A Conversation With Former St. Louis Cardinals Southpaw John Tudor

John Tudor quietly had an outstanding career. Pitching for four teams from 1979-1990, he finessed his way to a 3.12 ERA over 1,797 innings. A crafty lefty who broke in with the Boston Red Sox, he had his best seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1985, Tudor threw 10 shutouts on his way to 21 wins and a second-place showing in that year’s Cy Young balloting. In five seasons with St. Louis, his ERA was a sparkling 2.52.

Tudor talked about his career, and gave his thoughts on won-lost records (he finished 117-72), at a Red Sox alumni gathering at Fenway Park a handful of years ago.


David Laurila: By and large you were what’s known as “a crafty lefty.” I’m guessing you approached pitching as more of an art than a science?

John Tudor: “I’d say I look at pitching as an art. An acquired art. If you consider the thinking aspect of pitching a science, then there’s probably a little bit of both. Let me put it from an old guy’s perspective: I think it was more of an art in the years that I played than it is now. Now it’s more power. Guys are judged by how hard they throw almost more than their ability to get people out.”

Laurila: Do today’s pitcher really throw that much harder?

Tudor: “According to the radar guns they do. I haven’t been in a batter’s box for a long time, so I don’t know for sure, but I have a hard time rationalizing 104 mph when I’ve stood in there and seen 94-95. That was from some of the harder throwers. I think the guns are juiced a little bit.

“I do know that players today are bigger, stronger, and faster. Hitters are more disciplined. The strike zone has shrunk. It’s a more difficult game for pitchers compared to when I was playing.”

Laurila: How hard did you throw?

Tudor: “I came up throwing in the low 90s; 92-93. I was probably down to 80-81 when I finished, because I had some arm issues. Over time, I had to become more of a ‘pitcher.’ When I came up, I was more of a thrower. Early on, my command was nowhere near what it was over the last several years of my career.”

Laurila: When did you first hurt your arm?

Tudor: “I had arm issues in the minor leagues a little bit, but that was mostly just soreness. I had shoulder problems throughout, but nothing serious. My first major issue was when I had Tommy John after the 1988 season. My first surgery overall [shoulder] was probably between the ’86 and ’87 seasons.”

Laurila: Did you learn to change speeds on your fastball?

Tudor: “I never changed speeds on a particular pitch. I hear, and I’ve heard for a million years, about the [batting practice] fastball. I never threw a BP fastball in my life; not intentionally. Some guys will throw one of those when they’re behind in the count, but for me, I just threw a changeup.”

Laurila: You were fastball, curveball, changeup. Correct?

Tudor: “Yes. That all I threw. I threw fastballs and changeups to righties, and fastballs and curveball to lefties. For both sides, it was two pitches to each side of the plate. And I had pretty good command of those pitches. You learn to pitch, and you learn to make adjustments. I think that’s another difference between now and then. A lot of these guys haven’t shown me that they can make adjustments.”

Laurila: Would it be fair to say you were a left-handed Bob Tewksbury?

Tudor: “Tewksbury had a big overhand curveball. I think Tewks also threw three pitches to each side of the plate. But he was a command guy like I was. I’m not sure how hard he threw when he was drafted, but I played with him in St. Louis when he came up with the Cardinals and he was probably 86-88. Somewhere in that range.”

Laurila: When would you say you made the transition from thrower to pitcher?

Tudor: “I started learning to ‘pitch’ my last year in Boston [1983], but it was after I came over to the National League that I kind of turned that corner. I had the opportunity to play with three really good pitchers in Pittsburgh —Rick Rhoden, Larry McWilliams, and John Candelaria — and I learned a lot watching them. That’s when I really started to figure things out.

“When I got to St. Louis [1985], we were such a great defensive team that it was ‘shame on you’ if you didn’t throw the ball over the plate and let your players play. That’s what I tried to do.”

Laurila: Strikeouts weren’t really your thing.

Tudor: “I was a strikeout guy to a certain point — I’d get maybe five or six a game — but yes, I was always considered a contact guy. Strikeouts would come here and there, but the ball would get put in play most of the time. Especially toward the end of my career. Again, I relied on my defense.”

Laurila: You started out 1-7 the year [1985] you finished second to Dwight Gooden in Cy Young voting. With better fortune during that stretch you could have finished the season with more than 21 wins.

Tudor: “I don’t know. I had a couple of games I maybe could have won, but that’s the nature of the beast. I wouldn’t say I was pitching poorly during that stretch, but I wasn’t pitching really well either. It wasn’t as though I was pitching great and losing. I was doing just enough to get beat.”

Laurila: Do you feel pitchers have much control over their wins and losses?

Tudor: “Oh, yeah. Of course they do. And it’s different in the National League, too. In the American League, you could go out and give up four, five runs and still have a chance to get a win. In the National League you didn’t get that option. You’d get pinch-hit for in the fourth of fifth inning if you were down by four, five runs. But if you pitch well, you’re going to end up with wins more often than not.”

Laurila: In one of your final seasons [1988] you had 10 wins, but a great ERA [2.32]. You could easily have had 16 or 18 wins with decent run support.

Tudor: “Yes, I don’t know what my ERA was, but I think I was second or third in the league that year. So there are games where you pitch in hard luck. The St. Louis teams I played on struggled to score runs at times. I remember once having a stretch of three straight starts where I pitched 27 innings, gave up two runs, and didn’t get a win in any of them. But there are other games you win that maybe you shouldn’t have. It tends to even out in the end.”

Laurila: What are your thoughts on pitchers without high win totals getting the Cy Young award?

Tudor: “Well, you don’t see many guys getting one without 20 wins. At least 18”

Laurila: Félix Hernández only had 13 the year he won his. He did lead the league in ERA, and he may have led in innings pitched, as well.

Tudor: “I remember that. I think my thought was that the other guy should have won it. I do understand the logic. But at the same time, the bottom line is wins. And a lot of that is, ‘How many of those games is his team winning?’ If they’re not winning a good number of them, how is he the Cy Young? I’m old school that way. It’s the wins that count.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Great interview. I’ve always been fascinated by guys like Tudor who ended their careers in excellent fashion – 12-4 with a 2.40 ERA for a terrible Cardinals team…amazing way to bow out – I can only imagine how much discomfort he was in to not return after that stellar performance. Similar to Lou Whitaker…love it when guys are comfortable enough in their own skin to call it quits when there are more dollars and numbers to chase.