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Fernando Valenzuela

Fernando Valenzuela

Position(s):
P, LF, OF, RF, 1B
Nicknames:
El Toro
Born:
November 1, 1960
Bats:
Left
Throws:
Left
Height:
5' 11"
Weight:
180 lbs
Major League Debut:
9-15-1980 with LAN
Allstar Selections:
1981 CY, 1981 ML, 1981 ROOK, 1981 SS, 1981 TSN, 1983 SS, 1986 GG

He pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers for ten season from 1980 to 1990. Thanks in part to his "Ruthian physique," and devastating screwball that helped him win his first eight straight decisions in 1981, and a deep connection with Los Angeles' large Latino community, Valenzuela touched off an early '80s craze dubbed "Fernandomania". That year, Valenzuela became the only player in Major League history to win the Rookie of the Year award, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award and a World Series championship in the same season.

Biography:

In 1978, 17-year-old Fernando Valenzuela began his professional baseball career with the Guanajuato Tuzos of the Mexican Central League, posting a 5-6 record with a 2.23 ERA. The following year, the Mexican Central League was absorbed into the expanded Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (Mexican Baseball League), automatically elevating then 18-year-old Valenzuela to the Triple-A level. Pitching for the Leones de Yucatán (Yucatan Lions) that year, Valenzuela went 10-12 with a 2.49 ERA and 141 strikeouts. A number of Major League teams scouted Valenzuela during this time, but it was the Los Angeles Dodgers who finally gambled on the young lefty, buying out his Liga contract on July 6, 1979, for $120,000.

Los Angeles Dodgers

After acquiring Fernando Valenzuela in the summer of 1979, the Dodgers assigned him to the Lodi Dodgers (now the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes) of the High-A level California League, where he posted a 1-2 record and a 1.13 ERA in limited action. In 1980 Valenzuela was promoted to the Double-A level San Antonio Missions. There Valenzuela led the Texas League with 162 strikeouts, and ranked third in ERA.

Valenzuela was called up to the Los Angeles Dodger bullpen in September 1980. In the last month of the season, Valenzuela helped the Dodgers to a Western Division tie with the Houston Astros, pitching 17 2/3 shutout innings of relief over the course of ten games, during which he earned two wins and a save. The Los Angeles Dodgers then lost a one-game playoff - and thus the division championship - to the Astros.

Fernandomania

Valenzuela's efforts made him the odds-on favorite to be the league's top rookie in 1981. He started the season 8-0 with five shutouts and an ERA of 0.50. Punctuating this dominance on the mound, Valenzuela had an extremely unusual but flamboyant wind-up (looking skyward just at the apex of every pitch), which drew attention of its own. It was a habit which he claims to have developed spontaneously, although not until joining the Dodgers. He became an instant media icon, drawing huge crowds from the Los Angeles Latino community every time he pitched and triggering high demand across the country for his rookie baseball cards. The craze surrounding Valenzuela came to be known as "Fernandomania." Valenzuela was less dominant after the 1981 player strike wiped out the middle third of the season, but the left-hander still finished with a 13-7 record and a 2.48 ERA. He led all pitchers in complete games (11), shutouts (8), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180). That season Fernando Valenzuela became the only pitcher to win Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award honors in the same year. Valenzuela, who was a solid hitting pitcher, had a batting average of .250 for the season and won the 1981 Silver Slugger Award. In the post-season, Valenzuela became the youngest pitcher to start the first game of a series and pitched a complete Game 3 of the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees. In total, he went 3-1 in the post-season as he helped the Dodgers to their first World Championship since 1965.

In addition to his skills on the mound, Valenzuela also displayed much better offensive skills than most pitchers. During his rookie season, Valenzuela batted .250 and struck out just nine times in 64 at bats. That season, and again in 1983, Valenzuela was the recipient of the National League's Silver Slugger Award for pitchers. In 1990, his last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Valenzuela hit .304 in 69 at-bats, with one home run, five doubles, and eleven runs batted in. In 936 career at-bats - roughly two full seasons worth of at-bats for a full-time position player - Valenzuela had ten home runs and 84 runs batted in. On at least two occasions with the Dodgers, Valenzuela was called upon to play outfield and first base in marathon extra-inning games in which he did not pitch.

El Toro

Following the outstanding debut, Valenzuela, nicknamed "El Toro" (the Bull) by fans, settled down into a number of years as a workhorse starter and one of the league's best pitchers. He had one of his best seasons in 1986, when he finished 21-11 with a 3.14 ERA and led the league in wins, complete games and innings pitched. He lost a narrow vote for the Cy Young Award to the Astros' Mike Scott. At the 1986 All-Star Game, Valenzuela made history by striking out five consecutive American League batters, tying a record set by fellow left-handed screwballer Carl Hubbell in the 1934 contest.

In 1987 his performance declined, dropping off to 14-14 with a 3.98 ERA. In 1988 he won just five games and missed much of the season (a year in which the Dodgers won the World Series). He improved slightly in 1989 and went 10-13, and went 13-13 in 1990. He had one last great moment on June 29, 1990, when he threw a 6-0 no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals just hours after the Oakland Athletics' Dave Stewart had thrown one against the Toronto Blue Jays. Early in his major league career, Valenzuela had trouble communicating with his catchers because he spoke very little English. Mike Scioscia, after being called up as a rookie, made the effort to learn Spanish and eventually became Valenzuela's "personal catcher" with the Dodgers before becoming the full-time catcher.

Post-Dodgers career

After pitching ineffectively in spring training in 1991, Valenzuela was released by the Dodgers. An abortive attempt at a comeback with the California Angels failed later that summer. He signed with the Detroit Tigers in the spring of 1992, but he never played for the team, and his contract was purchased by Jalisco of the Mexican League that summer. He pitched and played some first base when he wasn't on the mound, before making another brief comeback in 1993 with the Baltimore Orioles.

Jumping between the big leagues and Mexico for the next few seasons, he put together one more solid big-league season in 1996 for the San Diego Padres, going 13-8 with a 3.62 ERA. He retired a year later with a final record of 173-153 and a 3.54 ERA as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Los Angeles Dodgers invited him to spring training in 1999, but he declined the offer. On June 29, 2004, Valenzuela announced he would return to the mound in the Liga Mexicana del Pacífico (the Mexican Pacific Coast League) to play for Los Aguilas de Mexicali in October at which time he was nearly 44 years old. He pitched again that Mexican winter league, during the 2005-06 season.

Hitting

Valenzuela was considered an exceptionally good hitter for a pitcher. His best year at the plate was 1990, when he hit .304 with five doubles and 11 RBI in 69 at-bats. His career batting average was .200, with 10 homers, 26 doubles, and 84 RBI in 936 at-bats. Valenzuela was even used on a number of occasions as a pinch-hitter, batting .368 (7-for-19) in such situations. He also won the Silver Slugger in 1981 and 1983.

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Tagged:
1981 World Series, Cy Young Award, Fernando Valenzuela, Los Angeles Dodgers, National League Rookie of the Year

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