There is no role in baseball whose value is more difficult to assess than that of a top relief pitcher, a closer, and this is especially true when deciding which relief aces are worthy of entry into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to assessing the value of a closer as opposed to a starting pitcher when it comes to the decision about whether to cast a vote to give them a plaque in Cooperstown.
The first school of thought is that closers are inherently overrated. Throughout the history of the game (then and now), most relief pitchers are failed starters, pitchers whose stuff was not good enough or diverse enough to navigate through a lineup multiple times.
The second school of thought is that closers are invaluable. If you give up a few runs in the 3rd inning, your team can recover. If you give up a few runs in a close game in the 9th inning, the outcome of the game is irrevocably changed.
Of course, both schools of thought are correct in parts. The marketplace values elite starting pitchers far more than elite relievers but the bullpen stoppers are viewed with more respect than ever. Currently, there are four starting pitchers with contracts in excess of $200 million while the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman just set a new closer contract record with a “mere” $86 million in his deal. Until the 2016-17 off-season, the reliever record was Jonathan Papelbon’s $50 million contract.
Once the baseball calendar moves to October, the second school takes precedence: having a top closer is a virtual requirement in order to navigate the three rounds of post-season baseball. But the history of relief pitching in general and of the World Series in particular goes far beyond bullpen specialists.
It was October 29, 2014, a cool night in Kansas City for Game 7 of the World Series. On the mound to start the game for the visiting San Francisco Giants was 39-year old Tim Hudson, a veteran who had recorded 214 wins in over 3,000 innings in his long career. But Hudson had struggled in his previous two starts and so, with this being the last game of the season, he had a short leash. After a scoreless first, Hudson gave up two runs in the second frame and was replaced by Jeremy Affeldt, a tall lefthander who stood at 6 feet four inches. Affeldt ended the 2nd-inning threat and then tossed two scoreless frames to follow.
In the bottom of the 5th inning, with the Giants clinging to a 3-2 lead, manager Bruce Bochy summoned another tall lefty, his post-season ace, 6 foot 5 inch gunslinger Madison Bumgarner. Just three days earlier, the 25-year old Mad-Bum had thrown 117 pitches in a 5-0 Game 5 shutout. There had been some inklings that Bochy might go to his horse for a couple of innings in the 7th game but what transpired is something nobody foresaw. After giving up a leadoff single, Bumgarner retired the next three batters.
As the game progressed, Bumgarner pitched a perfect 6th, then a perfect 7th, and another perfect inning in the 8th. Surely now it was time for Bochy to summon his closer, Santiago Casilla. In 9 post-season appearances, Casilla had not given up a single run while yielding just two hits with three walks in 7 1/3 innings. Bumgarner had already thrown 52 pitches on top of the 117 thrown three days earlier. But this was no ordinary pitcher and no ordinary October. Mad-Bum came out for the 9th inning with the Giants still holding that 3-2 lead. He retired Eric Hosmer with a swinging strikeout and then Billy Butler on a foul pop to first base. With one out to get, he yielded his first hit since the fifth, a hard-hit single by Alex Gordon which was misplayed by center fielder Gregor Blanco, allowing Gordon to get to third.
With the season on the line, Royals catcher Salvador Perez worked the count to 2-2 before hitting a lazy foul pop fly towards third. Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval caught the ball and then fell to the ground in glee as the team wrapped up their third World Series title in a five year span.
Madison Bumgarner had tossed five scoreless innings to record the longest save in World Series history and he became an instant legend. In today’s specialized game of baseball, a starting pitcher coming out of the pen to pitch five innings on two days of rest is simply unheard of. With his two World Series wins and Game 7 save, not to mention a brilliant overall post-season (he went 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA in 52.2 innings), Mad-Bum earned Sports Illustrated‘s coveted “Sportsman of the Year” honor a couple of months later.
