The Bulldog Belongs: A Look Back At Orel Hershiser

Orel Hershiser ranks himself on the Vin Scully Lords of the Ravine ballot.

Vin Scully's Lords of the Ravine needs to have a representative from all five Los Angeles World Championships, and nobody has more of a claim to the 1988 title than Orel Hershiser.  Kirk Gibson provided us with an MVP season, and the greatest play in Dodger history, but Hershiser was the superhuman force leading that charge.

Hershiser happens to be the author of my favorite game I've ever attended.  My older brother Kelly bought a strip of four tickets for every postseason game in 1988, and I was fortunate enough to go with him to Game 2 of the World Series.  At 12 years old, I wasn't exactly in control of my own destiny, so I don't know if going to Game 1 would have been an option, but that was out of the question anyway due to some unfortunate family timing.  My sister Debbie turned 30 that November, but my other sister Kim wanted to throw her a surprise party*.

*Kim is one year older than Debbie, and just one year earlier she had a surprise party thrown for her.  Only something went awry, and she found out somehow.  The plan was for Kim's husband to drive with her somewhere on a normal errand, and for everyone to arrive at their house while they were gone.  I came with my mom and grandma, only we happened to get there early, before Kim had left.  Someone saw our car in the driveway and quickly came outside to shoo us away, and this is where it gets hilarious.  You see, my 75-year old grandma had just had broken her knee so she was in a cast.  Asking her to move quickly, back to the car, was a tall order, but that didn't stop her from trying.  She hopped back to the car as fast as her one good leg would take her.  I couldn't stop laughing.  However, before you report me for elderly abuse, it should be known that all three of us in the car were in tears from laughing so hard.  What can I say, my family has a sick sense of humor.  Anyway, Kim was determined to make sure Debbie never saw her own surprise party coming.

Part of the surprise for Debbie's party was to hold it two and a half weeks earlier than her actual birthday.  Well, that happened to fall on Saturday, October 15, which was also the date of the opening game of the World Series.  Kelly, being the good brother he is, decided not to use his four tickets for Game 1, instead spending the time with family.  That meant we all got to celebrate Kirk Gibson's home run from an apartment in Tustin instead of the loge level at Dodger Stadium.  That's okay though, because we had a date with destiny Sunday night for Game 2.  After all, Superman was pitching.

On August 14, the 29-year old Hershiser was enjoying a fine season.  He lost to the Giants that day -- got shelled, in fact -- but he was sitting at 16-7 with a 3.06 ERA.  The Dodgers, who won just 73 games in each of the previous two years, were in first place, 2½ games ahead of the Astros. Hershiser wasn't fazed by his poor outing against San Francisco, telling the LA Times:

"At the level of ability I've attained, I don't see (an outing like) this as a common occurrence. So, I chalk up a game like this to experience, that's all. Ability doesn't disappear overnight."

That ability didn't disappear for a long, long time after that.  Hershiser made nine starts the remainder of the season, and completed eight of them.  In the one game he didn't pitch a complete game, he went 10 innings.  He gave up a total of four runs in 82 innings to close out the regular season, including the famous record-breaking 59-inning scoreless streak.  In fact, the streak really reached 67 innings, as Hershiser took a shutout into the ninth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Mets.  Hershiser gave up a run, but left the game with a 2-1 lead, which was blown by Jay Howell.  Hershiser ended up pitching four of the seven games of the NLCS, even earning a save in the wild, extra-inning fourth game, and a series-closing shutout in Game 7.

Game 2 of the 1988 World Series is still the only World Series game I have ever attended, and is also to date the last World Series game played at Dodger Stadium.  That night was owned by Hershiser.  He pitched a shutout, which was becoming commonplace for him, allowing three measly singles to Dave Parker.  The surprising thing was that Hershiser picked up three hits himself, including two doubles!  He even went first-to-third on a single to right field, testing the mighty arm of Jose Canseco.  Hershiser had more hits in Game 2 than bash brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire had in the entire series, combined.

The classic story of Game 2 had to do with Hershiser's nerdier side.  He often wore glasses, and out of uniform he looked more like a professor than a pitcher.  He was Greg Maddux before Greg Maddux.  Like Tony Gwynn was one of the first hitters to take advantage of video, studying it endlessly to improve his beautiful swing, Hershiser was one of the only baseball players to use a computer to help his performance.  As Steve Wulf noted in Sports Illustrated that year:

If Hershiser gets the three mil, it will be a tribute to his thirst for pitching knowledge, for that's what distinguishes him from most of his comrades in arms. Yes, he has a tremendous sinker, an above-average fastball and an outstanding curve, but other pitchers have "stuff." However, very few of them have hard disks on the opposition. Hershiser can call up a computer file for almost every game he has pitched this year. (Sad to say. his scrapbooks have suffered from lack of attention, now that he has a PC.) Every at bat by every batter is recorded with shorthand notations that translate to something like. "Thomas [Andres Thomas of Atlanta]—First inning, lined out to short on a good curve ball—may be learning how to hit the curve." It's not as if Hershiser pores over the data before every game. "Just the fact that I'm entering the information is enough to keep it in my mind," he says.

