Tuesday, January 25, 2005

 

January 25th, 1945

Wally Bunker Born

Wally Bunker made his debut for the Orioles in September of 1963 as an 18 year-old. He started the last game of the season, didn't make it out of the 5th inning and was hung with a loss. The next year, Bunker had one of the great seasons by a 19 year-old in baseball history. He started 29 games for the Orioles, and went 19-5. His first game he one-hit the Washington Senators and went on to win his next six starts including another one-hitter. He led the team in ERA (and was sixth in the league) while throwing the O’s second most innings. Bunker succeeded in large because of a fastball which he could throw as either a 'riser' (fastball don't actually rise, of course, it’s an optical illusion) or a sinker. Bunker was denied the Rookie of the Year award despite a great season only because he had the misfortune of debuting the same year as Tony Oliva who won the batting title and led the league in doubles, hits, runs and total bases in his rookie season. Competing with that, Bunker received just one first-place vote.

Bunker's was one of the great 19 year-old seasons ever, and more impressive for being rookie. But there was an extra factor: Bunker was incredibly lucky. There is a theory of pitching which states that pitchers only have explicit control over strikeouts, walks, and home-runs. The remaining base hits are to a large degree (but not entirely) a function of luck. This is controversial but is based in certain logic; we've all watched a pitcher and said "Boy, every time they hit a screamer off this guy, it goes right into someone's glove.” Based on Bunker's walks, home runs, and strikeouts, he would have been expected to post an ERA of 4.30, rather than the 2.69 he actually had. That's pretty lucky. Even if you don't believe in that theory, it is easy to see how lucky Bunker was. He allowed 9.5 men to reach base per 9 innings, but just 2.7 of them came around to score.

After his fantastic 1964 there were doubtless many who predicted great things for Bunker. But he had the strike of being lucky against him already and suffered a sore arm in 1965. He would pitch as few as 71 innings in the next few seasons, although he did throw a shutout in Game 3 of the 1966 World Series, putting the Orioles up 3-0 and effectively ending the Series. He would enjoy a brief revival (despite being just 24) in 1969 leading the expansion Royals in victories (12) but averaged just 77 innings after that and was out of baseball after the 1971. Bunker was just 26 years-old but his pitching career was over leaving him an ironic contrast to one of the opposing pitchers in the 1966 World Series, Sandy Koufax who did not become Sandy Koufax until he was twenty-six.



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