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Orel Leonard Hershiser IV
Starting Pitcher, 1995-1997
Height: 6'3" Weight: 190 lbs
Acquired: Free Agent, 4-8-1995
Left Via: Free Agency, 12-9-1997 (San Francisco)
Orel Hershiser essentially had two careers; after his 1990 shoulder surgery, he was a completely different pitcher than the one who racked up four top-4 Cy Young finishes in 5 seasons (including winning the award in 1988). But he was still effective, and his arrival in Cleveland in 1995 coincided with one of the greatest seasons in franchise history.
Orel grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and after high school, accepted a scholarship offer to pitch at Bowling Green State University. He pitched well enough to attract major-league interest, and was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 17th round of the 1979 Draft. Throughout his minor-league career, he was used mainly as a reliever, serving as the main closer in every level he pitched at. But he did start as well, so he threw over 100 innings in each year from 1980-1983. His minor-league numbers weren't exceptional, as he had problems with walks (minor-league average of 4.1 BB per 9 innings), but his stuff was excellent. After the 1982 season, the Dodgers added him to their 40-man roster, and almost included him (along with Dave Stewart) in a trade to the Texas Rangers for catcher Jim Sundberg. Fortunately for the Dodgers, Sundberg nixed the deal by invoking his no-trade clause.
Hershiser, after making his major-league debut with the Dodgers in September of 1983, made the post-season roster, but didn't make an appearance in the Division Series against Philadelphia. He started the 1984 season in the bullpen, but again had problems throwing strikes. That's when manager Tommy Lasorda...well, I'll let him speak for himself:
I can't find the exact game Lasorda is talking about, but in the middle of the season, Bulldog Hershiser started to throw strikes. He then got a couple of starts when Rick Honeycutt cut, and the rest is history. In his half-season in the rotation, he threw 8 complete games, posted a 2.19 ERA, and held opposing batters to a .206/.253/.265 line. During his rookie season, he came within four outs of throwing a perfect game. Incredibly, he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, but the competition in 1984 was fierce, with Dwight Gooden (who won the award) and Juan Samuel ahead of him.
Hershiser didn't have a sophomore slump, picking up in 1985 where he left off. He finished third in Cy Young voting despite posting a 2.03 ERA (171 ERA+) and allowed just 8 home runs in 239.2 innings pitched. He did have a junior slump, only posting a 90 ERA+. But starting in 1987, he had a great three-year run, leading the league in innings pitched averaging a 143 ERA+. Right in the middle of those three years was his magical 1988 season, when he broke the consecutive scoreless innings streak, was the NLCS and World Series MVP and won the 1988 Cy Young Award.
Dodgers catcher Rick Dempsey summed up Hershiser's pitching style:
"Orel is a gambler" Dempsey said. "He gambles more than any pitcher in the game today and gets away with it. He throws pitches in situations you're not supposed to, and he puts the ball in places to hitters that other pitchers are afraid to do. He controls the tempo. Orel just refuses to give in - to anyone."
New York Times, 10-13-1988
Hershiser followed up his magical 1988 with a 1989 campaign that was just as good, posting a 149 ERA+. Since his first start in 1984, he hadn't missed a turn in the rotation, a streak of 191 starts. But just a few starts into the 1990, that streak was snapped in a terrible way. Spring Training that season was truncated due to an owners' lockout, and Hersiser didn't feel good in his first few starts. After going 6.1 innings on April 25, he visited Dr. Frank Jobe, and an MRI revealed damage to both his rotator cuff and labrum, injuries that in many cases have ended a pitcher's career. Hersiser missed the rest of that season, and although he he did make it back to the mound, he wasn't nearly the pitcher he'd been from 1984-1989. He re-signed with the Dodgers after the 1991 season, but after that deal was up, the Dodgers failed to offer him a deal.
It was a bad time to be a free agent, for Hershiser was looking for a new home in 1995. A strike prematurely ended the 1994 season, and an agreement wasn't reached until well into spring training. But the Cleveland Indians, who were looking for help in their rotation, were interested in Hershiser, and signed him to a three-year contract. By this time Orel had reinvented himself, adding a slider to his sinker and curve mix. He was still a very durable pitcher, rarely missing a start since 1992. The Indians envisaged him, Charles Nagy, and ageless wonder Dennis Martinez forming a very good top of the rotation, good enough to support their powerful lineup. Little did they figure on what the rotation, led by Martinez and Hershiser would give them.
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