November 24, 1986: Todd Worrell is named NL Rookie of the Year

On July 18, 1985, the course of Todd Worrell’s career changed forever.

Cardinals director of player development Lee Thomas was in the stands watching Worrell pitch for Triple-A Louisville against the Iowa Cubs. The 6-foot-5 right-hander was “something of a mystery to baseball men,” as the Cardinals’ 1985 media guide put it. In his second season of pro baseball, he jumped from Class A to Triple-A. By midseason, however, he had been demoted to Double-A. After his record fell to 3-10 in 1984, he was demoted again, this time to Class A.[1]

Worrell had leapt back to Triple-A by July 1985, when Thomas came to see the former first-round pick who was just 5-6 with a 4.35 ERA.[2] Despite Worrell’s struggles, teams around the league had expressed interest in him. The Giants had inquired about including Worrell in the trade that brought Jack Clark to St. Louis, and the Indians expressed interest in Worrell as part of a package that would have sent Bert Blyleven to St. Louis.[3]

“We sure wanted to try him as a short man before he did anything,” Thomas said. “That would have been a pretty hard thing to live down if we had let Todd Worrell go.”[4]

With scout Hal Smith monitoring the radar gun that July evening, Worrell’s fastball hit 94 mph in the first inning.

“In the second inning, he was throwing 92 and 93,” Thomas recalled. “In the third inning, it was 91. By the fifth inning, he was down to 85.”[5]

That dip in velocity was going to make it tough for the Cardinals’ 1982 first-round draft pick to reach the majors as a starter. After conferring with Louisville manager Jim Fregosi, Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill, and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, the decision was clear: Worrell was headed to the bullpen. [6]

“When he went from a starter to a reliever, he got the attitude of going right at them,” Thomas said. “He became an offensive pitcher instead of a defensive pitcher. All of a sudden, he took the tiger by the tail. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have made it as a starter, but he wouldn’t be what he is. We all felt if he was ever going to make it in the big leagues, it would have to be as a short reliever.”[7]

“It’s been a real relief – not to have a pun on words,” Worrell said. “I think it’s really relaxed me a lot. I found something that’s really working for me.”[8]

In 17 minor-league appearances out of the bullpen, Worrell went 3-0 with 11 saves, including a string of 16 scoreless innings in which he struck out 22 batters and allowed just seven hits.

Todd Worrell, Louisville Redbirds

“As soon as I got out there, it was almost like a little light went on in my head,” Worrell said. “By the time I got through the first month, there was no doubt in my mind or Jim Fregosi’s mind or the Cardinals’ minds that that was what would get me to the big leagues.”[9]

Just two months later, the Cardinals promoted Worrell to St. Louis. In 21 2/3 innings, he went 3-0 with a 2.91 ERA and five saves. In Game 6 of the NLCS, he earned the win when Jack Clark hit a game-winning, three-run home run off Tom Niedenfuer.

Worrell continued to play a key role in the postseason. In Game 1 of the World Series, he threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings to earn the save, and in Game 5 he struck out six batters over two innings. He also was on the mound in Game 6, when Don Denkinger’s erroneous call played a key role in a 2-1 Royals victory.

In 1986, Worrell began his first full season as a relief pitcher, and injuries to Ken Dayley and Jeff Lahti gave him the opportunity to grab the closer’s role.

“I didn’t know how it was going to work out, a full year as a short reliever,” he said. “I was curious to see how my arm would hold up. I was very pleased to do that for a full year. I think I had some of my best stuff in September.”[10]

Heading into June, Worrell had a 1.34 ERA, but had collected just six saves and was just 3-3 on the season. That month, however, he saved seven games and was off to the races. One year after he had been converted to a reliever, Worrell was named the National League Pitcher of the Month for July 1986 after saving eight games with a 1.17 ERA.[11]

Among his team-record 74 appearances, Worrell saved eight wins of Forsch’s 14 wins, seven of John Tudor’s 13, seven of Greg Mathews’ 11 wins, and five of Danny Cox’s 12 wins.[12]

On November 24, 1986, Worrell was named the National League Rookie of the Year after leading the majors with 36 saves. Along the way, he broke the rookie saves record by 14 and became the first rookie to win NL Fireman of the Year Award.[13] He was just the third relief pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year Award, joining Butch Metzger and Steve Howe.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11/25/1986

“His stats tell the story,” starting pitcher Bob Forsch said. “Todd was the most important piece of our pitching staff and the most dominant rookie in the league.”[14]

“A rookie winning Fireman of the Year may never happen again,” catcher Mike LaValliere said.[15]

Worrell received 23 of 24 votes for Rookie of the Year. Bus Saidt of the Trenton Times was the only holdout, voting instead for the New York Mets’ Kevin Mitchell.[16] Giants second baseman Robby Thompson received 14 second-place votes to finish with 46 points, while Mitchell placed third with 22 points.

“I felt my performance was strong enough this year that I felt comfortable I would win,” Worrell said, “but I had no idea I would sweep all the votes but one. That’s kind of nice.”[17]

With the award, Worrell earned a $10,000 bonus on top of his $70,000 salary and $20,000 in incentives.[18]

“I don’t want this to be a one-chance thing,” he said. “I want to be consistent and show I can do the short relief job year in and year out. I had a year not a lot of guys are going to experience, but my main concern is not to let it stop here. I want people to know I’m going to be able to do the job like Lee Smith. There have been too many athletes who come in and have one year and you never hear about them again.”[19]

Worrell didn’t have to worry about that. Over the next three years, he saved 85 more games for the Cardinals, earning an all-star nod in 1988.

Todd Worrell

In September 1989, Worrell was seeking his 127th career save, a milestone that would have tied him with Bruce Sutter for the most in Cardinals history, when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament. He didn’t pitch again until 1992.

When he finally returned, Worrell picked up three more saves to claim the Cardinals save record. After the season, he signed a free-agent deal with the Dodgers, placing him closer to his hometown of Arcadia, California. Though he battled injuries early in his Dodgers career, he led the league with 44 saves in 1996 and placed fifth in the Cy Young Award voting.

He retired after the 1997 season with 256 career saves and a 3.09 ERA.

“I probably could have got to the big leagues as a starter, but I don’t think I would have been at my best,” Worrell said. “I definitely think that, being a reliever, people see me at my best. That’s the way I want to have people see me.”[20]


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[1] Tom Wheatley, “Mystery Solved,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1985.

[2] Tom Wheatley, “Mystery Solved,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1985.

[3] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[4] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[5] Tom Wheatley, “Mystery Solved,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1985.

[6] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[7] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[8] Tom Wheatley, “Mystery Solved,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1985.

[9] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[10] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[11] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[12] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[13] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[14] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[15] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[16] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[17] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[18] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[19] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

[20] Rick Hummel, “No. 1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1986.

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