Wednesday, February 22, 2012

By Brian Waller - Feature Writer

Ask any Angel fan about the teams from the 1970’s and two names usually get thrown out there pretty quickly; Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana. The Ryan/Tanana duo combined for 240 wins during their time in an Angel’s uniform. They were fixtures in the rotation and during the early to mid 70’s they were the faces of the franchise. A case could easily be made that the dynamic duo were two of the best pitchers ever to pitch for the Angels. For eight seasons either Tanana’s or Ryan’s name was printed at the top of the Angels rotation, that is of course until 1981. For the first time in eight seasons, the California Angels did not have either Tanana or Ryan taking the mound for them. Ryan departed after the 1979 season and Tanana after the 1980 season. The Angels, needing a power arm for the rotation turned to young 20-year old rookie, Michael Atwater Witt. Witt seemed like the perfect fit for the thin Angels rotation as he stood 6 foot 7 inches tall, possessed an above average curve ball, a power fast ball and to top it all off he was a hometown kid from Fullerton, California. Witt settled into the Angels’ rotation nicely his rookie season, finishing 8-9 with a 3.28 era which was the rotations second lowest behind only Ken Forsch (2.88 era). Witt would go on to post a combined 15-20 record the following two seasons with a 4.21 era. Witt’s first three seasons in the rotation were mediocre at best. It wasn’t until the 1984 season that Witt finally broke out, going 15-11. At times throughout the season, Witt was downright dominating. On July 23 of that year, while playing the Seattle Mariners, Witt struck out 16 batters during a complete game 5-hitter. The real highlight of the season though came on September 30th against the Texas Rangers when Witt struck out 10 batters and needed only 94 pitches to throw the 11th perfect game in MLB history. For you trivia buffs out there, the perfect game was only the second one thrown in MLB history on the last day of the regular season. Also, Witt’s perfect game was the first thrown with a score of 1-0 since Sandy Koufax’s game in 1965.

While Fernando-Mania was being shoved down the throats of every Southern California baseball fan, Witt was quietly becoming the ace the Angels had been searching for since the departure of Tanana and Ryan. Witt went on to prove that the 1984 season was no fluke, as you can see below, Witt and Valenzuela averaged very comparable numbers over the four span Witt was in his prime:

Player            Seasons         Avg. Wins        Avg. ERA        Avg. K’s
Witt                 1984-87         16                     3.47                 194
Valenzuela        1984-87          16                     3.15                 220

From 1984 to 1987 Witt lead the Angels in wins (64), starts (139), complete games (39), strikeouts (776) and innings pitched (1,012). Witt joined Dean Chance (1962-65) as the only pitcher to lead the Angels in wins four straight seasons. The baseball world took notice and Witt was elected to the 1986 and 1987 American League All-Star team. It seemed Witt was well on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers in team history when his fortunes suddenly changed. During the 1988 season, at only 27 years old, Witt inexplicably started to decline. Witt produced a respectable 13-16 record with a 4.15 era but his pitching clearly was not at the level it had been in previous years. Witt saw his strikeout rate drop from 7.0 per nine innings to 4.8. His “stuff” was not nearly as overpowering as it once had been yet there was no clear reason why. Word spread around the league that Witt just wasn't the same, that he'd lost his confidence. And, according to Witt, it was true. In a 1990 interview with the L.A. Times Witt admitted "I started thinking too much and was getting hit harder and harder, I don't care who you are, the less batters you get out, the more confidence you lose. I started wondering if I'd ever get outs consistently again on this level.”

Witt would go on to struggle throughout the 1999 season posting a 9-15 with a 4.54 era. Witt, still searching for an explanation for his sudden regression thought maybe he had a tired arm. Witt stated he, “had too many doubts. During my good years, I was just on a roll. Everything was automatic." After five straight seasons as the Angels “ace” and opening day starter, Witt lost his spot in the rotation and was moved to the bullpen. The move to the pen however allowed Witt to catch lightning in a bottle one last time. During the 1989 offseason, the Angels signed left-handed pitcher Mark Langston to a lucrative $16 million deal. Langston, who was coming off of a very successful 16 win season in which he posted a career low 2.74 era with the Seattle Mariners and Montreal Expos, seemed ready to take over as the “ace” of the rotation with Witt having been demoted to the bull pen. On April 12, 1990, Mark Langston made his debut as a member of the California Angels. With 25,632 fans looking on, Langston held his former team, the Mariners, hitless through seven innings. Langston had walked four, struck out three and thrown 98 pitches. Usually, with only six outs remaining and a pitch count under 100, Managers will allow their starter the chance to close it out; Langston however took that decision away from Angels Manager Doug Radar by telling him that he had “hit the wall” and didn’t have much left in the tank. Looking to secure the win and preserve the no-hitter, Rader immediately knew who he wanted to bring in to close the game out, Mike Witt. Although not the choice most fans would have made due to his recent struggles, the decision was an easy one for Rader. You see, 5 ½ years earlier, when Witt had thrown his perfect game to end the 1984 season, it was Rader who was the manager of the opposing Rangers. Rader would later state the perfect game Witt had thrown was the most dominating pitching performance he ever witnessed. Even though his manager had confidence in him the fans in attendance didn’t, the crowd booed when Witt came out of the bullpen to take over for Langston at the start of the eighth inning. The fact that Witt walked the first batter he faced on four pitches did not help endear him to the crowd either. Witt would eventually settle down and get the remaining six outs without giving up a hit, even though he was not the starter on record he still took great pride in the accomplishment. For Witt it was a bit of redemption and a positive in what seemed to be a string of negatives. Witt would make only a handful of relief appearances for the Halos during the 1990 season before he was traded to the New York Yankees in exchange for Dave Winfield. Rather than becoming dejected and upset over the trade to the Yankees, Witt looked at the trade as a new opportunity and a fresh start. The Yankees, convinced that Witt just needed a change of scenery to return to his winning ways, immediately put him into the starting rotation. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to Mike Witt’s baseball career. Witt would play parts of three seasons for the Bronx Bombers, making 27 starts and compiling an 8-9 record with a 6.62 era before finally retiring after the 1993 season.

After retiring, Witt returned home to Southern California. In 1996, at the age of only 36, Witt was approached by Donn Munsell, the head coach of the Dana Hills High School baseball team. Munsell, who knew Witt lived nearby, reached out in an attempt to have Witt assist the team. One thing led to another and Witt found himself as the team’s pitching coach. Witt has rediscovered a passion for the game through the eyes of his students. In a 1997 article with the L.A. Times, Witt explained he doesn’t try to force his ideas or opinions on players; he simply tries to show them how to take care of their arms and the process of the game.

Witt was a dominating force in baseball during the mid 1980’s. He was bridge from the Tanana/Ryan duo to the Langston/Finley duo. He was the pitcher that quietly became an “ace” when Fernando-Mania was exploding. He was the anchor of a rotation that nearly took the Angels to the World Series in 1986. While growing up, Mike Witt was one of the first pitchers I remember wanting to see pitch in person as often as possible. When he took the mound you never knew if he’d strike out 15 or throw a no-hitter but you did know that he would pitch one heck of a game and give the Halos a chance to win. Although his prime was shorter than expected, I think we can all agree that Mike Witt played an important role in the history of the Angels’ franchise.
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