a team that harbored zero expectations from him.

3) Dwight Gooden, New York Mets, 1984: Yes, he was a non-roster invitee at spring training in 1984. Yes, he made the ballclub, pitching to a 17-9 record, 2nd  in league in ERA, 3rd in wins, led the league in strikeouts, 2nd in the Cy Young award voting, fanned the side in his one inning of work in the All-Star Game, and was 1st in WHIP, HR/9, SO/9 & HITS/9. Non-roster invitee or not, he was making the club the moment he walked into training camp. Seemed like every baseball magazine I read on supermarket bookshelves in January/February 1984 boasted this phenom from Single-A Lynchburg who struck out 300 batters in 191 innings and would ultimately make the Mets; it seemed to be a foregone conclusion. That said, the great non-roster player Dwight Gooden warrants mentioning.

4) Ozzie Smith, San Diego Padres, 1978: The San Diego Padres’ 1974 1st round pick, Bill Almon, had finally emerged as the everyday shortstop in 1977, batting .261 with 20 stolen bases. The problem was he didn’t have much range and he struck out 114 times. Then came Ozzie. Drafted in the 4th round by San Diego in the 1977, Smith finished the year in A-ball, hitting .303 and leading the league with 30 stolen bases, while playing in only 68 games. I asked Gaylord Perry if he was unsure he would succeed after his trade to San Diego in ’78. “When I saw that young man (Smith) playing shortstop behind me, I knew I would have a great season.” He did. Not on the roster at the start of spring training 1978, Ozzie wasn’t even listed in the team press guide. In the end, Smith had a nice year, generating 2.3 WAR, all on offense, if you can believe that – zero dWAR in his rookie season. 40 Stolen Bases, good for 5th in the league. The Padres moved Almon to third base to make room for Ozzie. He would be gone by the ’79 offseason.

Alvin Davis. The Human Rain Delay. Doc. The Wiz. All great seasons. None as great as the one they called “The Bird” in 1976.

The Detroit Tigers were simply awful in 1975. Like 57-102 awful. Willie Horton managed to drive in 92 runs and hit .275, but the next highest run producer was Aurelio Rodriguez with 60. To be sure, this was a ballclub with an open-minded front office. The pitching staff was in shambles. Starter Joe Coleman’s arm appeared to be shot after throwing 280+ innings the last four seasons. None of the young hurlers showed they were consistently ready for major league hitters and most of them would find themselves on the 4-A shuttle within a year. They traded fading fan favorite and World Series hero Mickey Lolich to the Mets for Rusty Staub, in what turned out to be an outstanding swap. They brought in Houston lefty starter Dave Roberts, hoping he could somewhat compensate for Lolich’s lost production, and almost did (3.1 WAR). GM Jim Campbell needed more. By mid-May 1976, he would have it in spades.

Fidrych was a 10th round pick of the 1974 amateur draft. He pitched in the minors for just two seasons, compiling an 11-10 mark with three clubs in 1975, although he finished strong with AAA Evansville, going 4-1 with a 1.58 ERA & sub-1.00 WHIP. Fidrych made the Tigers staff coming out of spring training, although he didn’t pitch for the first ten days of the season. He made his Major League Debut on April 20th, 1976, facing one batter. His next appearance was in mop-up duty, giving up 2 hits in one inning of work. On May 15th, manager Ralph Houk gave him a start and The Bird gave his skipper one back: a 2-hit, one-run, complete game victory.

It would be the first of 24 complete games Fidrych would pitch. He led the league in ERA+, complete games and ERA. He started the All-Star midsummer classic, came in 2nd for Cy Young (in 1976, he would’ve gotten the award had he won that extra game). He had the best WAR (8.5) of anyone in the American League in 1976 – better than any hitter- which was also good for second in all of baseball, tied with Mike Schmidt. Very important, and again, a stat that deserves much more appreciation than it receives – Pitcher Support (SUP). Generally, the average starting pitcher receives a 100 SUP score (higher means the team surrounding the hurler helps him out with defense and hitting; lower means the thrower is given less-than average help and is often times on his own.)

Mark Fidrych’s support was 85 in 1976. It was the greatest season by a non-roster invitee in the last 50 years.

Perhaps all-time.

 

For more from Mike Silva, visit nybaseballdigest.com

By Mike Silva
Tuesday, 21 Feb 2012

 

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Comments

  • Clemente Fan said: Really interesting article. Thanks for the memories. 11:19AM 02/22/12
  • Phil Naessens said: The "Bird" was the "word" that year wasn't he? It's too bad he got hurt and its even worse that he passed away so young....he would have been great to talk ball with! 2:48AM 02/22/12
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