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Column: Gaylord Perry's secret sauce in San Diego was the ball in play

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 12/8/2022 Tom Krasovic
Gaylord Perry, pictured in 1978, during the first of his two years with the Padres combined with Randy Jones to achieve extraordinary home run suppression. At 40, he became the first of six MLB pitchers to win the Cy Young award in both leagues. (LENNOX MCLENDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS) © (LENNOX MCLENDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS) Gaylord Perry, pictured in 1978, during the first of his two years with the Padres combined with Randy Jones to achieve extraordinary home run suppression. At 40, he became the first of six MLB pitchers to win the Cy Young award in both leagues. (LENNOX MCLENDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Gaylord Perry threw a wide assortment of pitches for the 1978 Padres, but it’s the pitch he threw just once that year in San Diego Stadium — the gopher ball — that may best explain how Perry, at age 40, became the oldest Cy Young winner of the 20th century and led the franchise to its first winning season.

It's a quirk of Padres history that Perry gave up just one home run — known as a gopher ball — in his 18 home starts that year. Putting the bat to the ball off him wasn't overly difficult, as he averaged just five strikeouts per nine innings. With Perry's average home start spanning nearly eight innings, meaning he routinely made the dreaded third trip through an opponent's lineup, hitters got plenty of chances to clobber a pitch.

But only once did a hitter take Perry over San Diego Stadium’s 18-foot wall in ‘78. (If you guessed that hitter's identity — Phil Garner of the Pirates — you get a free copy of Perry’s book, “Me and the Spitter.”)

How rare is it for a starting pitcher to qualify for the season’s ERA title and permit one home run at home across more than 530 plate appearances?

Perry, who died earlier this month at home in South Carolina, at age 84, was the last National Leaguer to do it.

When the net is cast back to 1961, the start of the expansion era, it's learned that just three NL qualifiers allowed one home run or zero to visiting hitters in a season.

They were Steve Arlin with the 1971 Padres, Hall of Famer Juan Marichal with the 1969 Giants and Bob Veale with the 1965 Pirates.

But get this: Perry wasn’t even the best Padres pitcher at home run suppression in 1978.

Randy Jones led the big leagues by surrendering just six home runs in 253 innings (.2 per nine innings).

Perry placed second, allowing eight homers in 260 innings (.3 per nine innings).

This raises the question: how rare is it for qualifying starters on the same team to finish first and second in the majors in home run rate?

We’re glad we asked Baseball-Reference-com’s amazing Katie Sharp.

Excluding Negro League players and including only innings qualifiers, the answer is that in the Live Ball era, which began in 1920, only two other tandems have done it: Braves Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in the shortened 1995 season; and American Leaguers Bump Hadley and Sad Sam Jones of the Washington Senators back in 1930, seven years before Perry was born.

With Perry and Jones sponging up 500-plus innings and each logging ERAs below 3.00, the Padres finished with a 84-78 record to place fourth in the loaded West Division.

This wasn’t warm beer to the brown-and-mustard-attired Pads. They’d never topped 73 wins and had cracked 100 defeats in four years.

Whenever either Perry or Jones pitched, Padres fielders knew they'd be busy. Jones, who'd won the Cy Young Award in 1976 but was limited in '78 by a nerve ailment that weakened his slider, notched just 2.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

San Diego Stadium lent a hand by swallowing up fly balls or repelling them with its Great Wall of Mission Valley. “Hey,” Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton said when visiting, “this is a lovely airport to pitch in.”

A rookie shortstop named Ozzie Smith rewarded the “make them hit it” approach with his extraordinary range.

Pity the defender who erred behind Perry, a decidedly old-school competitor. The infamous Gaylord Death Stare accompanied by hands on hips was often the result. Nor was the 6-foot-4 North Carolinian beyond needling his teammates, even in media interviews.

“This club’s got a pretty good bench,” he told broadcaster Ted Leitner during a live pregame telecast. “Unfortunately,” he added, “it starts every day.”

In becoming the first of six pitchers to win a Cy Young Award in each league, Perry showed an appreciation for outs that anticipated some of MLB's analytics-driven tactics decades later.

He insisted that his corner infielders protect the line not only late in close contests but throughout the game. The underlying logic was the same that drove The Shift’s popularity. Opponents were unlikely to string together a few singles; so, given that they weren't homering off Perry, why not also deny them line-hugging doubles and triples?

Perry ended his special season with a monumental called third strike against the Dodgers. The strikeout moved him alongside Hall of Famers Walter Johnson (1923) and Bob Gibson (1974) as the only pitchers to collect 3,000 strikeouts.

Naturally, it happened in San Diego, where Perry went 11-2 with a 1.75 ERA across the 18 outings. For the season, he finished 21-6 with a 2.73 ERA.

Setting aside Perry's reputation for throwing doctored baseballs — a reputation he gleefully fueled in his book and by touching his cap and several body parts while on the mound — the righty's vast array of pitches and ability to adapt to hitters previewed what was to come from Padres aces Kevin Brown and Yu Darvish, in 1998 and this year.

“This guy," said Leitner, who still owns a rocking chair Perry gave him, "was a walking advertisement for baseball."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.


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