Fernando Valenzuela made his first major league start on this day in 1981, the start of one of the most famous flourishes in baseball history.
This opening day wasn’t Valenzuela’s major league debut; he pitched 10 games and 17⅔ innings in relief in the final few weeks of 1980. He allowed two runs, but both were unearned, so when he started against the Astros his 0.00 ERA represented both his season and career marks at that point.
I wasn’t baseball cognizant in 1981, so I didn’t fully experience Fernandomania, but by the time I became immersed in the sport a few years later, Valenzuela was one of the game’s biggest stars. The mania began with that April 9 start 39 years ago.
Jerry Reuss was supposed to start opening day for the Dodgers in 1981. He led the team in innings and wins the year before and posted a 2.51 ERA, including a no-hitter and an All-Star nod. But Reuss suffered a leg injury, which opened the door for the 20-year-old rookie.
When Fernando Valenzuela came to the big leagues, Bob Lemon, then a Yankee scout, stared in disbelief. He leaned over and asked a Dodger scout, “How old is he?”
“Twenty,” was the reply.
Lemon thought about it a moment. “Twenty what?” he wanted to know.
After Valenzuela shut out the Astros on opening day, Houston manager Bill Virdon was similarly befuddled.
“For a 20-year-old, that’s really unusual,” Virdon told reporters, per UPI. “To have that much poise at such a young age, it’s well, hard to believe. A good screwball is a real tough pitch to hit, and Valenzuela has a real good screwball.”
The numbers for Valenzuela are mind-boggling. After the opening day shutout, he had the audacity to allow a single run to the Giants, in a complete game win. Then he pitched three more shutouts and had a 35-inning scoreless start that lasted into the eighth inning of his sixth start, when the Expos scratched across a single run in another Dodgers win. Valenzuela followed that up with yet another shutout, and through seven starts allowed all of two runs.
He allowed two solo home runs in his next start — the first two home runs he allowed in his career — but still beat the Expos when Pedro Guerrero hit a walk-off home run in the ninth.
Through eight starts, Valenzuela was 8-0 with seven complete games and five shutouts. His lone non-complete game was another nine-inning effort in Montreal that saw the Dodgers rally for five runs in the 10th inning to give him the win.
He had poise beyond his years. Back to that 1985 Murray column:
Prevailing opinion was that Valenzuela’s age was somewhere between 45 and infinity. A large school of thought held that he had been found frozen in the ruins of Macchu Picchu and thawed out for the season. There was no way this could be the body and the arm of any recent teen-ager.
Valenzuela after those first eight starts had a 0.40 career ERA in 89⅔ innings dating back to the previous September. Zero point four zero.
Thanks to FanGraphs, we can see he had a 1.78 FIP in that span, with a 12 ERA- and 53 FIP-. A truly dominant stretch.
He led the league in starts, innings, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts in the strike-shortened 1981 season, winning Rookie of the Year and Cy Young. In his first seven seasons he was in the top five in innings and batters faced every year, a true workhorse, averaging 7.64 innings per start for seven years before finally breaking down in 1988. Those injuries diminished Valenzuela as a pitcher, but it didn’t diminish the incredible memories he provided in his decade-plus with the Dodgers.
Valenzuela is arguably the most beloved Dodgers player since the franchise moved to Los Angeles. Nobody has worn 34 with the Dodgers since Valenzuela left the team, which makes the organization’s refusal to officially retire his number all the more baffling. On a practical level, the decision was made long ago to not let anyone else wear 34. It’s insulting and baffling that the Dodgers haven’t given Valenzuela the honor that goes along with that. But there’s always time to correct one’s mistakes; what better time to do it then on the anniversary of his first major league start?