Over 200 baseball players from Puerto Rico have eventually reached Major League Baseball. The league has an influx of Puerto Rican talent currently, as 2.44% of players on MLB opening day rosters in 2021 were born in Puerto Rico. Despite a long legacy of great baseball players though, only one pitcher from the archipelago has managed to reach the 20-win threshold in a season: Ed Figueroa.
Ed Figueroa was born on October 14, 1948 in Ciales, Puerto Rico. Figueroa first played the game of baseball when he was 9, and by the time he turned 14, he was traveling to the US for baseball tournaments. In June 1966, Figueroa played for the Puerto Rican national team in the Central American Games, helping the team earn silver.
Later that summer, Figueroa was signed by the New York Mets at the age of 17. He had some success at the low minor league level, but off-the-field issues and arm injuries led to him being released two years later. Figueroa’s career then took a pivot. He signed up for the Marines and spent 10 months in Vietnam. After confronting death face-on, Figueroa returned to baseball. Upon returning, he initially wanted to play in the Mexican League, but Pedrín Zorrilla, a scout for the Giants, convinced him to stay in America. He signed with the Giants and slowly worked his way up to Triple-A, where he was traded to the California Angels in 1973. Figueroa finally got his chance at the majors in 1974, eight years after initially being signed by the Mets.
Figueroa’s first season with the Angels was unremarkable. He only started twelve games after starting in the bullpen and finished with a 2-8 record and a 93 ERA+.
In 1975, Figueroa had an exceptional season for a bad Angels team. He began throwing a sinker-slider combination that gave him the highest strikeout rate of his career. Overall, despite the last-place Angels finishing with a 72-89 record, Figueroa was still able to amass a 16-13 record. He threw for a 2.91 ERA over 244.2 innings, outperforming his teammate and future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
That offseason, Figueroa was part of a package to the Yankees in exchange for Bobby Bonds. At the time, this was a controversial move. Bonds was coming off of an all-star year, and Figueroa had still only had one year of success at the major league level, but, the move ended up paying off, as Figueroa would continue to dominate, helping the Yankees win championships in 1977 and 1978.
From 1975 to 1978, Figueroa earned 71 wins, including earning a 20-win season in 1978 en route to a World Series Championship. In this four-year span, Figueroa threw a combined 993.2 innings, averaging just over 248 innings a year. While there is good reason to ignore simple stats such as wins, Figueroa’s record accurately represents the pitcher he was. In all four years, he pitched to an ERA+ above 110 and placed top ten in AL Cy Young voting twice.
But, as impressive as Figueroa’s accomplishments were, he also serves as a reminder as to why pitchers in the modern game do not throw as many innings. His heavy workload along with an awkward delivery contributed to an arm injury in 1979. Figueroa was never the same pitcher again. While he managed to stay in the MLB through 1981, his signature sinker had lost velocity and he became ineffective. Ultimately, Figueroa finished with a career win count of 80, earning 1/4th of his total wins in one season.
Figueroa’s unique career gives him a lasting place in baseball history. His four-year run of excellence is unprecedented by today’s standards, but his fall from grace was just as fast as his rise to the top. His rapid decline after 1978 indicates how easily injuries can derail a career, as more recent pitchers such as Brandon Webb have discovered.
Given the direction that baseball is headed, it is possible that Figueroa does end up the only 20-game winner from Puerto Rico. In 2021, only one pitcher reached the 20-win mark. Jose Berrios is a potential candidate, as he previously hit the 200-inning mark before and pitches in front of an excellent Blue Jays offense. But, whether Berrios reaches that mark or not, Figueroa will always remain a Puerto Rican baseball legend.
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