Grave Story: Todd Frohwirth (1962-2017)

Here lies Todd Frohwirth, a relief pitcher whose submarine-style delivery made him one of the more recognizable relievers in baseball in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. He pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies (1987-90), Baltimore Orioles (1991-93), Boston Red Sox (1994) and California Angels (1996).

Frohwirth was born in Milwaukee, Wis. on September 28, 1962. By 1979, he was playing for Milwaukee’s Messmer High School baseball team as a light-hitting second baseman. Then one day, he saw on television the Pirates’ Kent Tekulve, an excellent reliever from the 1970s and ‘80s who threw with an uncommon submarine-style delivery. Meaning, instead of the typical overhand motion, he released his pitches underhanded. It’s not an easy delivery to master, but batters who are used to seeing one release point can get thrown off their game with a pitcher like Frohwirth delivering the ball from almost ground level.

“Next day I tried it, and they couldn’t hit it,” He told Philadelphia Enquirer columnist Frank Dolson in November, 1984, after he had been drafted by the Phillies. He was selected in the 13th round of the 1984 June Amateur Draft from Northwest Missouri State University. Only four players taken in that round ever made the major leagues, and only one of them – Jeff Brantley – had a longer career than Frohwirth.

Frohwirth reported to the Bend Phillies of the Northwest League, and he was put in the role of closer. He responded with 11 saves in 29 games, along with a 4-4 record and 1.63 ERA. For his entire 13-season career in professional baseball, Frohwirth would never start a single ballgame. Every one of his 726 appearances (284 in the majors, 442 in the minors) would come out of the bullpen.

The Phillies, to their credit, didn’t seem to mess with Frohwirth’s delivery and make him more of a conventional pitcher. His first instructional league pitching coach, Mike Willis, had never seen a submariner pitcher up close, but he did approve of the way Frohwirth was causing batters to break their bats and hit easy ground balls. He continued to mystify batters through his stay in the minors. He had 18 saves and a 2.20 ERA in 1985 with the A-ball Peninsula Pilots and racked up 22 saves in each of the following two seasons, advancing up to the AAA Maine Guides.

Frohwirth made his MLB debut on August 10, 1987 with 1-2/3 scoreless innings against the Cubs in relief of starter Kevin Gross. Gross, who had pitched into the 5th inning with a 4-2 lead, was ejected after being accused by the Cubs of scuffing the baseball. After a unexpected call to the mound, the first batter Frohwirth faced in the majors was Andre Dawson. He struck out the eventual 1987 MVP on three pitches, with the tying runs on base.

“It all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to really think about what was going on. I just had to get in there and get loose while in front of the most people I’ve ever played in front of,” he told the Inquirer of his odd debut. “And I didn’t have time to think it was Dawson. I just wanted to throw strikes and I threw him sinkers and sliders. And then I end up with a win in my first game, which right now makes me more excited than I’ve ever been in my life.”

In one of those odd coincidences that happens in baseball, the pitcher who relieved Frohwirth in the game was Kent Tekulve, the pitcher whose delivery he copied in the first place.

Frohwirth pitched in 10 games in his rookie season and didn’t allow a run in 11 innings. He walked 2 and struck out 9. Things didn’t go as well in 1988. For the first time in his career, Frohwirth struggled. In a couple stints in the majors, he was rocked, allowing 11 earned runs in 12 innings while walking and striking out 11 batters apiece. He ended up spending the majority of the season back in AAA.

Frohwirth improved considerably with the Phillies in 1989, appearing in 45 games. In 62-2/3 innings of work, he allowed 56 hits and 18 walks for a nice 1.181 WHIP while striking out 39 batters. Then he boomeranged back the following season. He appeared in 5 early-season games but retired just three batters while allowing 3 hits and 6 walks. To be fair, one of those appearances resulted in him entering a game, intentionally walking a pinch-hitter and leaving the game. He was demoted to AAA after a month on the big-league roster and was granted free agency at the end of the season. He was at least named the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Pitcher of the Year for picking up 21 saves, to go with 9 wins.

Topps 1992 card, #158 (author’s collection)

Frohwirth signed with the Baltimore Orioles and had the best seasons of his career with the team. He had a phenomenal 1.87 ERA in 1991, with a 7-3 record in 51 games and three saves. He struck out a career-high 77 batters and had a sub-1.00 WHIP for the only time in his career. He was almost as good in 1992, going 4-3 with 4 saves and a 2.46 ERA. He threw 106 innings as the team’s workhorse reliever. He got into a career-high 70 games in 1993, though his ERA rose to 3.83. Still, in three seasons with the O’s, he had a 17-13 record, 10 saves and threw nearly 300 innings.

Frohwirth had a rough Spring Training with the Orioles in 1994 but wasn’t concerned. “I think 300 innings the last three years means more than 10 or 15 [in Spring Training],” he told the Baltimore Sun. The Orioles didn’t see it that way, though, and the team released him days before the start of the season. He quickly landed with the Boston Red Sox and joined the big-league roster in May, but his pitching woes followed him. He picked up a save in his first game with the Sox but was pounded after that. He was thrown to the wolves in a game on May 20 against the Twins. With the team already down 6-0 in the 2nd inning, Frohwirth labored through 3 innings, allowing 9 earned runs, including 3 on a Kirby Puckett homer. A couple of those runs came around to score after he’d left the game, but his ERA ballooned to 12.46 and never recovered.

Looking at his stats, it seems like Frohwirth was the guy who was chosen whenever the Red Sox were getting blown out and needed someone to suck it up and work innings to save the bullpen. Whatever the case, he ended with an 0-3 record and 10.80 ERA in 22 games. He was released at the end of the season and spent 1995 pitching in the AAA for the Indians without ever getting to the majors. Frohwirth’s final MLB games came in 1996 with the Angels. He allowed 7 earned runs in 4 appearances and was released with an 11.12 ERA. He pitched in a handful of games for the Orioles’ AAA Rochester Red Wings before calling it quits at the age of 33.

For his MLB career, Frohwirth had a 20-19 record and 11 saves in 284 relief appearances. He struck out 259 batters and had a 1.343 WHIP. He also had a 2.76 ERA in parts of 11 seasons in the minor leagues, with 133 saves. It’s worth noting that after his 1992 season, when he topped the 100-inning mark as a reliever, his effectiveness dropped off sharply. His ERA shot up to 5.62 for the remainder of his career. Was it a case of overuse that shortened his career?

Frohwirth found a niche in coaching following his playing career. He was a pitching coach in 1999 for the Beloit Snappers, a Milwaukee Brewers A-ball team. He went on to become a high school coach for boys’ and girls’ basketball teams in Wisconsin. He stayed close to baseball as a scout for the Orioles and helped Orioles submarine pitcher Darren O’Day master the changeup and become an All-Star reliever.

Todd Frohwirth died on March 26, 2017 after a year-long battle with stomach cancer. He was 54 years old and is buried in Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha, Wis. His son Tyler, now 25, is a pitcher who has played in the Phillies and Marlins organizations. He’s a submarine pitcher, just like his dad.

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