Detroit Tigers: Mickey Lolich’s 1971 Season – Part Five

Mickey Lolich throws a pitch for the Detroit Tigers in 1967.
Mickey Lolich throws a pitch for the Detroit Tigers in 1967. /

The story of Mickey Lolich’s memorable 1971 season draws to a close. How did his remarkable numbers look in comparison to his peers in the American League that season, his own 16-year career, and the history of the Detroit Tigers?

(Click here for part one, here for part two, here for part three, and here for part four about Mickey Lolich’s 1971 season)

When the 1971 season began, Mickey Lolich had set a goal of winning one game per week after noticing that the season lasted 26 weeks. As a reminder to himself, he had taped a Tigers pocket schedule to a clubhouse wall and kept track of his progress. With 25 wins by the end of the 24th week, he was ahead of the pace.

Mickey Lolich was aiming for Hal Newhouser’s record

Midway through the 25th week, Lolich took the mound at Fenway Park in Boston with a shot at tying Hal Newhouser’s franchise record for wins in a season by a left-handed pitcher. “Prince Hal” had set the record in 1946.

Lolich started well, retiring the first 13 hitters he faced before giving up a couple of hits with one out in the fifth. The Tigers took a 2-0 lead in the sixth. Lolich continued to roll, holding the Red Sox off the board through the seventh. The Sox rallied for three in the bottom of the eighth to take the lead, and the Tigers went down in order in the ninth. It was the second time that month that Boston had gotten the better of Lolich, who went the distance in the loss.

He was back on his home turf on September 26 to begin the 26th and final week of the season. The Sunday afternoon start would be Lolich’s last at Tiger Stadium in 1971. The Tigers had a 2-0 lead after two innings, but rookie Rusty Torres’ first big league homer, a two-run shot, tied the game in the third. From that point on, Yankees starter Fritz Peterson dominated the Tigers, allowing only two hits the rest of the way. Roy White’s home run to lead off the sixth gave the Yankees a 3-2 win.

It was another complete game for Lolich (his 27th), but it marked the first time that he been charged with losses in back-to-back starts since April. The bright spot for Lolich came in the eighth inning when he struck out Ron Hansen to end the inning. That made him the first Tigers pitcher to ever strike out 300 in a season. He added one more in the ninth, which left him tied with Oakland’s Vida Blue at the end of the day.

Blue, the front-runner in the AL’s Cy Young Award race, had made his final start of the season that same afternoon. He finished with 24 wins, one behind Lolich, to go with eight losses. The numbers, ranging from strikeouts and wins to innings pitched and complete games had become very important to Lolich. He explained,

"“The only reason I want to do those things is because I’m going to need them to pull votes away from Blue. I mean, if the people who are voting take a look at all those things, they might say ‘Hey, if that guy has done that much for that club, maybe I should vote for him.’ If they take all my statistics into consideration, I’ve got a chance. If they don’t, I’m in trouble.That’s why today’s game was so critical. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of year, and I need every win I can get. Right now I don’t think I’ve got more than a 50-50 chance at beating Blue out.”"

Lolich’s last shot at that elusive 26th win came on the last day of the season in Cleveland. It was Lolich’s 45th start of the year, which set a new Tigers season record. George Mullin had held the record since 1904. The Indians, Lolich’s first opponent of the season, had lost 102 games. He had gotten four of his 25 wins against them. Lolich’s chances certainly looked good that day.

The Indians scored an unearned run in the first and scored again in the third. The Tigers got on the board in the fourth. From there, it was a pitching duel between Lolich and the unheralded Vince Colbert. From the fifth through the ninth, Colbert yielded only two hits. Lolich kept the Indians off the board the rest of the way, too, but the Tigers’ lack of run support did him in. The Indians won 2-1. For the fifth start in a row, Lolich had pitched a complete game, but for the third start in a row, he did so in a losing effort.

At the very least, Lolich added to his already impressive season totals in the season finale. With his seven strikeouts, Lolich was able to best Vida Blue in that category, 308-301. He finished with an ERA of 2.92.