90 years and 19 days prior to Bumgarner’s epic Series save, long before pitch count monitoring and television analysis, another legendary starting pitcher came out of the bullpen in a series-deciding Game 7. On October 10, 1924, on a warm afternoon, the New York Giants and Washington Senators clashed in the nation’s capitol for Game 7 of the World Series. The most famous pitcher (by far) in this series was the Senators’ ace right-handed starter, Walter Johnson. Standing at 6’1″ and weighing 200 pounds, the Big Train was a big man for his era and he was a 36-year-old legend when he finally got a chance to pitch in the Fall Classic.
Johnson, after four lackluster campaigns (by his standards), had a vintage season in ’24, going 23-7 with a 2.72 ERA, a “comeback” campaign that earned him the American League MVP. But the World Series had not gone so well for the Big Train. In Game 1, Johnson battled the Giants’ Art Nehf to a 2-2 tie through 11 innings. But in the 12th, Johnson loaded the bases with a single and two walks, the Giants scored twice and handed the Big Train a 4-2 loss. According to his bio of SABR (the Society of American Baseball Research), Johnson threw 165 pitches in that 12-inning loss. Pitching on three days rest for Game 5, Johnson had an exceedingly poor (for him) effort, giving up six runs (four earned) on 13 hits in an 8 inning complete game, a 6-2 loss.
In Game 7, it looked like the Giants would win the Series; the Senators were trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the 8th inning before player-manager Bucky Harris tied the game with a two-run single. With the score tied and the possibility of extra innings looming, Harris summoned his ace to take over for Firpo Marberry (a pioneer of sorts in his own right, as we’ll see). The Big Train, in the big moment, pitching on one day of rest, tossed four scoreless innings and was the winning pitcher for the Senators’ first and only World Series title when Muddy Ruel scored on an Earl McNeely ground ball that hit a pebble and bounced over the head of Giants third baseman Fred Lindstrom.
Walter Johnson, one of the greatest starting pitchers in the history of the game, a man who finished his career with 417 wins and a 2.17 ERA and would become one of the five original Hall of Famers in 1936, had his post-season moment of fame and it came as a relief pitcher.
While Bumgarner’s Game 7 heroics in 2014 were extraordinary, what Johnson did in 1924 wasn’t much more than business as usual for the game’s early history. It is simply what was expected of starting pitchers of that era. In that same thrilling Game 7, Marberry (the Game 3 starter) and George Mogridge (the Game 4 starter) had already come out of the ‘pen in relief for Washington. On the Giants side, Nehf (who started Games 1 and 6), Hugh McQuillan (the Game 3 starter) and Jack Bentley (who had started Games 2 and 5) all pitched in Game 7 as relief pitchers.
In today’s game, teams will occasionally dip into the ranks of their starting rotation in post-season games. In elimination games in particular, the term “Johnny Wholestaff” means that all hands are on deck to help.
But the “all hands on deck” concept, where starters are used as relievers, in something we only see today in the post-season, and we don’t see it often. In Johnson’s day, coming out of the bullpen was just another day at the office. In his 21-year career in regular season games, Big Train Johnson was used in relief 136 times.
When it came to baseball in general but October baseball in particular, for most of the first half of the 20th century, it was the sport’s best starting pitchers who doubled as closers.
This series on the history of relief pitching is split into seven parts:
- Part One: 1871-1945 (when starting pitchers were often used in relief)
- Part Two: 1946-1968 (the emergence of bullpen specialists)
- Part Three: 1969-1987 (the birth of the save)
- Part Four: 1988-2016 (the era of the one-inning closer)
- Part Five: The Famous Firemen of October
- Part Six: Comparing Closers Across Eras (comparing multi-inning stoppers with one-inning closers)
- Part Seven: Conclusions (the relief pitchers that belong in the Hall of Fame)
Before we get started, a quick note about the statistic known as the “Save.” This is a stat that all baseball fans know about today but it did not exist until the 1960’s when it was coined by Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Sun-Times. Although the statistic never existed for nearly the first 100 years of recorded baseball, the indispensable website Baseball Reference has applied saves retroactively to all of its player profiles.
