Pitch Perfect: Ranking Baseball’s Top 10 Single-Season Starter DrawsRay Stubblebine/AP Photo
You’ve heard of Harvey Day and Felix Day. You’re getting down with Pineda Day, and looking forward to Fernandez Day. If you’re really dedicated, you rise at dawn to greet Dallas Keuchel Day. All of these occasions signal the approach of strong starting pitching. But which one brings the strongest sense of anticipation? Which one would you least want to miss?
I was recently challenged1 to determine the best Pitcher Days from baseball’s past. Counting tweets to measure audience excitement won’t work for decades-old seasons, but we do have attendance data. And one way we can answer the question is to search for the pitchers whose starts sold tickets, a proxy for a starter’s must-see-ness.
Using attendance data from Retrosheet, which BP’s Rob McQuown pulled from the Baseball Prospectus database, I looked for starters who gave their teams bigger gates. We limited our sample to single seasons from the past 60 years (1955-2014) from pitchers who made a minimum of 12 home starts, excluding home openers. Then we compared the average attendance in each pitcher’s starts to his team’s average attendance in the other games in the same series. For instance, if a pitcher started the middle game of a three-game series, we compared the attendance on the day he pitched to the average of the attendance totals from the first and third games against the same opponent. Of course, there are other confounding factors we didn’t account for, like the day of the week, the weather, the rotation order, the opposing starter, and stadium giveaways and special events, as well as era and park adjustments across seasons. But we can keep this simple and still get a good-looking list.
I’ll present the results in raw attendance difference per start, but I’ll also include a top 10 in percentage attendance increase at the end. (Both methods yield similar results.) The trend lines on the graphs show the season-long upticks or downturns in team attendance, with and without the starters in question.
10. Randy Johnson, 1997 Mariners
Team Record: 90-72, first in AL West
Team Attendance: 3,192,237 (third of 14 in the league)
Average in 30 Comparison Home Starts: 36,668
Average in 15 Johnson Home Starts: 43,741
Johnson won his first Cy Young Award in 1995, and then missed most of the 1996 season with a herniated disk that led to two stints on the 60-day DL and September surgery. It wasn’t a certainty that he would pitch at an elite level again: He was 33 years old, and a back injury had to be considered especially serious for a pitcher of his stature and torque.2 When he returned in 1997, M’s fans flocked to the Kingdome to find out what he had left.
There, they discovered what we know now: Johnson was just getting started. While this wasn’t one of his best seasons by FIP or innings pitched, it was a banner year for his superficial stats: his first 20-win season, his second-best season by winning percentage (.833), and his best by ERA+ (197), which means that he allowed fewer earned runs per inning, relative to the league and adjusted for park, than he did in any other year.
Johnson owed some of those wins to pitching alongside one of the 10 best lineups of the wild-card era. The M’s started sluggers like Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, A-Rod, and Jay Buhner (in his third straight 40-homer season) in almost all of their games, which makes it even more impressive that Johnson’s presence was such a differentiating draw.
9. Nolan Ryan, 1990 Rangers
Team Record: 83-79, third in AL West
Team Attendance: 2,057,911 (seventh of 14)
Average in 41 Comparison Home Starts: 23,833
Average in 18 Ryan Home Starts: 31,068
The 43-year-old Ryan was approaching the end in 1990 — it would be the last of his 14 200-inning seasons — but he still led the majors in strikeout rate and was capable of brilliance, as he demonstrated during a 14-K no-hitter in Oakland on June 11 of that year. That no-hitter, Ryan’s sixth, was his first since 1981, and it sold some seats: Each of the Texas native’s next five home starts drew more than 40,000 people, even though the temperature was 92 degrees or higher at first pitch in the first four. Those fans were almost a year early: Ryan didn’t throw his next (and last) no-hitter until May 1, 1991.
8. Gil Heredia, 1999 Athletics
Team Record: 87-75, second in AL West
Team Attendance: 1,434,610 (12th of 14)
Average in 27 Comparison Home Starts: 17,186
Average in 12 Heredia Home Starts: 25,492
We all remember where we were on September 30, 1999, when Heredia walked one batter over 6.1 innings to lower his walk rate to a league-leading 1.53 per nine. With that line, he pushed Pedro Martinez and his pathetic 1.56 to second place and earned a lone dab of black ink on his Baseball-Reference page. After countless sellouts and Baseball Tonight live look-ins on Heredia starts, the summerlong race for control of the strike zone was settled.
