Lolich’s feat in 1968 World Series is greater than Bumgarner’s in 2014

Mickey Lolich is surrounded by happy teammates and the media after pitching his third complete game victory in the 1968 World Series.

Mickey Lolich is surrounded by happy teammates and the media after pitching his third complete game victory in the 1968 World Series.

Former Detroit Tigers’ ace Mickey Lolich stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest over the weekend when he was asked to compare his 1968 World Series performance to that of Madison Bumgarner in this year’s World Series. While Lolich praised Bumgarner’s pitching, in particular the effectiveness of his Game Seven slider, he also made it clear that there should be no comparison between him and the San Francisco Giants’ ace.

“Pitching three complete games in a World Series is, you know, is sort of a great feat,” Lolich said in recalling his 1968 effort in an interview with George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press. And what about Bumgarner, who made two excellent starts before pitching brilliantly in five innings of relief in Game Seven? “Great for him, he had a great World Series,” Lolich told Sipple. “But as far as [a] comparison? It’s not there.”

Well, let’s put the folks at Baseball Think Factory, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus on high alert. They’re probably ready to tear into Lolich, if they have not already done so, ready to slam him for his “Get off my lawn!” attitude. Such sentiments of old-time players like Lolich are exactly the kind of old fogeyism that new age baseball fans seem to detest with particular relish these days. Why, it’s enough to hang Lolich from the nearest pitching mound.

Those critics can rip into Lolich all they want. It really doesn’t matter, because Lolich happens to be right. As impressive as Bumgarner’s efforts were against the Kansas City Royals, they do not compare evenly to what Lolich was asked to do against the mighty St. Louis Cardinals back in the fall of 1968.

After pitching seven innings in Game One of the World Series on extended rest, Bumgarner came back to pitch a complete game in Game Five, this time on his regular rest of four days. And then after only two days off, he came back to rescue the Giants in relief, shutting down the Royals’ offense for the last five innings. Impressive indeed. But not as impressive as Lolich.

Let’s remember that Lolich did not pitch until Game Two of the 1968 World Series. He wasn’t the Tigers’ ace that season; the honor belonged to 31-game winner Denny McLain, who pitched and lost badly in Game One. After pitching a complete game in Game Two, Lolich then returned on only three days’ rest to pitch Game Five. Then, after only two days’ rest, he started the decisive Game Seven, completing that game just like he did his other two starts. So Lolich pitched a full complement of 27 innings, in comparison to Bumgarner’s 21. Lolich made two of his starts on short rest—one on three days and the other on two—while Bumgarner made only one appearance—a relief one, at that—on short rest.

An argument could certainly be made that Bumgarner pitched more effectively than Lolich, even though his workload didn’t match that of the former Tigers’ ace. In giving up only one run over 21 innings, Bumgarner fashioned an ERA of 0.43—which is truly remarkable—while Lolich gave up five runs in 27 innings, to the tune of a more mortal ERA of 1.67. All of that is true. But Lolich certainly had to pitch under a higher strain and heavier workload, having to work on short rest twice, while carrying complete games through to the end each time. Pitching 27 innings within the span of eight calendar days is an incredible workload, one that neither Bumgarner nor any other pitcher in today’s game will ever be asked to assume.

I would also argue that Lolich faced a tougher Cardinals’ lineup than Bumgarner did in opposing the Royals. The 1968 Cardinals had two Hall of Famers in Lou Brock (who was a phenomenal postseason hitter) and the slugging Orlando Cepeda, and two other effective hitters in Curt Flood, who batted .301 during the regular season, and Mike Shannon, who hit 15 home runs and posted a respectable OPS of .710 during the “Year of the Pitcher.” The current day Royals likely have no future Hall of Famers (though I suppose an argument could be made for Salvador Perez, their talented young catcher) and no power hitter remotely comparable to Cepeda. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer are all good players, but none could be classified as a great hitters, at least not at these respective stages of their careers.

Then there’s the issue of the Tigers’ bullpen in 1968. The Tigers had two effective relievers in Pat Dobson and John Hiller, but neither was a dominant closer and neither was as effective as the Giants’ Santiago Casilla was in 2014. Hiller had not yet emerged as the star relief ace that he would become during the 1970s. It wasn’t likely that manager Mayo Smith would turn to either Hiller or Dobson in the ninth inning of a close World Series game; the expectation was that Lolich would have to finish what he started, which translated into additional pressure on a young pitcher like Lolich.

None of this should be characterized as a putdown of Bumgarner, who deservedly won the World Series MVP, proved to the naysayers that pitchers can be effective on two days’ rest, and appears fully capable of a career beyond even what Lolich accomplished. Lolich himself praised Bumgarner in the interview, in particular for the work that he did in Game Seven. “I did see him pitch in relief and, when I would look up at the TV, I would say, ‘Boy, he had a helluva breaking ball,’ “Lolich said. “He was throwing good, getting guys out. It was like, he’s done a good job out there.”

So this is not meant to belittle Bumgarner, but rather to place his accomplishments in perspective while also giving Lolich his due. All these years later, Lolich’s performance in the 1968 remains underrated. Perhaps it’s because Lolich faded after the 1972 season, failing to become the Hall of Fame pitcher that some had once predicted (though he had a stellar career). Or perhaps it’s because Lolich won those three World Series games during the final days of the Year of the Pitcher; given the context of that season, it’s easier to dismiss great pitching performances as a matter of background conditions and nothing more. Or maybe it’s because Lolich, like all of the Tigers, was usually overshadowed by Al Kaline, who happened to blast two home runs and hit .379 in the seven-game Series against the Cardinals.

Whatever the reason for the disconnection between Lolich and his rightful claim to glory, his effort was critical to the Tigers’ World Series victory. Let’s remember that when Lolich pitched Game Two, the Tigers were down, one game to none, with McLain having looked like a shell of himself in losing to Bob Gibson. And then, when Lolich pitched in Game Five, the Tigers trailed the Series, three games to one, and were facing sudden elimination with another loss. On top of all of that, Lolich had to start a decisive Game Seven on the road, while facing the dominant Gibson, who had throttled the Tigers with a 17-strikeout performance in Game One. In terms of pure pressure, there could be no scenario any more intense than the one that Lolich faced that afternoon at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

In spite of it all, Lolich delivered a pitching performance for the ages. He scattered five hits over nine innings, allowing only a meaningless run in the ninth inning of a game in which the Tigers led, 4-0. Other than Flood, who touched him for a pair of hits, none of the Cardinals did any significant damage to Lolich.

Lolich’s MVP performance in the World Series should be treated as one for the ages. Bumgarner’s performance already has received such treatment. And there’s something not quite right about the discrepancy between those two statements.

How befuddling was Lolich to the veteran hitters on the Cardinals? Let’s leave that assessment up to Orlando Cepeda, who reminded writers that the Cardinals were getting ready to depart for an offseason tour of Japan right after the World Series. “And every time we play [in Japan],” Cepeda told Mark Mulvoy of Sports Illustrated, “the pitcher’s going to look like Mickey Lolich.”

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.