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The Ballad of Jeff Ballard

The 1988 Orioles lost 107 games. The following year, the team, with Jeff Ballard as their ace, just missed the playoffs. Matthew Kory examines the unlikely ace and how the baseball gods shined down on him.

By Matthew Kory, June 14, 2017
Jeff Ballard was the first pitcher in Orioles history to accomplish five straight wins in April.
Courtesy of The Trading Card Database

In the baseball world, July 8, 1994, was nothing special. It lived but 24 hours and then, like most days, disappeared as though it had never existed. Except, that wasn’t true for Jeff Ballard. That Friday was the last he would ever pitch in a Major League game. Wearing Pirates black, Ballard faced the Reds and gave, if you’ve ever looked at Jeff Ballard’s career numbers, a predictable performance: four runs in two innings, walking one and striking out one. This performance accomplished two things: It brought his ERA for the season up to 6.66 and his career to an end.

Effective pitching at the Major League level involves not walking batters, not letting them homer when they manage to make contact, and striking hitters out. Jeff Ballard somehow pitched in the Majors for parts of seven seasons while effectively walking as many batters as he struck out. Look at Ballard’s numbers and you might think he pitched in the Deadball Era.

Over parts of seven seasons (I know I already said that, but wow!), Ballard walked 2.7 hitters per nine innings and struck out 2.8. That is not a typo. Jeff Ballard actually struck out fewer than three batters per nine innings. This seems impossible, like a car that runs on farts, or a hedgehog that bakes a fantastic soufflé. Average pitchers in today’s game regularly strike out three times what Ballard managed, and when they do, it’s not a big deal. For it to be a big deal they’d have to strike out five times as many hitters as Ballard, which also happens.

Sure, the game is different now. In Ballard’s time the average starter struck out about 5.5 batters per nine innings while walking about three. So Ballard’s numbers maybe aren’t quite as crazy as they seem by looking at them through today’s prism, but they are still crazy! 

So why are we talking about Jeff Ballard?

Ballard was the first Major League pitcher to strike out Don Matthingly three times in a single game.
Courtesy of The Trading Card Database

Because Jeff Ballard didn’t just hang around the fringes like those numbers would make you think. Instead, he threw 625 innings for the Orioles from 1988 through 1991. He was their Opening Day starter in 1991! For about three seasons Jeff Ballard, the guy who was as likely to walk a hitter as he was to strike him out, was an ace! Of a real Major League team! He got Cy Young votes!

In 1989 Jeff Ballard put together perhaps the most improbable “ace” season in baseball history. Ballard won 18 games, lost just eight, and helped the “Magic” Orioles stay in contention for the AL East crown until the final series of the year. To understand how improbable all this was, you have to know the context.

Nothing was expected of the Orioles in 1989, and looking back, we were right to expect nothing from them. On paper they looked terrible. But baseball isn’t played on paper. If it was, Jeff Ballard would never have pitched in the Major Leagues.

In 1988 the Orioles were coming off 107 losses, a season that saw them lose their first 21 games in a row. Can you imagine losing that many games in a row, let alone to start off the season? There are 162 games in a baseball season, so for the next 141 the Orioles were just there, the team in a metaphorical hospital bed, waiting for the inevitable. They spent the season as the baseball version of the Washington Generals. Each game was another chance go down by six in the third inning and then have an opposing player dump a bucket of confetti on their heads. It was humiliating. Ballard went 8–12 for that team, with a 4.93 ERA. To his credit, he did manage to strike out more hitters than he walked. Still, though. Yikes. 

Then 1989 came around, and Ballard became the guy. He won his first five starts, striking out nine hitters over 37 innings in the process. He got shelled by the Mariners in early May but recovered to win his next three starts. By May 26, Ballard was 8–1 with a 2.24 ERA, despite the fact that he had struck out 13 hitters and walked 12 in 60 innings.

The next few months were leaner for Ballard, but he recovered to win seven of nine starts between August 17 and September 20. At that point Ballard’s Orioles were 83–70, and a single game behind the Blue Jays. By Pythagorean record, the Orioles were behind not just the Jays but the Brewers and Red Sox as well, but the ’89 Orioles weren’t about spreadsheets, something their failures in 1988 and 1990 highlighted; they were about weirdness, a collection of unlikely events piled upon each other, like a stack of reality TV stars in the produce section of the Safeway. 

The Orioles managed, through smoke, mirrors, and those bizarre pictures of ships that you can only see when you relax your eyes at the mall, to remain a single game behind the Jays going into the final three-game series in Toronto. They needed to win two to force a one-game playoff, and three to take the division crown. Ballard started the first game of the series. In true Ballardian form, he gave up just a single run in 7.1 innings while striking out three and walking four. In fact, Ballard’s only run scored after he had been removed from the game.

Unfortunately, the Orioles offense had been held scoreless after a first-pitch-of-the-game homer by Phil Bradley. So when Blue Jays pinch runner Tom Lawless came in from third on a wild pitch by Gregg Olson, who was just finishing up what would be a Rookie of the Year season, it tied the game. The Orioles went on to lose in the 11th inning and then lost the next day as well, ending the competitive portion of their season at game 161. 

It’s a shame the baseball world never got to see Jeff Ballard starting the first game of a playoff series. There was something in the way he pitched that season. Whether it was luck, skill, or the blinding golden sunbeam of the baseball gods on his shoulder, the man got outs. You would never choose Jeff Ballard in a fantasy draft, nor would you predict long-term success from him based on the way he got those outs, but for that one season, Jeff Ballard was as effective as any pitcher in the sport. Those ’89 “almost Orioles” were fittingly headed by a never-was ace. It didn’t work for long, but there’s no denying, for one sunny season, it worked better than it ever should have. 

In 1995 Ballard was attempting a comeback when he was involved in a head on crash that left him with a broken neck and several broken ribs.  
 
Courtesy of The Trading Card Database

 

 

 

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