1986: the year of Youmansby Chris Jaffe
September 19, 2011
A few months ago, I had the chance to look through Retrosheet’s game logs for the 1986 season, a quarter century ago. My goal was simple—to see what interesting random regular-season games I could find.
I had no great plan in doing this&mdash, I just thought it would be interesting: Go through team game logs and click on the games that looked like they might be interesting. Find the most noteworthy close games, the most back-and-forth slugfests, and the tensest pitchers duels.
In that last category, one name kept appearing time and time again: Floyd Youmans. A young Expos pitcher whom history has largely forgotten and one I frankly barely even remember despite being old enough to have many memories of mid-1980s baseball, Youmans had the uncanny knack for getting in the midst of really great pitchers’ duels in 1986.
There were 26 games in the NL that year that ended in 1-0 scores. Youmans started in four of them, more than any other pitcher that year. And even by the standards of 1-0 games, they weren’t just typical contests, either. At least three of the games were among the greatest pitchers duels of the entire season.
July 22, 1986: HOU 1, MON 0 (10).
Here’s a nice way to rank pitchers' duels. Take the Game Scores of the contest’s two starters, add them together, and use the result to rank the best face-offs of the year.
Do this, and it becomes very clear just how Youmans had the inexplicable habit of appearing in the best pitchers’ duels of the year.
The top showdown in the 1986 NL? It came on July 22, when Youmans faced off against Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros. Both guys brought their "A" game that day. Through three innings, they’d combined to allow exactly one baserunner, an Astro who reached due to a fielding error.
Youmans allowed a single to leadoff the bottom of the fourth, breaking up the double no-hitter, and Ryan surrendered a double in the fifth, but neither team could put together a rally. After nine innings, the game was still 0-0, with a grand total of three hits allowed—two singles off Youmans, and the double against Ryan.
The 10th inning was a bit rockier. The Astros yanked Ryan after he walked two of the inning’s first three batters, but Montreal still couldn’t land another hit. In the bottom of the 10th, someone finally made good contact, as Glenn Davis belted a Youmans offering over the fence for a walk-off home run.
Despite pitching nine shutout innings, Youmans had lost. His Game Score was 86 while Ryan, thanks to 14 strikeouts, posted a mark of 95 (the second-best mark by any NL starter on the year). Their combined Game Score of 181 easily topped the league for best pitchers’ duel of the year.
Sept. 7, 1986: SFG 1, MON 0.
Second place was way back with a combined Game Score of 169. That happened twice in the 1986 NL, and wouldn’t you know it, Youmans pitched in one of them. (If anything, given the year he had, it’s surprising Youmans didn’t pitch in both of them.)
Like the Ryan game, this is another Youmans lost, 1-0. This time it was at the hands of Mike Krukow and the San Francisco Giants. (In an impressive coincidence, Krukow also pitched in the league’s other game featuring a combined Game Score of 169, but Krukow lost the other one 1-0 to Don Carman and the Phillies).
On Sept. 7, 1986, Youmans and Krukow tangled in another game that featured not only minimal scoring, but also minimal hitting. In fact, for the second time all year, Youmans pitched in a game with exactly three hits in the first nine innings. This time, however, there would be no need for extra frames.
In the top of the first, Youmans plunked Robby Thompson, the game’s second batter. Thompson then stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch before scoring on a Mike Aldrete double.
At that point, it didn’t look like Youmans had his stuff. For that matter, Krukow didn’t look much better in the bottom of the first, as he walked three of the first four batters. But both men hunkered down. Boy, did they ever.
Aldrete’s double would be the only hit the Giants got all day. It was only one, yet still one too many because Krukow settled into a groove. After a second-inning single, he retired 19 consecutive batters. In the bottom of the ninth, things got a little tense when two walks and a stolen base put runners on the corners against Krukow with only one out, but he retired the last two batters of the game to preserve the win.
Sept. 2, 1986: MON 1, LAD 0
Anyhow, while both Krukow and Youmans pitched in two of the three best duels in the NL in 1986, Youmans has a definite edge. Not only was Youmans in the best duel of the year, but—as improbable as it sounds—he also saw action in the fourth-best pitchers’ duel of the season.
And bizarrely, that’s just what happened to Youmans, as he started against Bob Welch and the Dodgers on Sept. 2, 1986—yes, the start immediately preceding his game against Krukow.
This time, Youmans won. He earned the victory by tossing a two-hitter with only two walks. Welch gave up a few more hits, six on the day, but matched Youmans goose egg for goose egg. Entering the bottom of the ninth, the score was still Montreal 0, Los Angeles 0. That’s when Welch threw his fatal pitch—a gopher ball to veteran third baseman Vance Law for a walk-off home run.
Stop and think how unlikely this is. The same pitcher showing up in the best duel, in what’s tied for the second-best, and the next best. Sure, even if the guy is a great pitcher, he still has to rely on the other hurler dealing that day.