He pitched 376 innings, the most by any major leaguer since Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander threw 388 in 1917. Lolich fell six innings short of tying Mullins’ Tigers record of 382 (set in 1904). It was the first of four straight seasons in which Lolich pitched over 300 innings. After he left the Tigers, he shared a tip about how he kept his arm healthy, strong, and durable. He said,

"“Before and after a game, I stand in the shower and turn up the hot water to where it’s almost burning my arm. God gave me a great arm and I take care of it. Jack Homel, the Tigers’ trainer when I first came up, told me about it and I started doing it. And a few years later, Satchel Paige came to Detroit for a banquet and we got to talking and he told me he always used hot water, that it was the greatest thing for your arm.The hot water flushes the bad blood out and gets the new blood in. I turn it up so hot that after I’ve left, I’ve had guys step in and go clear across the room. I just let it hit my arm. It’s too hot to let it hit you all over. I wrap a towel around my arm to control the runoff. There’s nothing worse than scalding hot water running down your leg.”"

While Lolich had put together a 1971 season worthy of Cy Young Award consideration, October’s voting results may have left him feeling blue. Vida won with 98 points to Lolich’s 85. Blue picked up 14 first-place votes to Lolich’s nine. After being declared the winner, Blue was quoted as saying that he thought Lolich would win. Blue also won the AL’s Most Valuable Player award. Lolich finished fifth but was the only other pitcher to get even one first-place vote.

Before his run for the Cy Young Award had begun to heat up, Lolich thought that he might have a shot at winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award. In mid-August, the 1968 World Series MVP talked about the importance of awards. He said,

"“…When you’re out of the game, the only things you have to show for what you did are those plaques on the wall in your den. There’s some substance to them, even if it’s just a piece of bronze with your name engraved on it. I’ve always been the type of guy who enjoyed picking up awards here and there. To me, they mean something. Some other guys will tell you they don’t mean a thing to them, but to me, they do…I’d like to get something out of the year, because I think I’ve had a pretty fantastic year, and I’d like to be recognized in one way or another.”"

Teammate Norm Cash ended up winning the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award after bouncing back from a down year in 1970. Lolich did win an award for his achievements when he was named 1971’s Tiger of the Year by the Detroit Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. In the seven years, the award had been voted on at that point, Lolich was the first Tiger to win it unanimously. It would be the only time he’d be honored with that distinction.

If there was a moral victory for Lolich, it may be that he finished first in the American League in wins (25, one more than Blue), strikeouts (308), starts (45), innings pitched (376), complete games (29), and batters faced (1538).

Lolich was one of the AL’s top pitchers in a number of other categories. He had the fourth-best K/BB ratio (3.35). He was fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (7.4) and eighth in walks per nine innings (2.2). His 2.92 ERA was tenth best among qualifying pitchers, although the top two were fellow lefties Vida Blue of the A’s (1.82) and Wilbur Wood of the White Sox (1.91).

Although he didn’t walk many (92), giving up a league-leading 336 hits meant that Lolich would only finish 12th in WHIP (1.138). Looking at his season through some modern and advanced stats, Lolich finished second in the AL overall bWAR (8.6) and third in bWAR for pitchers (8.5). He was third in Adjusted Pitching Wins (3.3), seventh in FIP (2.85), and seventh in ERA+ (124).

1971 was a season in which Mickey Lolich set a number of career highs, including wins, strikeouts, starts, innings pitched, complete games, batters faced, K/BB ratio (which he would top in the Tigers’ AL East Division championship year of 1972), ERA (which he also beat in 1972), and bWAR (both overall and for pitchers).

Lolich’s 1971 is also one of the better seasons in Tigers season, especially what we’d consider being modern-day history. He holds the franchise season records for strikeouts (and remains the only Tigers pitcher to strike out at least 300 in a season), starts, and innings by a left-handed pitcher. Among Tigers single-season leaders, he is second in innings pitched and batters faced. He’s sixth in wins, and since 1971, only Justin Verlander’s 24 in 2011 have come close. Lolich is sixth in bWAR for pitchers, and since 1971, only Mark Fidrych in 1976 (9.6) and Verlander in 2011 (8.6) have passed by him in that category.

Today, Lolich is still fondly remembered for his time as a Tiger, which ended when he was traded to the New York Mets for Rusty Staub in December 1975. He holds the Tigers career records for strikeouts (2679), starts (459), and shutouts (39). He is second in batters faced (13,894), third in wins (207), third in games pitched (508), third in innings pitched (3361.2), fourth in bWAR for pitchers (4.67), sixth in complete games (190), sixth in strikeouts per nine innings (7.172), and seventh in K/BB ratio (2.642).