Not many guys have the distinction of being a “good pitcher” for the Rockies in the early years. I’ve written here about plenty who are remembered more for the teeth-gritting that went on when they headed to the mound than for anything good they contributed. But Kevin Ritz represented something special: the possibility that a Rockies pitcher might have some success. Not a lot; he was no Ubaldo after all. But some.
Ritz began his career with the Tigers after being drafted by them in 1985. He spent the 1989-1992 seasons with them and wasn’t very good, posting an 11+ ERA in two of those four seasons. In both of those seasons he didn’t pitch more than 15 innings, which is the reason for those terrible numbers. Ritz was often injured and his shoulder required several surgeries even after his playing career was over. He has said that he doesn’t want his young sons, both baseball players themselves, to pitch because of the injury risk.
After being selected by the Rockies in the expansion draft, Ritz had to sit out the entire inaugural season. He finally made his debut with Colorado in May 1994. He managed to last the rest of the strike-shortened season, but his numbers didn’t improve very much: 73 2/3 innings in 15 starts, with an ERA of 5.62. Then, in 1995, things started looking up for Ritz. That’s when I started to notice him, anyway, and he wound up winning 11 games and posting a career-best ERA of 4.21. As the Rockies’ “ace,” he also started Game One of the National League Division Series against the Braves. He took the loss thanks to a poor showing by the bullpen and the offense, but he lasted 5 1/3 innings and allowing a pair of earned runs on homers. Less impressive was his Game 4 relief appearance, when he pitched the 5th and most of the 6th inning and allowed 4 earned runs.
Ritz really hit his stride in 1996, however, when he won 17 games and pitched 213 innings. The rest of his numbers that season don’t say much good: a league-leading 125 earned runs and a 1:1 walk/strikeout ratio. But those 17 wins stood as a Rockies’ franchise record until 2010 when Ubaldo Jimenez finally won 19. That’s not too shabby. Ritz struggled with giving up runs, but so did everyone else in the early years. What he represented was hope for the future, hope that a pitcher might one day not fail miserably in a Rockies uniform.
1997, however, was back to the same old for Ritz. He didn’t even make it to the All-Star break thanks to another arm injury, and in the first half he won just 6 games and allowed 70 earned runs. ’98 was no better; Ritz barely made it out of the gate before his injuries proved too great to overcome. He only put in 2 starts that season and retired at the end.
Ritz was not perfect, and he certainly won’t be remembered as the Rockies’ greatest pitcher. But again, that 17-win season stood out for many years, and Ritz’s efforts to come back time and again from injuries were commendable. When last located, he was living in Ohio with his family and mostly hunting, fishing, and hanging out with his kids. I wish him nothing less than that.