I’ll get into this more in Parts Six and Seven but it should be acknowledged that the save is a highly imperfect measurement for the overall value of a relief pitcher. Members of the sabermetric community are working on refining the ultimate relief pitcher metrics but, for the time being, to go through the history of the game, we’ll use the save. Please note: the retroactively applied saves applied by Baseball Reference are based on the earliest version of the rule (from 1969).
The 1969 rule stated that a relief pitcher earned a save when he entered the game with his team in the lead and held the lead for the remainder of the game, provided that he was not credited with the victory. The current rule, which requires that the pitcher enter with a lead of three runs or less or the tying run in the on deck circle, did not apply in 1969. In essence, saves were easier to attain with the old rule. But you can’t compare relievers from the 1960’s to relievers from the 1990’s based on save totals anyway. Since the 1969 rule is applied to all pitchers prior to that year, you can fairly compare pitchers who pitched at the same time in history.
1871-1920: When Starting Pitchers Ruled the Earth
Prior to the 1920’s, there’s not much to talk about when it comes to relief pitchers. For most of early part of baseball history, the significant majority of relief appearances were logged by starting pitchers on the off days in between starts.
The most saves in a season in the 19th century was 9, authored by Al Spalding, a Hall of Famer as one of baseball’s great pioneers. Spalding was the founder of A.G. Spalding & Brothers, one of the leading historical brands in sports equipment and a much more lucrative career in the 19th century than being a mere pitcher. He wasn’t too shabby, however, when he was slinging the horsehide. The year in which he saved those 9 games (1875), he also started 62. Overall he went 54-5 with a 1.59 ERA that year.
The most saves in the 19th century were recorded by Hall of Famer Kid Nichols, who recorded a whopping total of 16 from 1890-1899. During those same years, he started 441 games, pitching an average of 400 innings per season. He finished his career with 361 wins.
In the 1870’s and 1880’s, virtually all games (92%) were pitched by just one man. The 1890’s started to see a few more instances of starting pitchers getting relieved but still, 85% of all starts ended as complete games. Pitching started to get harder in 1893, the year that the pitching mound was pushed back to 60 feet, 6 inches.
In the early part of the 20th century, however, another rules change was implemented which worked decidedly to the pitcher’s advantage. Prior to 1901, a foul ball was actually not a strike. The National League changed this rule in 1901 with the American League following suit in 1903. In the 1890’s, the strikeout rate throughout the sport was 6.8%. In the 1900’s, with the new rule, the rate spiked to 9.7%, an increase of nearly 50%.
As all baseball historians know, the first two decades of the 20th century are known as the Deadball Era, as you’ll see by the collective ERA by all pitchers during those first two decades.
In the first chart below, you can see how rare it was for any pitcher to pile up lots of appearances as a relief specialist in the early years of organized baseball.
- % G as CG = the percentage of all games started that ended in a complete game
- % G as RP = the percentage of total games pitched that were in relief (for the decade)
- GR 50+ = the number of pitchers with at least 50 games pitched in relief for the decade
- GR 100+ = the number of pitchers with at least 100 games pitched in relief for the decade
- All ERA = the collective ERA for all pitchers on all teams for the decade
Note: the percentage of games that ended in a complete game and percentage of games in which somebody appeared as a relief pitcher do not add up to 100 because more than one relief pitcher can pitch in a game (although you’ll notice that they often come close to adding up to 100% because using a third pitcher or more was exceedingly rare until the 1910’s).
Let this sink for a moment: during each of the decades in the 19th century, just one pitcher logged at least 50 appearances as a relief pitcher over a 10-year period. That one pitcher’s name is Denton True Young. You might know him better as Cy Young. From 1890-1899, the first 10 years of his career, the Cyclone pitched 53 times in relief, while starting 411 other contests. getting credit for 267 wins (of his ultimate career total 511) along the way. Compare this to today’s game: in 2016, there were 139 different relief pitchers who came out of the bullpen 50 or more times. That’s just one season, not a decade.
