John Fritz admits that, for the most part, he doesn’t pay attention to the statistics racked up in the minor leagues from year to year. Sure, curiosity will get the best of him once in a while and he may take a glance but, overall, he remains happily unaware that what he accomplished in the Midwest League nearly 30 years ago remains a significant accomplishment in minor league lore.
Fritz was the last pitcher to win 20 games in a minor-league season, going 20-4 for the Quad Cities River Bandits in 1992. There have been several pitchers who have come close to eliminating Fritz as the answer to a trivia question – Rich Hunter won 19 in games in 1995 and Zack Littell picked up 19 wins in 2017 while eight others have hit the 18-win mark.
The idea, though, that a pitcher will stay in the minor leagues long enough to win 20 in a season seems to become more and more unlikely with each passing year. Expanded rosters, reliance on pitch counts, shorter outings by starters and the increased frequency of injuries suffered by pitchers are just some of the reasons that should leave Fritz as the last man standing for a bit longer. Not that he’s paying close attention.
“I don’t check to see,” said Fritz, 52, who lives in Pennsylvania and works as a financial planner. “I did see on Google there was a guy who won 19 games a couple of years ago. But a lot more guys are getting hurt today than when I played. It seems like almost everyone is having Tommy John surgery. We had guys get Tommy John but there are a lot of injuries today with kids. They are pitching too many games when they are young. As a result, they don’t get many starts now and they move up quicker.
“And, pitch counts had just started to be a thing [in 1992] but nobody really went by it. No one paid attention. The year I won 20, I lost 1-0 in a 10-inning game. No one would let someone do that these days. Everything is five and dime now. You pitch five innings and they pull them. It’s hard to get a decision if you’re only pitching four or five innings.”
Earning decisions wasn’t a problem for Fritz in 1992. It would be the high point of a baseball career that would come to an end three years later.
“I think it’s a feat that won’t be accomplished again because of injuries, pitch counts, expansion and all the five and dime rules they have now.”
FROM BEAVER FALLS TO BEND, OREGON
Eastern Pennsylvania is predominantly football country, particularly in the town of Beaver Falls, where Joe Namath grew up and starred on the Beaver Falls High football, basketball and baseball teams. While Fritz played football – he was an offensive and defensive lineman – he says he “wasn’t blessed with speed” and it became apparent that his ticket to bigger and better things was on the baseball diamond.
He had a strong junior season, posting a 1.01 ERA while striking out 63 and walking 11. Fritz also won a playoff game against South Side Beaver, tossing a one-hit shutout. His success continued as a senior as scouts and college coaches began to take notice of the 6-foot-1 right-hander. He was ultimately selected by the Angels in the 27th round of the 1987 First-Year Player Draft. Fritz is one of eight players from Beaver Falls High to get drafted/signed. Of that group, only infielder Jack Damaska reached Majors, appearing in five games for the Cardinals in 1963.
“I was going to go to the University of Indiana; I had a scholarship there and to the University of Georgia,” Fritz said. “I got drafted and I told the scout that I was going to college. He said before I went to school, he was going to follow me all summer so I played American Legion ball and was in the All-Star game. My velocity went up a few ticks, too.
“I told the scout I was going to college and he said we’ll pay for college, go in the off-season and we’ll pay for it. I thought if I could do both what 18-year-old kid doesn’t want to play pro ball. Now if you’re not getting life-changing money, you go to college but I didn’t know any better then. I ended up at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and I did that for eight falls after the season ended and got my degree. I skipped 1990 because of Instructional league and played winter ball in Australia.”
The Angels sent Fritz to Bend [Ore.] of the Rookie Level Northwest League in 1988 but not before he had a chance to take part in his first professional spring training. It proved to be an eye-opening experience.
John Fritz compiled a 20-4 record for the Quad Cities River Bandits in 1992, the last minor league pitcher to put up 20 wins in a season.
“I’m at spring training and I’m pitching right next to Mike Erb, who was their second-round pick,” Fritz said. “He had gas. His fastball was on a clothesline and mine had an arch. I pitched in a few spring training games and did well. [Angels pitching coach] Marcel Lachemann pulled me aside and talked with me.
