An interview with Larry Dierker

Here’s another interview from the SABR conference in Houston. I approached longtime Astros ace, manager and broadcaster Larry Dierker after hearing him speak at a luncheon today. We spoke at length about a range of topics including his early success, arm troubles and his thoughts on the rash of Tommy John surgeries in Major League Baseball in recent years.

Me: The first thing that jumped out when I looked at your record was that you won 20 games with a 2.33 ERA in 1969, and I know that was the year the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches. How did you compensate that year for the mound being lower and do so well?

Dierker: Well, I think what helped me the most is I didn’t even notice.

Oh. Seriously? You don’t notice when the mound’s lower?

Seriously, I don’t. What I noticed, when I’m on any mound, is whether it feels comfortable or not. But my arm position was around three-quarters, and I think the higher, steeper mound is really the mound that gives a tall, straight overhand pitcher like Jim Palmer a better advantage. Randy Johnson, when he was with us, the Phillies for some reason or another– I know it wasn’t legal– they had a high, steep mound just like they used to have in Dodger Stadium, and that was the only game that he didn’t pitch well for us. He was complaining about the mound from the first inning on. But he was kind of low three-quarters with his arm position, and I think he preferred a little bit more gentle slope.

In Wrigley Field, I always thought that the mound was kind of flat, but I pitched pretty well there. I didn’t really realize why it seemed flat until I was managing. When I was managing, I’d be up in the front of the dugout, and I noticed I couldn’t see second base. I had to climb up the stairs to see where second base was. I couldn’t really tell where our infielders were playing in relation to second base because I couldn’t see the bag. What I realized was, it was built in 1916, and they crowned the whole field for drainage. So, if you were standing on the mound, the mound was naturally higher, even if it was flat, than home plate was because the whole field sloped off toward the sideline.

What you notice, the thing that I noticed probably the most in terms of the mound is that in San Francisco, at Candlestick Park, they had a rubberized surface for a warning track. When you warmed up there they had a regular mound with dirt, but home plate was painted with white paint. It wasn’t an actual home plate. The catcher would set up behind home plate, and I felt that the home plate was off-center from where the rubber was. I thought the catcher was sitting too far off to the left. I didn’t know if they did it on purpose, but I said, ‘I’ve got to get this straightened out before I go into the game, because home plate’s not where it’s supposed to be out here.’

Did you always have that kind of cerebral approach to the game? I’ve heard stories of Ted Williams noticing the first baseline being six inches off.

No, probably not. I mean, in a way, I think we all have to use whatever kind of intellectual capacity we have to our advantage. But a lot of times, I felt like people that tried to be too smart were just outsmarting themselves, because there’s a lot of it that’s instinctive, and there’s a lot of it that you can’t control no matter what your thoughts are doing. Probably more than anything, I tried to stay loose and not concentrate so hard that I would tighten up. For me, it wasn’t as much of a mental thing, although, I mean if you’re pitching, you remember facing a guy before. You remember something that happened or a similar hitter a month before. What one guy remembers, maybe you remember more than another guy. So, I mean, you use your mind, but sometimes I think guys would get too far in that direction.

What do you think was the secret to your success early on in your career?

I think of two things. One was growing up in a supportive family where they were always telling me I was smart and always telling me I was talented, always telling me I could do anything I wanted to do and just building up my confidence. Then, getting there when I was 18 and watching the other pitchers, I knew I threw harder than they did. I could throw strikes. In high school, I didn’t have a slider, but they taught me that the first week I was in Rookie League. As soon as I had a slider, it was just off to the races. I could pitch anywhere once I had that.

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You had a great career as a young pitcher, but then I noticed right about 30, your career ended. What happened exactly?

Back then, they didn’t have an MRI. I hurt my elbow in 1971. I was off to my best start. I might have started the All Star game that year, I was chosen for the game. My elbow had been bothering me in the last start before the All Star game. It was a night game at Candlestick, and it was really hurting, but we got a bunch of runs early, and I was just determined I was going to get my five innings in. By the time I did that, I couldn’t lift my arm the next day. So I went to Detroit but I couldn’t pitch in the game. I was disabled for a few weeks and tried to pitch and couldn’t do it and then was disabled again and pitched a couple times and couldn’t do it. By the end of July, it was all over for the year. I think I went to the All Star game 10 or 11 and two, and I ended up 12-6.

The next year– I think it would’ve been Tommy John, it was kind of an ulnar nerve problem– the next year, about halfway through, my shoulder started bothering me. I got a lot of relief from cortisone shots. It seemed like every time I got a shot, I’d go out and pitch a complete game or a shutout or a real good game. I kind of fell in love with when I had pain, gimme a shot. I didn’t want to miss my start.

So it was sort of a slow decline from the time I was about 26 until 30 when I just couldn’t do it anymore. By that time… I couldn’t throw very hard. I lost any depth on my breaking ball, I didn’t have very good control. The only thing I had was whatever was here. (Editor’s note: I think Dierker pointed to his brain.) I still managed to pitch a few games, including a no-hitter with limited raw stuff.

Interesting. What’s it like transitioning from being a power pitcher to being more of a junkball pitcher? Does that just require a completely different approach?

Well, it does. I think back then, they didn’t try to protect you for one thing. I would’ve never pitched so many innings so young if I was pitching in this era. The first year, they had a 100-pitch limit on me when I was 18. The veteran pitchers were telling me, ‘Don’t let them make you into a seven-inning pitcher’ like that was sacrilege, it was against the pitcher’s code or something. Well, a seven inning pitcher’s just fine right now. I’d have been pitching 100 innings all throughout my career, I probably would’ve pitched another five years.

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What do you make of this rash of Tommy John surgeries that’s been going on in baseball the last couple of years?

I don’t understand anything about the arm trouble that so many pitchers have, whether it’s just chaos theory where it just happened that way. I mean, during my career, there were probably 20-25 starting pitchers that made the Hall of Fame. If you look at the time since my career, you’ve got Maddux and Glavine, Roger should be in there, Nolan. There’s a handful, but probably no more than eight pitchers from 1980 on that are going in the Hall of Fame, maybe some relief pitchers, but [no more than eight] starting pitchers. Back then, it seemed like every time I was pitching, it was Carlton or it was Niekro or it was Marichal or it was Koufax or Drysdale, it was Seaver. You were matched up against these guys all the time, and yet we were pitching 250 innings or more, and I probably was the first one to break down. Most of those guys pitched four or five thousand innings.

These guys today are never going to make it that far, and yet, they don’t take on the same workload as we did. They have all these rotator cuff exercises, all this stuff they do in the offseason, and all we did was throw. I don’t understand it. Honestly, I really can’t understand it, unless– and I don’t think this is the case– it’s possible with some of them that they get enamored with the radar gun, and they’re overthrowing. They know they’re going to take ’em out after 100 pitches anyway so they’re not saving anything for when they get in trouble. They’re just going to blow it out from the first inning on. Maybe that’s it.