Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Ode to John Tudor

This post was sparked by an article over at baseball-reference.com. The post listed a bunch of pitchers who pitched over 1500 innings and finished with an ERA+ of 100 or better but never made the All Star team. At the top of the list was John Tudor. Sometimes things spark a memory when you've loved the game as long as this Fan has. John Tudor is a pleasant memory. If you opened the dictionary for the meaning of "crafty left-hander," you would find a picture of John Tudor.

As mentioned many times here in the past, this Fan grew up in New Jersey, but when young and dumb, went to college in Manchester, New Hampshire, met a girl and never again left New England. Married by 1977, this couple settled in Rochester, New Hampshire and lived there for many years before moving just over the border to Lebanon, Maine. In those early days, there was no cable. An antenna on the television allowed us to get just a few stations and Channel 38 was one of them and they broadcast the Red Sox games. Since John Tudor made his debut in 1979, the timing was just about right.

Tudor was never a great prospect. He pitched for Georgia Southern University, hardly a big-time sports name. Upon his senior year, he was drafted by the New York Mets, but not until the 21st round. Tudor didn't sign with them and six months later was drafted by the Red Sox in the January Secondary draft in the third round in January of 1976.

Tudor was never any great shakes in the minors but the talent in the Red Sox in the late 1970s had dwindled and Tudor got a call up in 1979 and he made six starts. They didn't go well. He gave up way too many hits and his ERA was over six. He was much better in 1980 when he pitched in sixteen games and made eleven starts. he went 8-5 with an ERA of 3.02. But 1981 did not follow as a good season. He again pitched sixteen times and that year, he simply had trouble keeping the ball in the park. Fenway, with that Monster in left field is not a good place for left-handed pitching, especially the non-fireball kind.

But 1981 was Tudor's last bad year. He would never again post a season less than 100 in ERA+ and many times he was well over it. But those early 80s weren't good Red Sox teams. And though Tudor pitched well in 1982 and 1983, in 65 starts, he only finished with a 26-22 record. The Red Sox had started to build pitching talent in the minors by that time and Tudor became expendable. After the 1983 season, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Mike Easler, a good hitter who did well in Boston.

Tudor pitched one season in Pittsburgh. They weren't a good team. How bad were they? Well, Dale Berra was the starting shortstop. Does that tell you? But despite a finish well down in the standings, Tudor made 32 starts and finished with a 3.27 ERA. But again, he had to settle for a 12-11 middling record. After that season, the Pirates traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals along with Brian Harper for George Kendrick and a career minor league player named Steve Barnard. It should go down as one of the best trades the Cardinals ever made and one of the worst the Pirates ever made.

John Tudor was stupendous for the Cardinals in 1985. Harper saw only limited playing time that season for the Cardinals and it was his only season for that team. Harper really was a late bloomer and it wasn't until he hit his thirties that he became a starting player for the Twins and he had some nice seasons there. But Tudor was the bomb right away. How good was he in 1985?

Well, he went 21-8 and finished that season with a 1.93 ERA in 36 starts. He pitched 14 complete games and led the league with a whopping ten shutouts. He also led the league in WHIP with an amazing 0.938. He only gave up 0.5 homers per nine innings and walked only 1.6 batters per nine innings. How did he not get a call to the All Star game?

Tudor was very good the first half of that season. But his record stood at 10-7 and his ERA at the break was 2.27. The ERA says he was overlooked. But the record wasn't spectacular enough. It was the second half that Tudor dominated. In the second half, Tudor went 11-1 with an ERA of 1.52. It was probably one of the greatest second halves of pitching ever. But it really started the month before the All Star break.

At the end of May in 1985, Tudor was 1-7 with an ERA in the mid-threes. But from the end of May until the end of the season, Tudor went 19-1! Wow! By the end of the season, batters had a feeble .538 OPS against him. Left-handed batters were even worse with an OPS against of .507. Amazing.

After a season like that, he would be the Cy Young Award winner right? Wrong. 1985 was the year of Dwight Gooden and his 24-4 record. Gooden was clearly the best pitcher in the National League and was easily the right choice. Think back though to the beginning of this article. Can you imagine if Tudor had signed with the Mets in that 1975 draft? He and Gooden would have the 1-2 best pitching seasons of 1985 and it could have been for the same team!

Tudor's 1985 season mirrored that of his team. The St. Louis Cardinals went a pedestrian 8-11 in April and by the end of May were only 24-21 and in fourth place, four games back of the leaders. But the Cardinals took off after that. Tudor led a great pitching staff and teamed with Joaquin Andujar (21-12) and Danny Cox (18-9, 2.88) to anchor a very good rotation rounded out with serviceable work from Kurt Kepshire and an aging Bob Forsch. They also had a great bullpen grounded with terrific seasons from Jeff Lahti and Ken Dayley.

The 1985 Cardinals won 101 games and then dispatched the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series, four games to two. They then went on to one of the most thrilling World Series ever played against the Kansas City Royals in a series those who live in Missouri will never forget. Ultimately, the Royals prevailed, four games to three. Tudor pitched three games in that series. He was great in the first two. He only gave up a run in the first game, a win. And then he pitched a shutout to win Game Four. But pitching on short rest in Game Seven, Tudor didn't have anything left and the Royals jumped all over him and the relievers that followed to win the Series.

