An Average Pitcher…Only if YOU didn’t have to face him

Tom Underwood was the quintessential average major league pitcher. In fact, over the course of an 11-year (1974 to 1984) major league career, he could hardly have been more average. His career won-lost record was 86-87, about as average as you can get. His career ERA+ was exactly 100, which is to say he was exactly an average pitcher, at least as far as his ERA in comparison to his contemporaries, taking into account the parks he pitched in, the leagues he pitched in, and the teams he pitched for.

Some other Underwood facts… he made three postseason appearances with no decisions (they were all in relief), in 1976, 1980 and 1981, but never pitched in the World Series. He started 203 games, relieved in 176, threw six shutouts and had 18 saves. He pitched for six major league teams, primarily the Phillies, Athletics and Blue Jays (the first two were pretty good at the time, the last was awful), and had some pretty good years; 1976, 1980 and 1982, and some not-so-hot years; notably 1977 and 1978. He also had some years where he pitched well, but didn’t have much to show for it (notably 1979, when he went 9-16 and didn’t win the Cy Young) and some years when he didn’t pitch great, but won as many as 14 games (1975). Perhaps the only ways in which he wasn’t average were fielding (his career fielding percentage was only .898), when he broke into the majors (four months before his 21st birthday), and the fact that he was a left-handed pitcher – and there are a lot fewer of them than there are right-handed pitchers.

His career stats…

86 87 3.89 379 203 35 18 1586.0 1554 772 685 130 662 948 100 1.397
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/2/2010.

If you go by Similarity Scores, his 10 closest comps in major league history
are also a bunch of about as average a group of pitchers as you can find… Ken Brett (although Underwood hit a lot more like an average pitcher — .117 — than Brett, who probably would have made a pretty good full-time hitter), Vinegar Bend Mizell (who later became a congressman), Paul Foytack, Lynn McGlothen, Larry McWilliams, Steve Hargan, Dave LaPoint, Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish (yes, that was his entire name), Jim Wilson, and Ralph Branca (who actually did have a pretty average career, even though he was far more famous than your average pitcher). Interestingly, though probably not significantly; Brett, Mizell, McLish and Branca all broke into the majors at a young age as well.

Maybe you even recall the one incident that garnered Underwood significant
national-level publicity. On May 31, 1979, pitching for the Blue Jays, he faced off against his brother Pat in the younger Underwood’s major league debut, which turned out to be a 1-0 win for Pat Underwood’s Tigers. Pat, by the way, was NOT an average major league pitcher, he won 13, lost 18 over the course of four seasons with the Tigers.

Tom  Underwood was an average major league pitcher in another way – he was a superstar in high school. And thereby hangs a tale. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear… May 1972. The place is the big (center field was something like 490 feet away), old (Jim Bunning pitched there in the minors in 1950) municipal ballpark in Richmond, Indiana. On-going is a high school game between the Richmond Red Devils (yes, that’s really the nickname for Richmond High School’s teams) and the Kokomo Wildkats. This is long before the Beach Boys made the latter small Indiana city famous in song, so the biggest thing in Kokomo (once basketball season has passed) is the high school baseball team. Today, they’re playing a road game against the Red Devils as part of a high school/college doubleheader. After the high school game ends, the Earlham College Quakers baseball team will take the field for a college game… which is where I came in to the story. Although ostensibly in the midst of spending four years in Richmond in the great state of Indiana getting a liberal arts education, I was actually learning a lot more as sort of an unpaid assistant to the Earlham College Athletic Director, one Delmer W. Harris, AKA, The King. (As in, “The King of the Hill,” from his earlier days as a pitcher. He would later go on to more notoriety in basketball, as the head coach of the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and the L.A. Lakers).

Having been assigned to run the scoreboard for the forthcoming Earlham game, I felt it necessary to arrive at the field early… only to find the high school game was still in progress, with Richmond batting in the bottom of the sixth in a 0-0 game against a little (about 5-10) left-handed pitcher for the Wildkats. Hanging out along the first base stands, I watched as the  Kokomo
pitcher struck out the side without Richmond getting the benefit of a loud foul. He then came out for the bottom of the seventh with the score still 0-0, and did the same thing… three straight Ks. And so the game went into extra innings.

Bottom of the eighth – still 0-0, and he rung up three more strikeouts for Richmond. I had now seen nine straight Red Devil batters come to the plate without one of them even coming close to putting a ball in play. Someone mentions at this point that the Kokomo pitcher has already struck out 18 and has a no-hitter to boot. His name? Tom Underwood.

In the top of the ninth, Kokomo finally scratches out a single run. So Underwood needs just three outs in the bottom of the ninth for a most remarkable win. The first Richmond batter gets blown away. Nineteen Ks. The second batter, miracle of miracles, rolls a 15-hop ground ball to shortstop – the first time anyone on his team has hit a fair ball since the fifth inning. The Kokomo shortstop, perhaps surprised that someone has actually hit the ball, throws it 10 feet over the first baseman’s head, and almost over the fence. The batter goes to second.

The next Richmond hitter lines clean single to right center – the only hit, in fact the only thing near a hit — that the Red Devils will get all game. The runner scores, and, on the throw to the plate, the batter goes to second. The game is tied at 1. On the mound, Underwood doesn’t bat an eye, he just goes on pitching. The next hitter, falling away from an inside pitch, has the ball hit his bat, and roll down the first base line (really.) The first baseman suffers from brain freeze, apparently forgetting there’s a runner on second. He runs in, grabs the ball, and tries to tag the batter, who stops dead, and then dodges
backwards, towards home. Of course, he’s eventually put out, but the runner
goes to third. Two outs now. Still 1-1.

Richmond now sends up a pinch-hitter, a kid so small he looks like Eddie Gaedel. Strike one. Strike two. Strike three, and a passed ball… the runner scores from third, and Kokomo, and Underwood, lose, 2-1. In eight and two-thirds innings he has struck out 20, given up one hit, and two unearned runs. And he’s the losing pitcher. He walks off the mound, again without batting an eye. Most high school kids would have had a fit, and maybe tried to strangle the shortstop, the first baseman, and the catcher.

In 50+ years of watching baseball, I have never seen a better pitched game in
person, nor have I ever been more impressed with a pitcher who had more presence on the mound. While not making any claims on being a great scout, I knew, right then and there, that this kid was NOT an average pitcher, at least not if you had to bat against him. (Indeed, his high school record for
Kokomo was 17-3 with a 0.40 ERA.) Thus, later that summer, when the Phillies drafted him, I was thrilled (maybe Jack Quinn read the scouting report I sent in…Hah!)

Tom Underwood died of cancer last week at the age of 56. When he first came up with the Phillies in 1974, I was a sportswriter in Philly, and I had a chance to interview him, and to remind him of that remarkable game in Richmond,Indiana. He was sort of glad to be reminded. The story I wrote afterwards predicted great things for this new pitcher that the Phillies had drafted in the second round in 1972. He may have been average for the majors, but not to the rest of us to whom the majors was merely a dream, and to whom greatness is more likely to be visited (as I was fortunate enough to experience in four years with Del Harris and one game with Tom Underwood) than visited upon. Maybe I wasn’t too far off in my prediction.

One response to “An Average Pitcher…Only if YOU didn’t have to face him

  1. Nice story, good research. I graduated from Earlham in 1970 – we must have overlapped? – and remember that stadium. There was a light tower beyond the fence in the right field power alley that seemed about 40’ tall. At one Earlham game a local fan told me about watching a Red’s game during their 1946 barnstorming tour during which Ted Kluszewski hit a ball over that tower.

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