You can see here that it was the decade of the 1910’s in which we started to see a significant spike in the use of relief pitchers.
Overall, if you examine the first 50 years of baseball history (through 1920), the list of the top 12 “relief” pitchers (in terms of saves retroactively earned) contains seven Hall of Famers who were primarily starting pitchers during their careers:
- GR = Games in Relief
- ERA+ = adjusted ERA (where 100 is average) (see “Glossary“)
Let’s take a deeper look at some of the members of this list:
Three Finger Brown:
Moredecai “Three Finger” Brown (who pitched from 1903-1916) is credited by Baseball Reference with 49 games saved in his career. The mark represents the most ever in baseball through the 1925 season. In total, Brown came out of the bullpen 149 times (compared to 332 starts), which means that 31% of his overall appearances were in relief, an unusually large number (the largest, actually) for a starting pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown from the era.
Brown was a part of the Chicago Cubs dynasty of the late 1900’s. Those Cubs, long before their 108-year championship drought ended in 2016, put together the greatest five-year run the sport has ever seen. The Cubs won 116 games in 1906 (the most ever in a 154-game season), then 107, 99, 104 and 104 in the seasons that followed. The Cubs were a mainstay in the recently formed World Series, making it in each of those five seasons except for 1909, when their 104 wins were six shy of the 110-win Pittsburgh Pirates.
From his profile on SABR (the Society of American Baseball Research):
“Mordecai’s most familiar nickname was Three Finger, although he actually had four and a half fingers on his pitching hand. Because of childhood curiosity, Mordecai lost most of his right index finger in a piece of farming equipment. Not long after, he fell while chasing a rabbit and broke his other fingers. The result was a bent middle finger, a paralyzed little finger, and a stump where the index finger used to be.“
(Incidentally, a big thanks to SABR for a great deal of the biographical information in this piece).
Brown’s deformed hand was actually an asset as a pitcher because it allowed him throw pitches with bewildering movement that nobody had ever seen before. The legendary Ty Cobb said Brown’s lively pitch was the “most devastating” he’d ever tried to hit. Cobb went 1 for 8 against Brown in the ’07 and ’08 World Series, both of which the Cubs won over the Detroit Tigers.
During the Cubs’ five-year run of brilliance, Brown won 127 games (2nd only to Christy Mathewson), led all pitchers in saves and posted an MLB-best 1.42 ERA. As amazing as that sounds, it was the Deadball Era. The other members of the Cubs brilliant starting quartet (Jack Pfiester, Orvall Overall and El Reulbach) all posted ERAs of 2.01 or better during those five years. Still, even adjusting for the era in which they pitched, Three Finger’s 182 ERA+ (see Glossary) is a brilliant five-year number and was best in the majors for those years.
The Cubs lost the 1906 World Series to the crosstown White Sox, owing in part to arguably the worst start of Brown’s career (giving up 7 runs in 1.1 innings), a Game 6 loss on one day’s rest after a complete game shutout. The Cubs won the ’07 and ’08 Series (against Detroit) before falling to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1910.
The game that Three Finger Brown considered his best ever was an appearance in relief. In 1908, that game was a one-game playoff at the Polo Grounds against the New York Giants to determine the N.L. champion. Brown had pitched either as a starter or reliever in 11 of the previous 14 games so manager Frank Chance decided to go with Pfiester. However, after the Giants scored a run off Pfiester in the first inning. Mordecai came out of the pen, pushing through the overflow crowd, and went on to win his 29th game of the season.
Notable number: in 1909 and 1910, Brown led the N.L. in both complete games and saves.
In his career, Three Finger won 239 games (losing 130) with a 2.06 ERA. For a pitcher from the first half of the 20th century, the win total is rather low and Brown was never able to top 28% in seven tries on the writers’ ballot for the Hall of Fame, his last year on the ballot being 1946. In 1949, however, a year after his death, Brown was tabbed by the Old-Timers Committee and inducted into the Hall. This was fairly common in the late 1940’s as the Hall’s “Permanent Committee” decided (in 1946) that the BBWAA members weren’t knowledgeable enough about players from the early part of the century to properly assess them and thus limited the writers’ ballot to players from the previous 25 years.
