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Why Fernando Valenzuela isn’t in the Hall of Fame

In February 2023, the Los Angeles Dodgers announced they were going to retire Fernando Valenzuela’s uniform number 34. Unofficially, the number has been retired since 1990, because they never issued it to anyone else. But they never made it official, because he wasn’t in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Here is why Fernando Valenzuela isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

Valenzuela looked like a Hall of Famer in 1985

1981 Fleer Baseball - Fernando Valenzuela

Fernando Valenzuela was the starting pitcher in the All Star Game, won the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award, won the World Series, led the league in six categories, and Fleer misspelled his name on his baseball card.

In the mid-1980s, Fernando Valenzuela looked like a future Hall of Famer. Between 1981 and 1986, he dominated the National League. Valenzuela was the first player to win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young award in the same season. He appeared in six consecutive All-Star games. He won a World Series in 1981, and generally accomplishing more before the age of 26 than the average major league pitcher accomplishes in a full career.

Let’s face it. Just his magical 1981 season alone had a career’s worth of highlights. He was the starting pitcher in the All Star Game, won the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards, led the league in strikeouts and five other categories, won the World Series, and finished fifth in the MVP voting.

The problem is that Fernando Valenzuela after the age of 26 wasn’t the same pitcher he had been between the ages of 20 and 25. Shoulder problems started kicking in sometime around the age of 26 and 27. Worse yet, after age 30, he only played three complete seasons in the major leagues. His numbers when he was healthy enough to take the ball suggested he had something left. But he just wasn’t able to pitch enough games after the age of 30 to get Hall of Fame-level longevity.

His early success came at a high price.

How overuse did Fernando Valenzuela’s career in

There were even some signs as early as 1984 that things weren’t quite right. But Valenzuela pulled it back together in 1985 and 1986 to have two last great seasons. But there were concerns about his workload even that early. He only led the league in innings pitched one time, in his sensational 1981 rookie season. But between 1982 and 1987, he pitched no fewer than 251 innings, and he led the league in complete games three times in his career. The number of innings he pitched was a problem, but his pitching style compounded it. He struck out a lot of hitters and he walked a lot of hitters, which led to long at bats and high pitch counts. Three times in his career, he led the league in batters faced, and six times in his career, he faced more than a thousand hitters in a season.

All of this came before the age of 27.

For the sake of comparison, Randy Johnson faced 1,000 batters only five times in his career, all of them after the age of 28. Johnson led the league in batters faced twice in his career.

Fernando Valenzuela’s Hall of Fame parallels to Dwight Gooden

Valenzuela had essentially the same problem in his career as Dwight Gooden, throwing too many pitches at too young of an age. He ended up having a nice career, playing 17 seasons, but he went from being one of the best pitchers in the league to middling status after 1987. Gooden had the better career overall, mostly because Gooden managed to stay a bit healthier, have a slightly longer period of dominance and get into more games after his best days were behind him. Of the two pitchers, Gooden’s 7 year peak comes closer to Hall of Fame standards. Valenzuela’s 5 best seasons are Hall worthy, but he didn’t have any others.

Fernando Valenzuela is one of the reasons Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young award. 1981 was one of Nolan Ryan’s best seasons, but Valenzuela was more dominant that year. But Fernando Valenzuela’s story shows how remarkable Nolan Ryan’s career was, to have the kind of sustained longevity that he did.

Managing pitching workloads

You’ll frequently hear today from old school baseball fans how pitchers today are coddled, and in the old days they threw 250 or 300 innings and were expected to finish games. Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela are two of the higher profile reasons why modern baseball manages pitching workloads much more than in the past. Valenzuela threw 146 pitches in game 3 of the 1981 World Series. He was 20 years old. That would be considered malpractice today. Frankly it was malpractice in 1981, but his manager, Tommy Lasorda, was old school. Today we understand he should not have thrown any more than 105 pitches that day, because he was 20 years old and throwing on 4 days rest. On a full 5 days rest, a 20-year-old shouldn’t throw any more than 120 pitches in a game.

Valenzuela threw 233 innings at age 20 in 1981, counting the postseason. Nolan Ryan didn’t throw 200 innings in a season until he was 25. Randy Johnson didn’t throw 200 innings in a season until he was 26. If Valenzuela’s career path had been more like theirs, it’s likely he would have been able to pitch dominantly for longer than five seasons, would have had a longer career, and would have a Hall of Fame case.

As things stand, he was remarkably dominant for five thrilling seasons. And that’s why the Los Angeles Dodgers are honoring him by retiring his number. There’s no rule saying you have to be a Hall of Famer for your number to be retired. Atlanta retired Dale Murphy‘s number. So it’s fitting that one of the best pitchers from that era is having his number 34 retired in August 2023.

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