Fernando vs. The Bird: A Tale of Two Pitchers

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.