While Three Finger Brown was plying his trade on Chicago’s North side, Ed Walsh was spinning magic on the South side for the White Sox. Big Ed, standing 6 feet one inch tall, was the greatest workhorse of the early 20th century. Four times he led the major leagues in innings pitched, twice with over 400.
Walsh threw a fastball, a curve and a spitball, the pitch turned him into a star. Big Ed emerged as an ace in 1906, going 17-13 with a 1.88 ERA and a league-leading 10 shutouts. He was the starter and winner of both Games 3 and 5 of the White Sox 5-game series win against the crosstown Cubs.
His 1908 pitching record looks like something from the 19th century:
- 1908: 464 innings pitched, 40 wins (he was the last in history to win 40), 15 losses, a 1.42 ERA, 66 games pitched, 49 games started, 42 complete games, 17 games in relief, 6 saves.
In 1908, his 17 games pitched in relief was the 3rd most in the major leagues, this for a man who started 5 more games than anyone else. Overall, he pitched 73.1 more innings than any other pitcher in the majors.
Overall, from 1907-1912, Walsh’s brilliant peak, he averaged 375 innings per season, logging 2,248 in total, 331.1 more than the man in second place, Christy Mathewson.
For Walsh, the workload turned out to be too much, even for the Deadball era. Walsh was only able to throw 190.2 more innings in his career, spread out over 5 seasons.
Overall, Walsh finished with just 195 wins, a really low total for a Hall of Famer of the era but his career ERA of 1.82 remains the lowest of all-time. Perspective is needed of course, because ERAs in general were microscopic during the Deadball Era. Still, even when adjusting for the years in which he pitched, Walsh’s ERA+ of 145 is 4th best in history for any starting pitcher with at least 2,000 innings thrown (behind Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, and Walter Johnson).
All told, from the inception of baseball through his final year in 1917, only 7 pitchers came out of the bullpen more than Ed Walsh, this despite a ferocious workload as a starter and a relatively short career.
Regarding his plaque in Cooperstown, Walsh is more of a consensus Hall of Famer than Three Finger was. In his last year on the BBWAA ballot (1946), Big Ed earned 57% of the vote. He was inducted into the Hall that same year by the Old-Timers Committee.
When his career ended in 1917, Charles Albert “Chief” Bender had thrown more games in relief than all but five major league pitchers, one of whom was Mordecai Brown. Like Brown and Walsh, he has a plaque in Cooperstown with a relatively low career win total (212) and in fairness, he’s a borderline Hall of Famer.
Bender is included in this piece essentially because of one prolific season out of the bullpen. In 1913, he started 21 games, going 15-5 and also came out of the pen 27 times, earning 6 wins and 13 retroactively-applied saves. Overall he was credited with 21 wins that season, one of only two 20-win seasons in his career, a relatively low number for a pitcher during those years.
Bender spent the majority of his career with the Philadelphia Athletics’ dynasty that won three World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913. He won five out seven starts in those title runs, tossing complete games in all.
Bender’s 212 career wins and career ERA of 2.45 look good today but, in the Deadball era, those numbers are rather pedestrian. Among the 30 pitchers who tossed at least 2,000 innings during the years Bender toed the rubber (1903-1917), his 2.45 ERA is just only 14th out out 30, behind four non-Hall of Famers. Still, it’s not unreasonable that his key role in procuring three titles in Philadelphia represent a significant enough part of his Cooperstown resume to merit a plaque. He was inducted to the Hall in 1953 by the Veterans’ Committee and, sadly, passed away at 70 years of age, just a few weeks before his induction ceremony.
Early Relief Specialists
The next section of this piece, which covers the careers of some of the early relief specialists in baseball history, is a bit of a deviation from the central theme of “Cooperstown Cred.” Because relief pitching was not a big part of the game yet, the men who worked primarily as relief pitchers were not Hall of Fame caliber. Yet, as I was researching this piece, I found their stories interesting. Hopefully you will too.
