Roughly 25 years ago, a 25-year old rookie pitcher by the name of Orel Leonard Hershiser IV pitched one of the best games by a Los Angeles Dodger in St. Louis.
Game Score is a fun stat, invented by Bill James, as a way to measure performances by starting pitchers. It is calculated as follows:
Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.
Since moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers have had two pitchers post a game score of 90 or higher in a game in St. Louis: Hershiser in 1984, and Ismael Valdes (yes, I'm aware he changed to a "z" a while back) in 1995. Each man pitched a two-hit shutout while striking out nine Cardinals, good for a game score of 92. Valdes deserves his own story at some point, but today I want to focus on Hershiser's gem.
In 1984, Hershiser started the season pitching mostly out of the Dodger bullpen. He was a little old for a rookie, at 25, and the Dodgers weren't quite sure what they had in him. Through his five years in the minors, Hershiser started only 28 of 202 games pitched while pitching reasonably well in hitter-friendly environments. Some time in May or June, Hershiser was struggling, with an ERA fluctuating in the fives, and the Dodgers were getting frustrated with their young pitcher. Around that time, manager Tommy Lasorda offered the rookie some passionate advice. As Hershiser recalled:
Now I was sitting in his office. "You don't believe in yourself," he shouted. "You're scared to pitch in the big leagues! Who do you think these hitters are—Babe Ruth? Ruth's dead! You've got good stuff. If you didn't, I wouldn't have brought you up. Quit being so careful. Go after the hitter. Get ahead in the count."
Although I was being aired out, I was sure that I heard a compliment hidden in Tommy's words. I've got good stuff? He brought me to the big leagues because he believes in me?
Tommy wasn't done. "If I could get a heart surgeon in here, I'd have him open my chest and take out my heart. Then I'd have him open your chest, take out your heart, and tell him to give you mine. With my heart and your arm, you'd be in the Hall of Fame! I've seen guys come and go, son, and you've got it."
Tommy finished his sermon with a flourish. "Take charge! Make 'em hit your best stuff! Be aggressive. Be a bulldog out there." And then, almost like he had surprised himself with a stroke of genius, he announced, "That's going to be your new name: Bulldog. It's the ninth inning, we bring you in and you're facing Dale Murphy. He hears, ‘Now pitching, Orel Hershiser.' He can't wait till you get in there. But if he hears, ‘Now pitching, Bulldog Hershiser,' he's thinking, Oh, no, who's that? Murphy's going to be scared to death!"
Over time, this meeting came to be known as "The Sermon on the Mound." Whatever it was called, something in Hershiser seemed to click, and he began to pitch much better. After some success in the bullpen, Hershiser joined the rotation for good on June 29. He pitched a complete game that day, beating the Cubs 7-1. Five days later, Hershiser was even better, pitching a shutout while striking out 11 Pirates. Following a scoreless relief appearance against the Cardinals on July 8, Hershiser beat the Cubs again, this time shutting them out at Wrigley Field.
Heading into the July 19 game at St. Louis, Hershiser was carrying a scoreless inning streak of 21.2 innings, and had thrown three complete games and two shutouts in his first five major league starts. Both teams were hovering around the .500 mark entering play that day, each team well out of contention in their respective divisions.
The Dodgers jumped on Cardinals' starter Dave LaPoint early, scoring two runs in the first on a bases loaded single by Steve Yeager, although the inning ended with Candy Maldonado getting thrown out at home on the play by second baseman Tommy Herr. Little did the Dodgers know those runs would be more than enough on this day.
Lonnie Smith led off the first with a single for the Cardinals, and Hershiser balked him to second base, but the next three Cardinals made out by two groundouts and a strikeout. The Cardinals got their second hit in the next inning, a one out double by Terry Pendleton, but Hershiser got out of the inning by striking out David Green and inducing a groundout from Chris Speier.
The Cardinals final "rally" occurred in the third inning, when Lonnie Smith was hit by a pitch with one out. Hershiser again pitched out of trouble, and then simply allowed nothing the rest of the way. Hershiser retired the final 20 batters of the game, in what would later become classic Hershiser fashion: 11 groundball outs, two flyball outs, and even seven strikeouts. For the game, Hershiser had a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 16:2. The Dodgers blew the game open with six runs in the 7th, and ended up winning the game 10-0.
After this start against the Cardinals, Hershiser was 4-1 in his six major league starts, with a 1.52 ERA while averaging 7.89 innings per start. His scoreless streak now stood at 30.2 innings, a streak which would stretch to 34 innings before the streak was stopped by the Braves. Not bad for a rookie, huh? A man could get used to this kind of scoreless streak.
Tonight's Dodger starter turns 25 tomorrow, and he is the greatest right-handed pitcher the Dodgers drafted and developed since Hershiser. To date, Chad Billingsley has made 89 starts, all while younger than Hershiser when he made first start. Here is a look at the two pitchers in their first 89 big league starts:
There is no ignoring the fact that Hershiser averaged an inning more per start than Billingsley in those first 89 starts, but remember that baseball is a different game now than it was 25 years ago. From 1984-1986, the average National League starter pitched 6.21 innings, whereas from 2006-2009 the average NL start is only 5.78 innings. Billingsley has been every bit as good as the Bulldog, a welcoming fact for those who think the Dodgers lack a front line pitcher.
Maybe Chad just needs a catchy nickname.