Yasiel Puig has taken the baseball world by storm and, through the Final Vote is attempting to become just the sixth Dodgers rookie to be named to the All-Star Game. While Puig's debut was nothing short of magnificent, it simply does not compare to Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.
Valenzuela didn't come out of nowhere in 1981, as he began his career in September 1980. But his start wasn't just a cup of coffee. The 19-year-old was thrown into a race for the National League West with the Astros. Valenzuela pitched exclusively in relief in 1980 and though he didn't debut until Sept. 15, he pitched in 10 of the final 21 games of the season. Valenzuela allowed just two runs, both unearned in 17⅔ innings in 1980.
Valenzuela was in the rotation to start 1981, but was bumped up to opening day starter after Jerry Reuss got hurt. All the 20-year-old did was shutout the Astros on five hits.
His next outing was in San Francisco, and Valenzuela struck out 10 Giants in another complete game, though he did allow an eighth inning run in the 7-1 win.
Four days later, Valenzuela shut out the Padres in San Diego on five hits, with 10 more strikeouts. Four days after that Valenzuela shut out the Astros in Houston, striking out 11 while out-dueling former teammate Don Sutton in a 1-0 win. Valenzuela got a full four days rest for his next start, back at home and he shut out the Giants on Apr. 27.
In that game, his fifth major league start, Valenzuela had three hits at the plate and allowed no runs. Since then that has been done only three times by a Dodgers pitcher: Orel Hershiser in Game 2 of the 1988 World Series, Kevin Brown in 2002 and Zack Greinke Monday night in Arizona.
Through Valenzuela's first month as a starter, he allowed one run. He pitched four shutouts and another complete game. Through his first 38 team games, Valenzuela pitched 62⅔ innings and allowed a single earned run. His career ERA at that point was 0.14.
Fernandomania was in full force at this point. But he wasn't done.
On May 3, with a full five days rest, Valenzuela allowed just one run in nine innings in Montreal, but left with the Dodgers and Expos tied at 1-1. The Dodgers exploded for five runs in the 10th inning and Steve Howe closed out the win for Valenzuela.
On May 8, Valenzuela pitched his fifth shutout in seven starts, with 11 strikeouts against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Six days later Valenzuela beat the Expos again with a complete game 3-2 victory.
In a start that will likely never be equaled, Valenzuela pitched nine innings in each of his first eight starts. He had seven complete games, five shutouts, and was 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA. Counting 1980, his career ERA to that point was a miniscule 0.45.
Four earned runs in 80⅔ innings.
As expected, Valenzuela hit a lull, but after June 11 was 9-4 with a 2.45 ERA and led the major leagues with 103 strikeouts. He was tied for the major league lead in wins and led he National League with 110 innings.
That's when the baseball strike hit. The largest labor stoppage in the sport to date forced the cancellation of 713 games and lasted nearly two months. As a result the season was split into halves, with the winners of each half facing off for the division crown.
The second half began on Aug. 9 with the All-Star Game, the latest date ever for the midsummer classic. Fernando Valenzuela, at 20, was named starting pitcher for the National League. Valenzuela was just the third rookie pitcher ever to start an All-Star Game, joining Dave Stenhouse (1962) and Mark Fidrych (1976).
Valenzuela was set to face owners of eight of the previous nine American League batting titles in the first inning, in Rod Carew and George Brett. Carew led off with an infield single but was caught stealing by Gary Carter, who would win the game MVP honors.
Willie Randolph followed with a single to left field off Valenzuela, who settled down and got Brett and Dave Winfield to ground out to end the frame.
Valenzuela was removed for a pinch hitter in the second inning so he just pitched the one scoreless inning in his All-Star debut.
He finished out the season with a 4-3 record and a 2.51 ERA in 11 starts. On the season, the 20-year-old Valenzuela was 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and lead the league with 25 starts, 11 complete games, eight shutouts, 192⅓ innings and 180 strikeouts. Valenzuela became the first rookie ever to win the Cy Young Award, in an extremely tight vote over Tom Seaver, and naturally won the NL Rookie of the Year award as well.
Valenzuela proved his mettle in the postseason too, going 3-1 in five starts with a 2.21 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 15 walks in 40⅔ innings. He had wins in the clinching Game 5 of the NLCS and in Game 3 of the World Series, the latter a 147-pitch complete game in which he overcame seven walks to beat the Yankees to begin the Dodgers' comeback from 2-0 down to win their first World Series in 16 years.
Valenzuela was a full-fledged superstar, and was named to the All-Star team in each of his first six seasons (1981-1986). He pitched in five of those games and never allowed a run in 7⅔ innings, with five hits and three walks allowed, and nine strikeouts.
He also set a few midsummer classic records in his career. In 1984 Valenzuela struck out three in two innings and combined with Dwight Gooden to strikeout a record six consecutive hitters. Two years later, Valenzuela tied Carl Hubbell's individual record, set 52 years earlier, with five straight strikeouts of his own.
Valenzuela was built for the big stage, and performed well when given the opportunity.