In those first 40 years of recorded baseball history (from 1871-1910), according to Baseball Reference, there were 304 pitchers who threw at least 500 innings. Just one of those 304 hurlers had more relief appearances than starts, the New York Giants’ Doc Crandall. In the early years (and this was mostly true until the 1920’s), relief appearances were often made by starting pitchers in between their starts. Prior to 1924, only five times in history did a pitcher save 10 or more games. Three of those seasons were authored by Hall of Fame pitchers (Bender, Brown and Walsh) who all won more than 20 games in those seasons as well.
Anyway, that one pitcher who had more than 50% of his outings out of the bullpen between 1871 and 1910, the first that could even remotely be described as a relief specialist, was Crandall, who finished 128 games for the New York Giants from 1908-1913. From his bio on SABR, James Otis Crandall was nicknamed “Doc” because, according to writer Damon Runyon, he was “the Giants ambulance corps. He is first aid to the injured. He is the physician of the pitching emergency.. He is without equal as an extinguisher of batting rallies and run riots.” His role was something sportswriters had not seen before.
Still, Crandall wasn’t exclusively a reliever; in his 10 year career, he started 134 games, coming out of the bullpen 168 times. Crandall appeared in three World Series with the Giants (1911-1913, all losses for New York). In 1911, with the Giants facing elimination, Crandall earned the win with 3 innings of scoreless ball in the team’s Game 5 victory against the Philadelphia Athletics, a 10-inning 4-3 win, an uncommon moment of October glory for a relief pitcher.
The next reliever of significance was Dave Danforth, who was dubbed by Bill James as one of the “first true relief pitchers.” Dauntless Dave, pitching for the Chicago White Sox in 1917, made 9 starts and 41 relief appearances, winning 11 games and saving 9 others, with a 2.65 ERA (not as impressive as it sounds since it was still the Deadball era).
Danforth had a good campaign but it was still very rare for managers to trust relief pitchers in critical spots. The White Sox won the World Series in 1917 but Danforth pitched just one inning (in a mop-up role) in 6 games, while the top two starters (Hall of Famer Red Faber and Eddie Cicotte) pitched 50 out of the team’s 52 innings in the title run.
Using Bill James’ Similarity Scores (see the Glossary for an explanation), the two pitchers you might know (from the 1950’s and beyond) who had careers most statistically similar to Danforth’s were Art Ditmar (a reliever for the 1958 World Series champion Yankees) and journeyman lefty Bill Krueger (who pitched for 8 teams in 13 years from 1983-95).
1921-1945: Part-time Pioneers of the Role of Bullpen Ace
The Roaring 20’s featured Prohibition, a rising stock market, and rising offense in Major League Baseball, featuring a slugger unlike any who had ever existed, Babe Ruth. The transition from the Deadball Era to the offensively-charged 20’s and 30’s was due to a variety of factors. Spitballs were banned and, following the death of Ray Chapman (he was hit in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays), an effort was made to put clean balls into play. Prior to 1921, balls would be used until they were practically brown. Clean, white balls are simply easier for hitters to see. In 1925, according to Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract, a new cushioned cork center was introduced to the balls, allowing offense to blossom even further.
Perhaps coincidentally but almost certainly not, relief pitchers were used more in the 1920’s as the offensive game took off.
If you want to define a relief pitching “specialist” as someone who logged more than 100 games in relief over an entire decade, the number of those types of specialists went up from 6 during the 1910’s to 37 in the 1920’s.
As you can see as well, the 1920’s represented the first decade where less than half of all games started resulted in Complete Games. And thus, the 1920’s and 1930’s featured some relief pitchers who were used in prominent roles, both in the regular season and in the World Series.