My memory may be embellishing, but Heredia was better than you remember him, and Oakland’s staff was worse. Heredia was the A’s Opening Day starter, sharing a rotation with luminaries like Mike Oquist, Jimmy Haynes, and a 41-year-old Tom Candiotti. (This was Tim Hudson’s rookie season, but he didn’t debut until June.) By FanGraphs WAR, Heredia was the AL’s seventh-best pitcher. Obviously, though, he looks out of place on a list of legends. So how can we explain his presence? First, it’s a small sample — the minimum 12 starts, making the average attendance difference more subject to random variation. Only four of the 12 starts were on weeknights. The box scores for all 12 reported “no precipitation” at first pitch, with only two starting temperatures below 60 degrees. And in one start, he opposed Pedro. All of these factors probably played a role. Or maybe Heredia had powerful pheromones.
7. Tom Seaver, 1983 Mets
Team Record: 68-94, sixth in NL East
Team Attendance: 1,112,774 (12th of 14)
Average in 40 Comparison Home Starts: 12,582
Average in 19 Seaver Home Starts: 21,691
A December 1982 trade brought Seaver back to New York after six seasons in Cincinnati. By that point, Tom wasn’t close to terrific, but neither were the last-place Mets, who had baseball’s second-worst record. Although Darryl Strawberry’s rookie (of the) year and Keith Hernandez’s midseason acquisition created some excitement — the Mets were about to get good again — Seaver was the sentimental favorite, a link to past winning teams after a decadelong playoff drought.
The high point of the Mets’ season, attendance-wise, was a Saturday, July 9 duel between two 38-year-olds, Seaver and Joe Niekro. Niekro won. That winter, the Mets left Seaver unprotected in the free-agent compensation draft, and the White Sox unexpectedly claimed him, plunging some forgotten ticket-sales executive into a deep depression.
6. Steve Carlton, 1972 Phillies
Team Record: 59-97, sixth in NL East
Team Attendance: 1,343,329 (sixth of 12)
Average in 40 Comparison Home Starts: 15,123
Average in 20 Carlton Home Starts: 24,250
Carlton’s 1972 season was worth 12.1 Baseball-Reference WAR, tied with Doc Gooden’s 1985 for the best pitching season since World War II. In retrospect, this would have been the perfect year to try variable pricing. In Carlton’s starts, the Phillies went 29-12 (a .707 winning percentage). In games started by all other pitchers, they went 30-85 (.261). Phillies teams of the time called Carlton starts “win day” (which was usually accurate), and potential ticket-buyers treated them the same way.
Carlton completed 17 of his 20 starts at Veterans Stadium that season (and the Phillies went 14-6), so his home crowds were almost certain to see a victory, or at least a future Hall of Famer at the peak of his (or any pitcher’s) powers. The highlight of the schedule was a May 21 duel between Carlton and Seaver that outsold any other Phillies game (home or away) by more than 12,000 seats. Seaver won the 4-3 showdown (which was over in 2:02), but Carlton went the distance. That the Phillies didn’t draw even better in Carlton’s starts speaks to the rest of the team’s terribleness.
5. Randy Jones, 1976 Padres
Team Record: 73-89, fifth in NL West
Team Attendance: 1,458,478 (fifth of 12)
Average in 39 Comparison Home Starts: 17,343
Average in 21 Jones Home Starts: 26,534
Jones, the only Cy Young–winning starter with a career losing record, made a major-league-leading 40 starts in ’76, when he was one of the bright spots on a bad Padres team. Working in pitcher-friendly San Diego Stadium, the ground-baller struck out only 7.4 percent of the batters he faced and recorded an un-Cy-like 119 ERA+, but the reigning Cy Young runner-up brute-forced his way to the award, pitching 315.1 innings. In the years after that season, he added only 3.2 WAR to his career total before retiring at 32.
4. Tom Seaver, 1976 Mets
Team Record: 86-76, third in NL East
Team Attendance: 1,468,754 (fourth of 12)
Average in 36 Comparison Home Starts: 15,808
Average in 18 Seaver Home Starts: 25,724
Seven years before the age-38 Seaver season that ranked seventh on this list, the right-hander was an even bigger draw, relative to the comparison sample. Even then, Seaver was past his peak, but he was a reigning Cy Young winner and the ace of the staff, and the Mets were a winning team.
3. David Clyde, 1973 Rangers
Team Record: 57-105, sixth in AL West
Team Attendance: 686,085 (11th of 12)
Average in 29 Comparison Home Starts: 6,829
Average in 12 Clyde Home Starts: 18,188
Clyde is the worst pitcher on this list — far worse than Heredia — but he was undeniably popular. The 1973 Rangers, two years removed from the franchise’s last season as the Washington Senators, were the worst team in baseball, coming off a year in which they were the worst by an even wider margin. They played in Arlington Stadium, a bleak-looking converted minor league park with no nearby neighborhood and no roof to provide protection from the withering Texas sun. Their staff featured only one pitcher, Jim Bibby, who threw at least 25 innings with a better-than-average park-adjusted ERA. Whitey Herzog, a future Hall of Famer, was the Rangers’ rookie manager, and he didn’t last through September.
