Baseball’s Best of the Worst: Mickey Lolich
Michael Stephen (Mickey) Lolich is the punch line to a bad joke.
The joke goes something like this: Who was the portly, over-the-hill pitcher the Mets obtained in 1976 in exchange for one of their most productive, beloved players in team history, Rusty Staub?
If you’ve been following along with this series, you’ll perhaps remember that one of my most recent posts was about Staub (as an Expo.) Without rehashing the highlights of Staub’s career, since this post is allegedly about Lolich, let me just point out that Staub had set a Mets single-season record in 1975 with 105 RBI.
Logically, then, you should trade your 31-year old slugging star for…a 34-year old lefty who was clearly in his decline phase?
Lolich the portly southpaw (Baseball-Reference has him listed at just 170 pounds, but I’m guessing that was his junior high school weight, and they just never bothered to update it,) emerged as a promising phenom from Portland, Oregon at the age of 22 in 1963. He won at least fourteen games over eleven consecutive seasons with the Tigers from 1964-74, inclusive.
The high-water mark of his career was the 1968 World Series when the 27-year old Lolich won three games vs. the Cardinals, and was named Series MVP. Interestingly, although he posted a 17-9 record during ’68, his ERA+ was a below average 95, meaning that his dominating World Series performance against the best the N.L. had to offer was something of an aberration. Still, you can’t fault a guy for coming up big when it mattered most.
By 1975, however, the Tigers had devolved into the worst team in the A.L., finishing the season with a record of 57-102.
More often than not, even really bad teams like the ’75 Tigers have at least one really good player who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t say this is exactly the case with Lolich, but he was truly the best of the worst on that particular Tiger ball club.
Lolich finished the ’75 season with a record of 12-18, a respectable ERA+ of 107, and a team-leading WAR of 4.1 over 240 innings pitched. To put his WAR in perspective, the entire Tiger’s pitching staff accumulated a WAR of 12.7, indicating that Lolich’s performance represented about one-third of the staff’s total value.
Clearly, he would have finished with approximately a .500 win-loss record with an average team.
Now, that might sound like damning with faint praise, but Lolich was what he was that year, a slightly above average innings-eater. Incidentally, his eighteen losses nearly matched his league-leading 21 losses in ’74, and his 19 losses in 1970. But as a baseball philosopher once said, you have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose that many games.
While the accuracy of that aphorism may not be entirely valid, Lolich was arguably the most valuable commodity on that awful ’75 Tigers ball club.
But not valuable enough to justify being traded for Rusty Staub.
So how did that trade work out for the Tigers? Staub made the All-Star team in 1976, and drove in over 100 runs in ’77 and ’78 as well.
Meanwhile, Lolich finished 1976 with an 8-13 record for a Mets team that won 86 games. Within a couple of years, Lolich had retired with a career record of 217-191.
Lolich was a much-maligned (by Mets fans like myself) pitcher who had a very respectable 16-year career.
Arguably his most noble achievement, however, was being the best player on the worst team in the A.L. in 1975.
- Mets Autograph of the Week: Mickey Lolich (randombaseballstuff.com)
- Detroit Tigers Should Retire No. 11, but Not Why You Might Think (bleacherreport.com)
- List of World Series MVP winners (reuters.com)