Baseball was a much different game in the 1970s. Every bullpen did not have several pitchers that could throw the ball 95 MPH. For example, Sparky Lyle won the 1977 Cy Young Award as the Yankees' closer and struck out 4.5 batters per nine innings. It was a game of managing contact as the average pitcher during those years would strikeout 4.8 to 5.0 batters per nine. Ed Figueroa was a starting pitcher during those years and his ability to rack up innings in which he could manage contact helped the Yankees to three straight World Series appearances from 1976 to 1978. Figueroa was a seventeen year old kid from Puerto Rico when the New York Mets signed him as an amateur free agent in 1966. He showed promise in the Mets' low minor league system. Within a year of that signing, he went 12-5 for the Winter Haven Mets with a 2.05 ERA. A year later, he hurt his arm and then lost a year in Vietnam serving his country. He returned from the service as a free agent since the Mets had released him.
The San Francisco Giants picked him up and he pitched well in that team's minor league system for three years and then was traded to the California Angels in 1973 for Bruce Christensen and Don Rose, a pair of players that would only see cups of coffee type appearances in the Majors.
The Angels were a terrible team in 1974 and 1975 so they had nothing to lose by bringing Ed Figueroa to the big leagues in 1974 and Figueroa made his Major League debut for that team in April of 1974. He would split that season between Triple-A and the Angels and would lose eight of his ten decisions for the big club despite a 3.67 ERA.
By 1975, he was ready for the rotation and for four years, was one of the biggest winners in baseball. First, he went 16-13 for the Angels in 1975 with a 2.91 ERA for a team that lost 89 games. After that season, the Angels felt that Figueroa would be a decent trade chip since they had a young kid named Frank Tanana ready to step into the rotation by 1976. So on December 11, 1975, the Angels traded Figueroa and Mickey Rivers to the Yankees for Bobby Bonds.
The trade was a great one for the Yankees who received roughly nine wins above replacement for both Rivers and Figueroa combined for the next three years while Bonds was roughly a five WAR player for the Angels when healthy.
And both Figueroa and Rivers would have three valuable years and three valuable years only for the Yankees during their glory run of 1976, 1977 and 1978.
Mike Mussina had a theory that a very good pitcher won half of his starts. If Mussina was correct, then Ed Figueroa was a very good pitcher for the Yankees from 1975 through 1978. As a rotation stalwart for the team, Figueroa made 101 starts in those three years and won 55 of them. His record during those seasons was 55-30 or a .647 winning percentage. His ERA over those three seasons was respectively, 3.02, 3.57 and 2.99 with 38 complete games and eight shutouts. He came in fourth in Cy Young Award voting in 1976 and seventh in 1978.
And yet, he never made an All Star team. Which was probably the correct call since he was not rated (at least by Fangraphs.com) in the top 25 in value among pitchers of that era. What Figueroa did have going for him was pitching for the Yankees during a run where they scored a lot of runs and had a great team, but he also had an uncanny ability to have batters limit their contact to places a fielder could catch it.
During that run starting in 1975 for the Angels, Figueroa put together this streak of BABIPs: .258, .263, .262 and .250. Some of that was his defense. According to Baseball-reference.com, the Yankees led the Majors in defensive efficiency every season during Figueroa's three good years with the team. But part of the equation is also taking advantage of that defense and letting it work for you. Figueroa did that very well.
Unfortunately, Ed Figueroa's success was limited to the regular season and he never performed well in the post season. He never won a post season game of any sort. His total tally in the post season was 0-4 in seven starts with a 8.77 ERA with a 1.705 WHIP. He was 0-2 in World Series games and was particularly bad in the 1978 World Series against the Dodgers where in two starts, he lasted a total of 6.2 innings and gave up three homers.
Ed Figueroa's four year run of success would end in 1979 when he was again beset with arm problems that limited him to just sixteen mediocre starts. Not fully recovered, he would start the 1980 season poorly and the Yankees waived him in late July. The Texas Rangers would pick him up but he was terrible for them as well for the rest of 1980 as he went 0-7 and the Rangers only won one of his eight starts there.
Figueroa would pitch twice for Billy Martin and the Oakland A's in 1981 and hurt his arm again. He would pitch five more times in the minors in 1982 and then was out of baseball.
Ed Figueroa was not a great pitcher. He was never going to blow you away. But for four seasons, he took the ball every four or five days and gave his team a chance to win. For three years, he was a vital cog in a great Yankees run from 1976 through 1978. Never an All Star and far from a Hall of Fame pitcher, Ed Figueroa was one of those stalwarts that help you get to the post season where anything can happen and the Yankees won two titles.
After his retirement, Figueroa returned to his native Puerto Rico and owns two restaurants there named, "Lupis."
Figueroa's top three Yankee starts by Game Score:
- June 21, 1976 - a three-hit, complete game shutout against the Indians.
- September 8, 1976 - a three-hit, complete game shutout of the Brewers.
- July 11, 1976 - a three-hit, complete game shutout of the White Sox.
His highest WPA start for the Yankees was an important one as the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 2-0 on September 14, 1977. Figueroa pitched a complete game shutout to help cement the Yankees' lead over that team.