Clyde, a lefty, was one of the best high school pitching prospects ever. The high school stats he compiled in Houston, along with widespread praise from scouts, convinced Texas to draft him first overall, bypassing Robin Yount and Dave Winfield, who went third and fourth, respectively. Clyde’s contract called for him to make two major league starts before heading to the minors, but the plan changed after he debuted in front of a crowd of 35,698, the biggest the Rangers had ever drawn. He went five innings, walking seven and striking out eight, and the Rangers beat the Twins, 4-3. The next day, they drew 3,992. So much for the minors.
Clyde remained in the majors the rest of the season, making 12 of his 18 starts at home. But by late August, it was obvious that he wasn’t ready, and the attendance windfall ended. The Rangers’ decision to rush Clyde probably contributed to his being a bust. On the bright side, his arrival may have rescued the franchise from financial ruin.
2. Fernando Valenzuela, 1981 Dodgers
Team Record: 63-47, second in NL West
Team Attendance: 2,381,292 (first of 12)
Average in 23 Comparison Home Starts: 35,316
Average in 12 Valenzuela Home Starts: 48,241
Valenzuela, whose 1981 Opening Day start was also his first start in the majors, is the only pitcher on the list whose outings were all bigger draws than the comparison points. The Dodgers drew well overall — they ranked first in fans per home game, outdrawing the second-place Yankees by 34 percent — so the big boost in Valenzuela starts is a reflection of Fernandomania’s mass appeal and local pull in L.A.’s heavily Mexican market.
The Dodgers won the first half of the strike season with a 36-21 record, which guaranteed them a playoff spot and left them with little incentive to try in the second half, when they slipped to 27-26. Attendance declined accordingly.
1. Mark Fidrych, 1976 Tigers
Team Record: 74-87, fifth in AL East
Team Attendance: 1,467,020 (fourth of 12)
Average in 38 Comparison Home Starts: 16,469
Average in 18 Fidrych Home Starts: 33,649
Fidrych was a phenomenon — not only a baseball star who won the rookie of the year award and finished second in Cy Young voting, but also a charismatic celebrity whose eccentric behavior inspired the same buzz as his stats. He made the big league club out of spring training, but didn’t enter the rotation full time until May 31. Once he was there, though, he won eight straight starts, completing seven of them (including two 11-inning outings), just as Valenzuela would five years later. All told, Fidrych finished 24 of his 29 starts, which may have contributed to the injury issues that ended his career early. We can blame manager Ralph Houk for wasting Fidrych’s arm on a fifth-place team, but if it hadn’t been Houk, it might’ve been an edict from ownership: The average per-game attendance difference between Fidrych and other Detroit starters in the same series, multiplied by his 18 starts, accounted for more than 20 percent of the tickets the Tigers sold.
Other notable seasons in the top 25: Vida Blue (1971-72), Hideo Nomo (1995), Valenzuela again (1986), Gooden (1985), Sandy Koufax (1965). Notably nowhere in the top 100: Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, or Greg Maddux. Martinez has the highest entry of the three, at no. 132 — for his first season with the Mets (2005). Fenway Park has a limited capacity, which means smaller margins for crowds to swell.
Here are the top 10 seasons by percentage increase in attendance. Seven seasons make both lists, with Valenzuela’s the most notable omission (thanks to the Dodgers’ high typical attendance). By this method, Clyde is the clear winner.
You’ve probably noticed that none of these seasons is recent. Last year, only two starters — Chris Tillman and Felix Hernandez — outdrew their comparison starts by even 3,000 fans, and only barely in both cases. That supports the findings from a paper that appeared in the Journal of Sports Economics last summer: Aces aren’t the attraction they once were.
That might be because star players are no longer exciting strangers we’re desperate to see: We watch them on TV (and MLB.TV) all the time, and high-def flat screens beat your basic ’70s boob tubes. But it’s also because baseball is in better shape. Last year, only the Indians and Rays failed to draw at least 20,000 fans per home game. In 1984, 11 of 26 teams fell below that level, and in 1974, only five of 24 topped it. As Scott Lindholm showed last year, attendance has increased dramatically during the years in which baseball’s been dying.
Three of the top 10 seasons hailed from 1976, the last year of a long stagnant stretch in which stadiums were less than 40 percent full. Today, the typical figure is close to 70 percent. So while we may have lost the elevated excitement of the occasional must-see start, we’ve gained something greater: a higher baseline level of excitement for every start.
Filed Under: MLB, MLB Stats, Baseball, Pitching, Pitchers, Attendance, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Gil Heredia, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Randy Jones, David Clyde, Fernando Valenzuela, Mark Fidrych, Ben Lindbergh