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Happy Birthday Mark Eichhorn

Toronto Blue Jays v California Angels 00Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

Mark Eichhorn turns 61 today.

The Blue Jays drafted him in the 2nd round, 30th overall, in the 1979 amateur draft, out of Cabrillo College, CA, where he played shortstop and pitched. Mark quickly rose through the Jays’ farm system and made 7 starts for the Jays as a September call-up in 1982. Unfortunately, they didn’t go well. He went 0-3 with a 5.45 ERA, and to make matters worse, he suffered a shoulder injury. The injury cost him the speed of his fastball.

Returning to the minors, he learned to throw submarine style in the fall instructional league in 1984. As a right-handed submarine pitcher, Mark threw, quite possibly, the slowest pitches in the majors. He threw an extremely slow change-up, a ‘fastball’ and a slider. He had a huge split in his stats, releasing the ball from very low to the ground, coming from behind a right-handed batter. Righties couldn’t hit him at all, while lefties hit him pretty well. In 1986, his return year to the majors and his best season as a Jay right-handed batters only hit .135/.186/.165 against him, while lefties went .259/.345/.434.

In 1986 Mark had the best season ever for a Jay reliever. He pitched in 69 games, throwing a fantastic 157 innings and finishing with a 1.72 ERA. Manager Jimy Williams offered to let him start in one of the season’s final games so that Mark could have enough innings to get the ERA title, but Mark passed on it. Had he not spent a couple of weeks on the DL, he would have likely had the ERA title at the start of the season. That year, Fangraphs has him at a 5.3 WAR and Baseball-Reference 7.4 (good for 7th best in Jays’ history). The Sporting News selected him as the Rookie Pitcher of the Year. He also finished 6th in Cy Young voting and 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting, trailing Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner. Williams often used him for multiple innings, pitching as many as 6 innings in a game out of the pen and going 3 or more innings several times.

It is hard to blame Williams for the overuse of Eichhorn. When you have a ‘get some shutout innings free card,’ you tend to use it. Mark was terrific, finishing the 1986 season 14-6 with 10 saves. He gave up only 105 hits in the 157 innings, striking out 166 while walking 45. I’d call it the best season ever for a Blue Jays reliever.

In 1987 Mark wasn’t the same but was very effective with a 3.17 ERA in 89 games, setting the Jays record for games pitched in a season. Number 2 on the list is Paul Quantrill at 82 games in 1998. He won 10 games and saved 4 more, serving as a setup man for Tom Henke. Even though he pitched in 20 more games than 1986, he threw 30 fewer innings. Williams still would have him out there for 3 or more innings on several occasions. He also used him to get one or two right-handers out several times. Jimy used him as an all-propose reliever, sending him out there in any situation. Eichhorn made the most appearances and faced the most batters of any AL reliever. He always had a significant split with a .642 OPS vs. RHB and a .760 OPS vs. lefties.

In 1988 he was on pace to get into many games again, but he suffered an injury in early June that kept him out till September. He altered his delivery to make it harder for runners to steal on him, which cost him some effectiveness. His ERA jumped to 4.19. Some of that was because of the number of innings he had pitched over the last couple of years. Since some of his effectiveness might have been due to his unusual delivery, batters may have been able to get comfortable with it and maybe had an easier time picking up the ball when he released it. And, even throwing sidearm, that much work has to cause some wear and tear on the arm.

After the 1988 season, feeling he had lost his effectiveness, the Jays sold Eichhorn to the Braves. After a pretty average season in Atlanta, the Angels signed him as a free agent. After 2.5 good seasons with the Angels, the Jays traded Rob Ducey and Greg Myers to get him back on July 30, 1992, just in time for Mark to get 2 World Series rings. He pitched 4.1 shutout innings, over 4 games, in the two postseasons.

In 1993, he pitched in 54 games and had a 2.72 ERA. Cito started the season using him as a multiple-inning reliever, but as the season went on, he was used more for one inning, in late-inning setup man. After the second World Series win, he signed as a free agent with the Orioles. Near the end of an excellent season with the O’s, he was injured and missed the 1995 season. He signed back with the Angels in 1996 but didn’t do well. Mark bounced around the minors after that, pitching in the Jays farm system in 2000. He didn’t throw in the majors again.

I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more sidearm/submarine type pitchers in the majors. The ones we do see have success; I think if I were a minor league pitcher who wasn’t likely to make the majors (the only kind of minor league pitcher I’d be), I’d give it a try or try a knuckleball. In the ’70s and ’80s Kent Tekulve and Dan Quisenberry were very successful submarine-style closers. And we have Adam Cimber now. As a group, sidearmer’s tend to have excellent control, but they don’t have much in common beyond that. Some have been hard throwers, some have had great curves or sliders, some throw sinkers, Quisenberry even threw a knuckleball for a while, and Eichhorn got by with a slow, slow change. You can see Mark Eichhorn’s delivery in this YouTube video:

Sidearmers seem to be pretty durable and have, on average, had long careers. The most infamous one is Carl Mays, the only major league pitcher who killed a batter with a pitch. The strange delivery had something to do with why Ray Chapman didn’t pick up the pitch and get out of the way. There were many other factors. Balls were used longer back then and tended to be dirtier. The ball would have been hard to see in the late afternoon with no lights at the stadium. But I digress a lot. Mays was a straight underhand pitcher who threw very hard, an outstanding starting pitcher, just short of being a Hall of Fame type.

My father-in-law threw sidearm, much the same as Eichhorn’s delivery. He tore a muscle in his upper arm, and, having a distrust of doctors, he never had it fixed. He couldn’t raise his arm, but man, could he whip a ball. Playing catch with him, I’d always back up about as far as I could throw. Course, he was throwing to his son-in-law and likely wanted to prove a point. He also had a nice natural curve on his throws. But, again, I digress.

Mark ended his career with a 3.00 ERA in 885.2 innings over 563 games. He is now a pitching coach for a high school baseball team in California.

Mark coached his son’s Little League team featured in a documentary movie called Small Ball, A Little League Story in 2002. It was about their team trying to make the Little League World Series.

Happy Birthday Mark, I hope it is a good one.