The story was that, after Gibson's home run, Hershiser was so excited he forgot to take him videotapes of the A's hitters to study before his start in Game 2.  So Hershiser used a "cheat sheet," writing down notes for each hitter on an index card, which he laminated and put in his back pocket, referring to it a few times during the game.  Whatever was on that card, it worked, as Oakland can attest.

Hershiser closed out the A's in Game 5, allowing two runs in yet another complete game, ending one of the greatest runs by any pitcher in baseball history.  From August 14 through the end of the World Series, here are Hershiser's statistics:

G GS W-L Sv CG SH H R ER BB K ERA WHIP
15 14 10-1 1 11 8 73 11 9 28 89 0.65 0.810

To put that in perspective, Hershiser had almost as many complete game shutouts (eight) in a two-month period as the Dodgers have had in the last five years (nine).

Hershiser's LA Dodger success is not confined to a single year.  His best season might have been 1985, when he burst onto the scene with a 19-3 record with a 2.03 ERA.  In most years, that's an easy choice for the Cy Young award, but Hershiser happened to run into the buzz saw that was Doc Gooden (and to a lesser extent, John Tudor as well) so he had no chance at the award. 

In 1989, Hershiser was rolling along with another fine season, and through August 8 was 14-8 with a 2.40 ERA.  Ho hum, another great year by Orel.  He even finished that season strong, with a 2.10 ERA over his final 10 starts.  Yet, he went 0-7 over a nine-game stretch because the Dodger offense scored nine runs in nine games, putting Hershiser's record at 14-15 heading into his final start of the season.  Hershiser went 11 innings in that final game of 1989 to even his record, but it had a cost, even though Orel Hershiser downplayed the effect to ESPN's Tim Kurkjian:

"I stayed in that whole game because I was one game under .500 coming in, and I didn't want to finish with a losing record," Hershiser said. "I told [Dodgers manager] Tommy [Lasorda], 'I'm not coming out of this game. I have to win.' I knew I was going to have to have surgery after the season. That game wasn't the reason."

Hershiser had surgery in 1990, and was never the same for the Dodgers.

Years IP W-L H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 ERA WHIP ERA+
1983-89 1457.0 98-64 7.7 0.5 2.7 6.2 2.69 1.149 132
90-94,2000 723.2 37-43 9.2 0.7 2.9 5.5 3.98 1.339 82

 

I prefer to remember the 1980s Hershiser, the Bulldog with the awesome sinker and rubber arm.  The one with the 4-0 record and 1.71 ERA in 58 postseason innings as a Dodger.  The one who was the best pitcher in the league in the last half of the decade.  The one who carried the Dodgers on his back to their last world championship.  That's the Hershiser I remember.

The list of LA Dodgers (sorry Johnny Podres) to be named "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated is a short one:  Sandy Koufax (1965), and Orel Hershiser (1988).

Hershiser is forever linked to Don Drysdale in Dodger lore.  They have the top two scoreless inning streaks in baseball history.  They both played second fiddle to an iconic lefty, although I think Hershiser was better than Fernando Valenzuela.  Drysdale's ERA+ in Los Angeles was 117, and Hershiser's was 116*, which rank third and fourth, respectively, among LA Dodgers with 1,000 innings

*How bad was Hershiser in his return in 2000?  The 41-year old pitcher returned home to end his career on a high note, but it didn't work out as planned.  Hershiser only pitched 24.2 innings before retiring into the sweet good night, but during that time he allowed 36 runs (!!) on 42 hits, 14 walks, and an unbelievable 11 hit batters.  That's almost three baserunners per inning!  Since 1901, Hershiser's 13.14 ERA in 2000 is the worst ERA by any pitcher with 20 or more innings.  Even 2004 Hideo Nomo looks at Hershiser's 2000 and says, "Wow, that was terrible."  Those 24.2 innings did so much damage that Orel went from a 120 LA Dodger ERA+ all the way down to 116.

Drysdale has nearly 1,000 more innings than Hershiser, so Big D gets the nod, but I contend the Walter O'Malley Suite won't be complete without The Bulldog.

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