John Tudor had been everything for that Cardinals team. He pitched 275 innings in the regular season and another thirty and two-thirds innings in the post season. Looking back, it was probably too much. He was still good the following season in 30 starts, but not as good. He had no shutouts and only three complete games and went 13-7 with a still good 2.92 ERA. But it wasn't enough and the Cardinals missed the playoffs.

The following season, 1987, injuries plagued Tudor and he only made 16 starts. But they were well placed starts. Most of them were in the second half and Tudor went 8-1 down the stretch to finish at 10-2 with a 3.84 ERA (high, no doubt, due to his first four starts, which were terrible). The timing of his run in the second half was fortuitous for the Cardinals for in this year, they started very strongly, but struggled down the stretch. Tudor kept them on top with his well-timed wins.

The 1987 Cardinals faced the San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series and won a hard-fought 4-3 series win. Tudor made two starts and was brilliant with a 1.76 ERA. His shutout in Game Six allowed Danny Cox to win Game Seven to give the Cards a come-from-behind victory in that series.

Tudor didn't get the ball until Game Three of the World Series against the Twins that season. But he got the win in a brilliant performance and only gave up a run. But unfortunately, much like two years earlier, Tudor didn't have anything in Game Six, pitching again with short rest. He got bombed in that game, though much of his runs were inherited runs in the fifth inning given up by his relief.

The Cardinals fell hard after that season and were never a factor in 1988. They fell well below .500, though no fault of Jon Tudor. Tudor made his first 21 starts that season and had a stellar 2.29 ERA with four complete games and a shutout. But since the Cardinals were out of the race fairly early, they pulled the plug and traded Tudor to the Dodgers for Pedro Guerrero. The Dodgers were fighting for the NL West title and needed Tudor.

Tudor pitched well down the stretch for the Dodgers. His 4-3 record for them wasn't awe-inspiring, but his 2.41 ERA certainly was. The Dodgers won the division and then beat the Mets in the NL Championship Series. Tudor made one ineffective start in that series with no decision. The Dodgers then went on to play the Oakland A's in the World Series. That of course, was the Series of the famous Kirk Gibson homer off of Dennis Eckersley in Game One. The Dodgers won the first two games of that World Series and John Tudor was scheduled to start Game Three. He pitched an inning and a third of scoreless ball, but his elbow was toast and he was done for the year. The A's won that game, 2-1. It was their only win of that World Series. So at least, John Tudor finally got a ring.

The elbow cost the then 35 year old John Tudor almost the entire 1989 season. He only pitched 14+ albeit effective innings. After that season, he became a free agent and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, his old team. It was a beautiful swan song for the team and the pitcher.

The 1990 Cardinals were a really bad team. They went through three managers in one season including the great Whitey Herzog, Red Schoendienst and Joe Torre. But nothing could save that team that season. But you can't blame John Tudor. At the age of 36, Tudor made 25 appearances including 22 starts and went 12-4 with an ERA of 2.40. It was a testament to Tudor's pitching savvy that despite nothing left in his arm (he only struck out 3.9 batters per nine innings that season), he was able to bamboozle opposing batters that whole season. He pitched his last shutout and complete game that season too.

It was a lovely parting gift for Tudor and he retired the following season. John Tudor finished with a winning percentage of .619 in twelve seasons and finished with a career 3.32 ERA, good for a very impressive career ERA+ of 125. He was always a class act and perhaps paved the way for other crafty left-handers like Tom Glavine and Buehrle. Tudor has remained out of the limelight since his retirement and has been long gone. But he'll never be forgotten...at least by this writer.


Nav said...

I'd never heard of Tudor. Thanks for the education, William. Quite the tribute.

William J. Tasker said...

Thanks, Navin. Never thought much about him. Funny how a stray article touches a nerve.

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget his dominance that season. Especially the way he turned his season around so remarkably. He and the Cardinals really deserved the World Series title in '85. Coming from an Expos fan.

Daniel said...

Here's two awesome tidbits about Tudor that make me admire his craftiness even more:

1. According to Whitey Herzog, he didn't want right-handed hitters turning on his breaking ball, so he just didn't throw any to them. Nearly 1800 innings pitched in the majors, and he NEVER threw a breaking ball to a righty--just changed speeds. That's incredible.

2. In his final season, he threw a shutout without topping 73 mph on the radar gun.

Daniel said...

Here's two awesome tidbits about Tudor that make me admire his craftiness even more:

1. According to Whitey Herzog, he didn't want right-handed hitters turning on his breaking ball, so he just didn't throw any to them. Nearly 1800 innings pitched in the majors, and he NEVER threw a breaking ball to a righty--just changed speeds. That's incredible.

2. In his final season, he threw a shutout without topping 73 mph on the radar gun.

William J. Tasker said...

Very cool stuff, Daniel.

Anonymous said...

One summer I lived in Milwaukee with three baseball fans. The guys would go early and beg for baseballs from the visiting team during batting practice. One day Boston was in town and they couldn't get anyone to throw them a baseball. They yelled to the new guy on the team, "Hey John, we'll be your fans for life if you throw us a baseball." He did and after that every game that summer we were in front of a banner that said "John Tudor #30 Boston Red Sox." It didn't matter who was playing. Three years later I was working in a truck during the summer and I had the Brewer's game on. At one point the anouncer said, "And as usual when Boston is in town the John Tudor fan club is here. I see one, two three banners out in the stands." I was always glad he had such a good career.