Fernando vs. The Bird: A Tale of Two Pitchers

This article was written by Jim Archer

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

The appearance of Los Angeles Dodger rookie lefthander Fernando Valenzuela was a newsworthy event in 1981. Valenzuela won 13 games, including his first eight decisions, and gained considerable attention for his ability to draw fans to Dodger Stadium during the strike-shortened season.

In fact, some writers compared Valenzuela to Mark Fidrych, the former Detroit Tiger pitcher who also had a tremendous rookie year drawing fans to Tiger Stadium. The comparisons were largely qualitative, but it is possible to derive a quantitative comparison of these two pitchers as drawing cards.

Any quantitative formula which seeks to compare just these two pitchers must consider that the 1981 Dodgers drew an average of 42,533 fans per game while the 1976 Tigers drew 19,616 fans per game. This disparity could artificially inflate Valenzuela’s statistics by allowing the higher average Dodger attendance to also raise his value as a drawing card. The following quantitative comparison compensates for this disparity.

There are seven steps in the quantitative comparison of the two pitchers’ gate appeal. The first step involves adding the attendance figures for the home games of the 1976 Tigers and the 1981 Dodgers to get the total attendance figure. Adding the attendance figures for the home games which Fidrych and Valenzuela started to get each pitcher’s total attendance figure is the second step. Dividing the total attendance figures for the 1976 Tigers and the 1981 Dodgers by the number of home games to get the average number of fans who attended each game, and dividing each pitcher’s total attendance figure by the number of starts to get the average number of fans who attended games when Fidrych or Valenzuela started are the third and fourth steps.

The fifth step involves subtracting the average number of fans who attended games for each team from the average number of fans who attended games which each pitcher started. That provides a differential which shows the average number of fans who came to see each pitcher above the average number of fans who came to see the team. Multiplying the number derived in the fifth step by the number of starts produces the total number of fans who came to see Tiger and Dodger games specifically because Fidrych and Valenzuela were pitching. Finally, the numbers derived in that sixth step are compared to see whether the comparisons between Fidrych and Valenzuela were warranted.

In 1981 Fernando Valenzuela averaged almost 5,800 additional fans per start and drew a total of 69,539 fans to Dodger Stadium in 12 starts. This was the best performance by a rookie starting pitcher between 1978 and 1981. However, in 1976, Mark Fidrych drew more than 14,000 additional fans per start, drawing a total of 252,180 additional fans to Tiger Stadium in 18 starts. Had Valenzuela started six more games and averaged the same number of additional fans, he would have drawn 104,054 fans during the 1981 season. To equal Fidrych’s total, Valenzuela would have had to average an additional 30,440 fans per each of those six games! Since this is mathematically impossible, given the seating capacity of Dodger Stadium, the comparisons between Valenzuela and Fidrych regarding their gate appeal appear to be ill-founded. Fidrych was truly a phenomenal gate attraction for the Tigers, while Valenzuela was a better-than-average gate attraction for a club that was already drawing a large number of fans. Of course, sportswriters who would still like to claim that Fernando drew more fans than The Bird can find solace in Disraeli’s “There are lies, dam lies, and statistics.”

Here are the comparative figures.


Mark Fidrych, 1976
  Home Starts   Fernando Valenzuela, 1981
May 15 14,583 1 50,571 April 9
May 31 17,894 2 49,478 April 27
June 11 36,377 3 53,906 May 14
June 16 21,659 4 52,439 May 18
June 28 47,855 5 49,136 June 1
July 3 51,032 6 45,817 August 11
July 9 51,041 7 49,053 August 16
July 16 45,905 8 48,191 August 27
July 29 44,068 9 50,134 September 1
August 7 35,395 10 46,780 September 6
August 11 36,123 11 46,168 September 17
August 17 51,822 12 38,267 October 1
August 21 34,760 13    
August 25 39,884 14    
September 3 32,951 15    
September 7 16,410 16    
September 17 20,371 17    
September 21 7,147 18    
  605,277 Totals 579,940  
  33,626.50 Averages 48,328.33  
  19,616.475 Team Averages 42,533.38  
  14,010.03 Differential 5,794.958  
    Differential Times    
  252,180 Number of Starts 69,539