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If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky: The case for Fernando

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I'm not going to beat around the bush here: The case for Fernando Valenzuela as a key figure in history depends much more on mystique and nostalgia than it does on actual pitching.

Oh, Fernando was a heck of a pitcher. He was a Rookie of the Year winner (though perhaps he should have lost that to Tim Raines) and a Cy Young winner (though he clearly should have lost that to Nolan Ryan). He pitched a memorable no-hitter. He led the league with 21 wins in 1986, when he became probably the last MLB pitcher who will ever throw 20 complete games in one season. Even so, he was only the second-best pitcher in the league that year, deservedly losing the Cy Young to Houston's Mike Scott.

Those two years, 1981 and '86, are essentially the bookends of Fernando's career. Only during that brief six-year span was he a truly effective major league pitcher. He was 99-68 with a 119 ERA+ through '86, but only 42-48 with a 91 ERA+ over the rest of his Dodger career. Even during his good years, he wasn't quite as good as we all thought he was; pitching in Dodger Stadium made his numbers appear significantly better than they actually were. His career ERA+ was only 104; as a Dodger, it was 107. What made him a good pitcher wasn't really the quality of his pitching, but the quantity: He averaged 266 innings per year from '82 through '87, ranking in the NL top five each season.

So statistically, he wasn't the greatest. Even so, Fernando is absolutely a slam-dunk choice for first-ballot induction into Vin Scully's Lords of the Ravine. Follow the jump to read why.

First of all, you should know that you are reading a post by someone who has owned exactly one Dodger replica jersey in his life -- and that jersey has "VALENZUELA 34" on the back. You're reading a post by someone who, although he doesn't quite remember it, has been told that he was taken to a Double-A game at age 3 in 1980 specifically for the purpose of watching Fernando pitch. You're reading an article by someone in whose childhood bedroom a poster of Fernando hangs to this very day. So clearly I'm favorably disposed toward his candidacy.

 

I think it's fair to say that no Los Angeles Dodger, not even Sandy Koufax, has ever been quite the icon and cultural phenomenon that Fernando was. With his youthful exuberance, his ubiquitous lasso, his devastating screwball, his infectious smile, his pudgy everyman body, his hitting ability, his obvious intelligence, his look toward the heavens, his adorable shyness, he captured our imaginations like no Dodger before or since.

Here are eight random things that come to mind about Fernando. Maybe they're reasons you should vote for him, maybe they're not, but they are reasons I will vote for him:

1. His no-hitter, thrown before a national audience on ESPN, and featuring a last out made by one of the great Dodgers of all time, Pedro Guerrero.

2. His 0.00 ERA in September 1980 which helped to propel the Dodgers into a one-game playoff with Houston -- which they then proceeded to lose because he wasn't given the start in that game.

3. The 1989 22-inning game in which he ended the evening as the Dodgers' first baseman, and alas, proved to be two inches too short to catch the game-winning line drive.

4. That lasso, which he used to rope unsuspecting teammates in the clubhouse. Weird and charming at the same time.

5. The shot of him and Kirk Gibson calmly shaking hands after the clinching of the 1988 World Series, both wearing warmup jackets and sidelined due to injury. You felt for the both of them, two of the key figures in Dodger history, relegated to being impotent observers during what should have been the hour of their greatest triumph.

6. Fact: On May 13, 1981, Fernando's career record stood at 9-0 with a 0.22 ERA in 80.7 innings.

7. Fact: Valenzuela's career postseason record was 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 64 innings.

8. Fact: In 1982, when the average major league baseball game was attended by 20,766 fans, the games Fernando pitched drew an average of 43,312.

I'm a big stats guy, but there are certain rare situations in which common sense dictates that you simply throw all the stats out the window and go with your gut. Fernando's candidacy as an inner-circle Lord of the Ravine is one of those.

                     - Eric Enders

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