“It was a big adjustment for me even though honestly, it was a lot of fun. I looked at it as a challenge. It was great for a kid to go from Beaver Falls High to going against guys from UCLA and Arizona State. I was 18 years old and playing for the Angels. What a blast.”
That blast continued in Bend, where Fritz posted a 3.65 ERA in 14 games [seven starts]. He fanned 30 in 44 1/3 innings while walking 23 and allowing 46 hits. Fritz admits that he was overthrowing a bit once he reached Bend as he experienced a case of “keeping up with the Joneses”.
“When I first started in Oregon, all the guys were throwing a lot harder than I was,” he said. “I tried to throw for the gun a little and I got a little wild. As I moved along in my career I stayed in myself more and just pitched and was able to move up the ladder fast. But these guys were in the 90s and I’m throwing in the high 80s and it was a little intimidating.”
Still, Fritz was having a good time despite making a monthly salary of $700 [gross]. He found some roommates on the team with whom he could live and once he figured out a budget life became much easier.
The Angels pushed Fritz back to Arizona Rookie League in 1989 as he continued to suffer from some of the same problems that plagued him in Oregon. Overthrowing and trying to impress with speed rather than finesse left him with a 4-5 record with a 4.13 ERA in 85 innings over 14 starts. His strikeouts rose a tick while his walks per nine innings dropped. He moved on to Palm Springs of the Class-A California League in 1990 and went 8-7 with a 4.19 ERA in 131 innings over 31 games [21 starts]. He picked up his first career complete game but was still plagued by control issues.
“Those first two years I was throwing for velocity,” Fritz said. “But I started to settle down when I went to Palm Springs. My control was still off a little but the next year they sent me to the Miami Miracle [of the Class-A Florida State League] and that’s when I started to pitch again. I did really well in Miami [2.38 ERA in 22 1/3 innings] and they sent me back to Quad Cities to finish the season there. By then, my velocity had gone up naturally.
“I was moving between the rotation and the bullpen and by the time I got back to Quad Cities they already had an established rotation. So they put me in the pen. The last game of the year that I pitched, I struck out nine or 10 in four innings. I just started mowing them down and naturally success builds confidence.”
That confidence would lead to a very special 1992.
John's son Austin ``A-Train`` Fritz showing off a release similar to his Dad's. (Photo courtesy of John Fritz)
LOOK MA, I’M A 20-GAME WINNER
The idea of the minor leagues not seeing a 20-game winner for nearly three decades seemed almost inconceivable as 1992 unfolded. Blaise Ilsley had won 20 in 1986 while Randy Marshall and Denny Neagle had each won 20 in 1990. Jose Martinez then followed that up with 20 victories in 1991.
The Midwest League had a long, storied history of 20-gamer winners heading into 1992. There were 18 previous pitchers who reached that milestone, including Hall-of-Famer Juan Marichal, who went 21-8 for Michigan City as a 20-year-old in 1958. While Marichal had better numbers and a greater workload – a 1.87 ERA in 245 innings to Fritz’s 3.03 ERA in 172 1/3 innings – what the Pennsylvania native accomplished was no less impressive.
“We had a great team that year and that was part of the whole 20-win season,” Fritz said. “We had [future Major Leaguers] Mark Sweeney and Orlando Palmeiro [as well as Chris Pritchett and Chris Turner]. We had some great guys and we scored a lot of runs. I had some great run support so that plays into it, too. It’s nice to have a good team around you. It was a great nucleus of guys.”
Fritz won his first two starts that season and was closing in on double digits in victories as the calendar turned to summer. He was 6-0 in both June and July and was beginning to get noticed, earning Midwest League Player of the Month [July] as well as the Angels organizational player of the month.
“Once I started to get those accolades, I realized there was a possibility I’d have the chance to win 20 games,” said Fritz, who went 12-0 with a 1.73 ERA in 14 appearances down the stretch.
Fritz’s 19th and 20th victories both came as a reliever. Number 19 came on Aug. 29 against Clinton and the 20th came on Sept. 1 at Springfield. The River Bandits [91-46] had the best record in the Midwest League that season and were heavy favorites but were swept by Springfield in the first round. Fritz started and lost one game in that sereis, the aforementioned 10-inning affair. He finished with 24 decisions in 27 games [25 starts].
