Fernando Valenzuela was an unquestioned star in the 1980s, and though nobody knew it at the time, when he made history at the 1986 All-Star Game in Houston, it would be the last All-Star Game of the Dodgers left-hander’s career.
Valenzuela was great out of the gate, winning Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award, and a World Series in his first full season, in 1981. It was literally a mania. He was an All-Star that year, and in each of the first six seasons of his career.
He was the definition of a workhorse, never missing a start due to injury until shoulder troubles sidelined him in 1988. From 1981-87, Valenzuela’s first seven full seasons, the left-hander from Mexico was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He led the majors in those seven years in strikeouts (1,448), with 10 more than human K machine Nolan Ryan. Valenzuela from 1981-87 led MLB in shutouts (27; nine more than anyone else), FanGraphs WAR (34.2), and batters faced (7,413). He was second in innings pitched (1,788), just a single out behind Jack Morris, and was second in MLB to Morris in wins (111) as well. Valenzuela ranked third in Baseball Reference WAR (31.1) for those seven seasons.
Valenzuela was 11-6 with a 3.01 ERA at the break in 1986, tied for the National League lead in wins at the time All-Star rosters were announced. He’d finish the season with career bests in wins (21) and complete games (20), leading the league in both.
I knew I wanted to write about Valenzuela thanks to Ryan Fagan’s excellent look back at the 1987 Topps set at The Sporting News. The set featured faux wood paneling on the front borders, which, Fagan wrote, “welcome you with open arms, like the memory of wedging yourself into the corner of the comfortable but kinda-scratchy couch in your grandparents’ wood-paneled basement.”
This was the second baseball card set that I completed, after the 1986 Topps set the year before.
Valenzuela’s 242 strikeouts in 1986 were a career high, trailing only the Astros Mike Scott in the NL. Scott won the NL Cy Young Award that year, with 15 first-place votes to Valenzuela’s nine. It was the fourth time in six years that Valenzuela finished in the top five in Cy Young voting.
But this is about the All-Star Game in Houston, the sixth such honor for Valenzuela. He pitched in four previous midsummer classics, including a start in his rookie season of 1981. Valenzuela was an All-Star in 1983 as well, but did not pitch in that game.
Dwight Gooden started the All-Star Game in 1986, which made perfect sense after Gooden had one of the most dominating pitching seasons even the year before, going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA for the Mets. He pitched the first three innings for the National League, allowing a pair of runs.
Two years prior, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Valenzuela pitched two scoreless innings followed by Gooden who did the same. Valenzuela struck out his last three hitters faced in that game, with Gooden fanning his first three, combining to set an All-Star record for most consecutive strikeouts by one team.
In Houston, the order was reversed, with Valenzuela following Gooden on the mound, to start the fourth inning. Valenzuela got Don Mattingly swinging to start the frame, then struck out Cal Ripken Jr. and Jesse Barfield looking to end the fourth. Valenzuela became the first pitcher to strike out the side in two different All-Star Game innings.
Starting the fifth was Lou Whitaker, whose two-run home run in the second inning off Gooden provided the game’s only runs to this point. Valenzuela struck Whitaker out looking, then got pitcher Teddy Higuera swinging.
Five straight strikeouts for Valenzuela tied an All-Star record, set by Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell in 1934. Hubbell’s record was a big deal at the time, especially given that his five strikeout victims were all Hall of Famers.
“I’m very happy because everyone knows of Carl Hubbell,” Valenzuela told reporters, per the Associated Press. “To tie his record is an honor and I am very fortunate to be in his company.”
Most All-Star innings with 0.00 ERA
|Johnny Vander Meer||8⅔|
Kirby Puckett was the first to put the ball in play against Valenzuela, grounding out to shortstop. Valenzuela stayed for one more inning, allowing only a single to Wade Boggs, who was stranded.
It completed quite the All-Star run for Valenzuela.
In five midsummer classics, Valenzuela pitched 7⅔ innings without allowing a run. He allowed only five hits — all singles — and three walks, striking out nine of his 29 batters faced.
Among all the pitchers with a 0.00 ERA career All-Star ERA, Valenzuela’s 7⅔ innings are fifth-most, behind only Mel Harder, Mariano Rivera, Johnny Vander Meer, and former Dodger Don Sutton.
Valenzuela was a star, and pitched like one, especially in All-Star Games.