Here’s where it really gets weird. Though Youmans appeared in many of the greatest pitchers duels in 1986, he really wasn’t that great that season. By the numbers, he was alright but essentially mediocre. Not what you’d expect from the guy in all the great duels.
Pitching for a 78-83 Expos team, Youmans barely topped .500, with a 13-12 record. Well, maybe his teammates just didn’t hit for him. Not quite. Youmans’ ERA ranked 18th among the 33 men who qualified for the title. Are park factors to blame? Nah, by ERA+ Youmans was tied for 16th (with Welch as it turns out, and just behind Ryan). Youmans' main statistical achievement was leading the league in walks allowed, hardly a marquee accomplishment.
Weird, the Superman of pitching duels looked like Clark Kent. And it wasn’t just those three games, either.
On Sept. 27, 1986, in his next-to-last start of the season, Youmans found himself in another 1-0 game—his fourth of the year and third in the month. This one didn’t make the list of best duels because the rival starter left after five innings. Despite that, Youmans still lost. His consolation prize was a 15-strikeout performance, the most he had in any game.
Youmans even managed to find himself in one of the best pitchers duels that didn’t end in a 1-0 score. On June 13, Shane Rawley and the Phillies topped the Expos 2-1 despite Youmans allowing one run in eight innings with 11 strikeouts. Neither team scored until after the seventh-inning stretch, and Philadelphia tallied the winning run against Montreal’s bullpen.
Youmans’ Game Score of 77 was more than Rawley’s 72, but that ultimately didn’t mean anything. Yet it was one of only 18 games in the NL that year where both starters posted a Game Score of 72 or higher, and still only the fourth-best duel Youmans had that season.
The riddle of Youmans
So how do you explain all this? How come Clark Kent had the power of Superman?
Well, this is one of those cases where the stats on the page obscures as much as it illuminates. For while Youmans had middle-of-the-pack numbers, he also exhibited exceptional talent.
The Mets drafted him in the second round of the 1982 draft. Incredibly, the Mets first-round pick that round had been a high school teammate of Youmans, fellow prodigy pitcher Dwight Gooden. Though not as supremely talented as Gooden, Youmans made nice progress in the minors. By age 20, he was fanning a batter per inning in Double-A.
He was a highly-regarded prospect, and the Mets had plenty of other impressive young pitchers, which helped make Youmans a vital piece of one of the more memorable trades of the 1980s. Along with three other players, Youmans went to the Expos in exchange for future Hall of Famer Gary Carter.
Clearly, this trade worked out better for the Mets. After all, they got one of the great catchers. Montreal mostly got prospects, who by and large didn’t pan out as hoped.
In 1985, Youmans made his big league debut, and while his control was a big problem—49 walks in 77 innings—he also posted a 2.45 ERA. Simply put, the man had talent.
Then came 1986. When he was on, Youmans showed that he was for real. His problem was that he wasn’t always on.
Early in 1986, he was off. He was really off. He didn’t get out of the fourth inning until his fourth start of the season, and through 11 appearances he looked like the worst pitcher in baseball. On June 3, after the Giants torched him for six runs (five earned) in six innings, Youmans was at rock bottom. His line to that point: 56.1 IP, 51 H, 40 R, 37 ER, 37 BB, 45 K, and a 5.91 ERA. He had yet to last more than seven innings in a game, which back then was pretty bad.
Then Youmans flipped the switched and turned it on. On June 8, he tossed a complete-game shutout one-hitter. His following start was the duel with Rawley. Youmans wouldn’t pitch that brilliantly in every start, but he frequently was great, and he rarely was bad.
In 21 consecutive starts ending with his final 1-0 game, Youmans fanned 147 batters in 153.2 innings while allowing an incredible 86 hits and sporting a 2.40 ERA. Yeah, that’s mighty nice. Only seven pitchers in the entire league that year had an ERA under 3.00, and here was Youmans closer to 2.00 for four months.
He was over his head—86 hits in 153 innings is unsustainable unless you’re fanning every other batter—but clearly Youmans had game.
Unfortunately for Youmans, the real harbinger of his future wasn’t that glorious stretch of four months, but his final start, where he got bombed for eight runs.
The next season was a bitter experience. Youmans got off to another miserable start in 1987, and though he gradually improved, he ended up on the DL. That was a real taste of the future.
He came back in July and had the greatest month of his life, tossing three shutouts. One was a 1-0 revenge win over Ryan, in which Youmans allowed only one hit, an eighth-inning single by Kevin Bass. But he went back on the DL in August and again in September.
That offseason, Youmans admitted an even more serious problem, cocaine addiction. The rest of his career was marred by cocaine problems and arm injuries. The parallels to his high school teammate Gooden were uncanny. At every step of the way, Youmans was a poor man’s Gooden. He never had the promise, the peak or the career of Gooden, but he still had an impressive peak of his own.
And that peak came 1986 when, despite some middling numbers on the page, if you needed a man for one day only, Youmans was among the best.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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