1992 Fleer Excel Minor League Baseball #142 - John Fritz, Quad City River Bandits card.
“I know it’s a great feat,” he said. “We had a really good team. It was one of the reasons I wasn’t moved up. They wanted to keep the nucleus of the team moving up together. I look back on it and it was a wonderful experience. I think it’s a feat that won’t be accomplished again because of injuries, pitch counts, expansion and all the five and dime rules they have now.”
Fritz moved up to Midland of the Double-A Texas League to begin 1993 and simply continued to win. He went 9-5 with a 3.61 ERA in 20 starts before getting bumped up to Vancouver of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Billy Bavasi, who was the Angels’ minor league director at the time, appreciated Fritz’s no frills, workman like approach.
“He’s an overachieving guy that scouts continually fail to give high grades to because he doesn’t have overpowering stuff,” Bavasi told The Orange County Register in August of 1993. “But he knows how to pitch. He’s smart enough not to try and throw 90 miles per hour. He’s been phenomenal. He did it in Midland and now he’s doing it in Vancouver.”
Fritz appeared in eight games [seven starts] for Vancouver, going 3-1 with a 4.07 ERA. He would capitalize on his success that fall by traveling to play for Santurce during the Caribbean Winter League playoffs. Max Oliveras, who was his manager in Vancouver, was also managing Santurce.
“Max asked me to come when I was done with school,” Fritz said. “He had Juan Gonzalez and Ruben Sierra on that team. Talk about intimidating. Gonzalez walks by you in the clubhouse and he’s 10-feet tall. They were stacked. Junior Ortiz, who was the backup catcher with the Pirates when I was in junior high school, was the catcher.
“I got to pitch against San Juan and I won. I look down at the catcher and I can’t believe that I am pitching to Junior Ortiz. I used to go to Pirates games and watch him. That was a defining moment. I got a call from Anaheim and they said they were going to bring me to big-league camp and I went there in ’94 for three or four weeks. I threw some BP and pitched in a B game but didn’t get much of a chance.”
Fritz, however, began the season in Vancouver and went 3-2 with a 4.97 ERA in 10 games [nine starts] before getting sent back to Midland following a pair of bad outings. He said when he was told of the move it “kind of deflated my tires” and it showed. He closed out the year by going 2-6 with a 5.58 ERA in 13 Texas League games [11 starts].
That season also marked the end of his time with the Angels. Fritz got selected by the Dodgers in the Rule 5 Draft and was then traded to Milwaukee in Spring Training. He spent all of 1995 with New Orleans of the Triple-A American Association, going 6-3 with a 3.97 ERA in 41 games [six starts]. He signed with Colorado and was released the following year in spring training.
“I got released for the first time out of spring training in 1996 and I didn’t see a long-term contract or myself getting a chance,” Fritz said. “I went to Taiwan and played for a few months but then I came home and told my parents I was shutting it down. Making a Triple-A roster is tough. I could have kept playing but by that time I had had enough. I was 27 years old. I looked at my age and said I have a college degree.
“I had a great run but now I have to build a career. I didn’t want to be 32 or 33 and starting a new career. I started with American Express Financial as an advisor and I have been doing that for 25 years. I have a really successful practice and it was the right choice. It was great while it lasted.”
Fritz finished with a 57-38 record and 3.88 ERA in 217 games [125 starts]. He never strayed too far from the game, though. He stays involved by coaching his 12-year-old son’s travel baseball team. Austin Fritz is also a pitcher and has enjoyed the benefits of having a former professional pitcher as a dad. He calls his son “The A-Train” and touts his three-pitch repertoire.
“He’s a little stallion on the mound,” Fritz said. “Watching him have success and being able to coach him, that is the best feeling ever watching your kids have success.”
Fritz has no regrets about walking away when he did and is amused by the fact that he is still the answer to a trivia question. At least for one more year.
“I don’t regret that I did it when I did it,” he said. “But I’m not going to look back.”