Dodgers Way Top Ten Dodgers of All-Time: Number Six

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 08: Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela throws a pitch against the New York Yankees for an Old Timers game before the game betweenthe Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on June 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 08: Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela throws a pitch against the New York Yankees for an Old Timers game before the game betweenthe Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on June 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images) /

“And a little child shall lead them.” – Vin Scully, April 9, 1981

It was nearly 38 years ago that “A man-child named Fernando” made his Major League debut and started a phenomenon that became known nationwide as “Fernandomania.”

There aren’t many athletes who go by only one name: Babe, Michael, Gretzky, LeBron, Bo, MagicFernando.

Longtime Dodger scout Mike Brito, on a 1979 trip to Mexico to scout a shortstop, saw Fernando strike out the very same shortstop with three straight strikes after falling behind, 3-0, in the count, causing him to “forget all about the shortstop.” A few months later, on July 6, 1979, the Dodgers signed Fernando for $120,000.

On Sept. 15, 1980, with the Dodgers trailing the Atlanta Braves, 5-0, that 19-year-old, named Fernando Valenzuela, replaced Joe Beckwith in the bottom of the sixth inning and toed a Major League rubber for the very first time, retiring the side in order on a fly ball and two grounders to third.

With the help of two errors, Fernando gave up two unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh, then followed that with 16.1 consecutive scoreless innings over his next nine appearances to end the season. He allowed seven singles and a double with five walks and 16 strikeouts over his 17.2 total innings in 1980.

Fans were calling for manager Tommy Lasorda to start Fernando in the one-game playoff against Houston that year, but Lasorda chose Dave Goltz, who didn’t make it to the fourth inning in a 7-1 loss that cost the Dodgers the West. Fernando pitched two scoreless innings of relief in the game, but it was too little, too late.

No matter. Lasorda knew exactly who to call on for the 1981 season opener when scheduled starter Jerry Reuss strained a calf muscle right before the opener, and history was set in motion.  Born in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico, on Nov. 1, 1960, Fernando was 20 years old when he stepped onto the biggest stage in baseball: Opening Day at Dodger Stadium.

Worried? Not Fernando. Not even 50,511 screaming fans rising to their feet with two outs in the ninth inning of that 2-0 Opening Day game could faze “El Toro” as he calmly struck out this Dave Roberts, not this Dave Roberts, with his signature screwball to complete the five-hit shutout.

Fernando gave up a run in the eighth inning of his next start, snapping his 32.2 consecutive scoreless innings streak dating to 1980.  That didn’t diminish one of the greatest starts to a pitching career in Major League history. Fernando opened 1981 with eight consecutive complete games (five of those shutouts), allowing two earned runs over his first 65.1 innings for a microscopic 0.50 ERA.

Including 1980, he allowed a TOTAL of four runs (two earned) over his first 80.2 career Major League innings.  As a 20-year-old rookie in 1981, he led the all of baseball with 25 starts, 11 complete games, 192.1 innings and 180 strikeouts, becoming the first rookie to lead the National League in strikeouts.

Fernando’s 13-7 record and 2.48 ERA earned him the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards. He is still the only player in history to have won both awards in the same season.  And he was 20!  As his legend grew in the early 80s, the Dodger Stadium PA system would play ABBA‘s 1976 hit song Fernando during his warm-up routine.

Fernando never led the Majors in strikeouts again, but he recorded 200-plus strikeouts for three straight years from 1984-86, and he was the barometer by which all starting pitchers were measured from 1981-86.  During that period, Fernando compiled a 97-68 record and led all Major League starters with a 2.97 ERA and 1,258 strikeouts. He also had 26 shutouts during that span.

But maybe the most impressive stat from that period was that he allowed one run or less in 60 of his starts. Yes, ONE RUN OR LESS!  He also logged 1,537 total innings during that span, which was the most in baseball. As a comparison, David Price is the current Major League leader over the past five seasons with 1,096.1 innings pitched.

At the 1986 All-Star Game, Valenzuela tied Carl Hubbell’s 1934 All-Star Game record by striking out five consecutive batters: Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken Jr., Jesse Barfield, Lou Whitaker and Teddy Higuera (the opposing pitcher). Kirby Puckett then grounded out to third to end the streak.

Fernando was also the first pitcher in Major League history to strike out three batters in an inning twice in All-Star games.  From a non-baseball standpoint, Fernando’s impact on the culture in Los Angeles is immeasurable. He single-handedly brought the Mexican-American community together at Dodger Stadium every five days, and his impact is still being felt today.

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Stroll through Dodger Stadium on a summer evening, and you’ll likely see more “Valenzuela” jerseys than any other name.  Today, younger Dodger fans know Fernando as one of the Dodgers’ Spanish language broadcasters.

Those of us who were lucky enough to see him pitch in person will never forget his eyes-to-the-sky delivery or his penchant for knocking in the only run of the game.  In fact, Fernando won two Silver Slugger Awards and had a career slash line of .200/.205/.262 with 10 home runs and 84 RBIs. He actually had more seasons with a home run as a Dodger (6) than he did without (5).

In his last season as a Dodger, 1990, Fernando hit .304 (21 for 69) with career highs in doubles (5) and RBIs (11).  To date, Fernando still leads all Mexican-born players with 40.9 WAR, according to Fangraphs.  So, is Fernando Valenzuela a Hall of Fame-worthy player? From 1980-86, his statistics say yes. From 1987-97, his statistics would say no: 74-85 with a 4.23 ERA.

His overall 173-153 mark for six different teams (Dodgers, Angels, Orioles, Phillies, Padres, and Cardinals) rank him 179th all time. Among Hall of Fame pitches who were mostly starters in their career, only Sandy Koufax (165), John Ward (164), Addie Joss (160), Dizzy Dean (150) and Candy Cummings (145) had fewer wins than Fernando.

His career 3.54 ERA, 113 complete games, 2,930 innings pitched and 2,074 strikeouts should garner him serious consideration as the years pass.  (Being at this game as a kid sure didn’t hurt his legacy).  Without question, he was one of the most impactful Latin players in baseball history. His highest Hall of Fame vote total, however, was 6.2 percent in 2003. His only chance at a Hall call now would be through an eventual Modern Baseball Era Committee vote.

Next: Dodgers Way top ten Dodgers of all-time: Number Seven

Twenty years after his final Major League pitch, Fernando Valenzuela still brings a cheer from the crowd and a chill to the spine.

Quite simply, he was … Fernando.