In 1924, a 25-year old right-hander, Frederick “Firpo” Marberry emerged as the top relief specialist in the game. Pitching for the Washington Senators, he started 14 games but came out of the pen 36 times, finishing 31 contests while saving 15. Marberry would be used almost exclusively as a reliever in 1925 and 1926, starting just 5 times while relieving 114. He led the majors in the not-yet-invented statistic of saves in all three seasons, peaking with 22 saves in ’26.
Marberry was also the first reliever to be used in multiple high-leverage situations in the World Series (in 1924, against the New York Giants). He saved Game 2, started and lost Game 3 and then saved Game 4. Then, in Game 7, he came into a 1-0 game in the top of the 6th with the tying run on third base. He would yield the tying run on a sacrifice fly and then two more runs thanks to consecutive errors on the infield. Marberry was bailed out when player-manager Bucky Harris tied the game in the 8th and the Senators would go on to win the game (and the Championship) in 12 innings. As we’ve already seen, it was Hall of Famer Walter Johnson pitching the last four innings and taking the traditional role of the ace starting pitcher being used in relief.
Starting in 1929, Marberry was used more often as a starting pitcher and he finished his career with 148 wins, 88 losses, 99 saves and a 3.63 ERA. Using the Similarity Scores, the two pitchers you might know (from the 1970’s and 1980’s) who had careers most statistically similar to Marberry were Ron Reed and Bob Stanley.
In 1927, another notable relief pitcher emerged, a 30-year old rookie named Wilcy “Cy” Moore. Pitching in the South Atlantic League, Moore’s pitching arm was broken by a batted ball in 1925. When he returned, he found it too painful to throw overhand so he started throwing sidearm, which gave birth to a world-class sinker. As a rookie in the Bronx with the famed Murderers’ Row 1927 team, he went 19-7 with a league-leading 2.28 ERA (which is an impressive number in 1920’s baseball, yielding an adjusted ERA+ of 171 (see the Glossary for more on ERA+). Moore also led the league with 13 saves. 38 of his 50 appearances were from the bullpen.
In Game 1 of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Moore came into the game with one out in the bottom of the 8th with a 2-run lead and runners on first and second. He allowed one run to score but got five outs for the save. Moore had clearly impressed manager Miller Huggins, who gave him the ball to start Game 4. Moore responded with a complete game 4-3 victory, with only one earned run allowed, in the title clincher. Because he played an indispensable role in two of the Yankees four wins, it’s arguable that the 30-year old rookie was the MVP of that ’27 series on a team that featured 6 future Hall of Famers, including Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Moore was really a one-hit wonder; he never had another season quite like 1927. He finished his career after the 1933 season with 51 wins and 49 saves. He was unique at the time for having logged 88% of his career pitching appearances from the bullpen.
In today’s game, the heavy majority of relief pitchers in any given season never make a single start. But in the first 75 years of baseball history, there was no such thing as an exclusive relief pitcher. The closest was Ace Adams, who pitched for 6 years for the New York Giants (1941-1946). Adams is unique in that he started just 7 games in his major league career, compared to 295 relief appearances. That’s the fewest starts for any pitcher with at least 500 innings pitched in the bigs. Adams led the majors in saves in ’44 and ’45.
If you use a relief “specialist” standard of a minimum of 500 innings pitched and at least 80% of all games pitched as a relief pitcher, there are just nine pitchers who match that criteria in the first 75 years of the game (all of them from 1927 through 1945). Adams and Moore are among those nine. The other seven names are Joe Heving, Marc Brown, Jumbo Brown, Mike Ryba, Ira Hutchinson, Chad Kimsey and Johnny Murphy
Johnny Murphy, a curve ball specialist who pitched all but his final season with the New York Yankees, is easily the most notable relief pitcher of the first half of the 20th century. After starting 20 of the 40 games in which he appeared in his rookie season (1934), he only started 20 more times in his career while logging 353 additional relief appearances. Murphy was a product of Fordham University, just a few miles from Yankee Stadium. Fordham Johnny made three All-Star teams (from 1937-1939) and was an integral part of the Bronx Bombers’ historic championship run.
From 1936-1943, Murphy appeared in the World Series six times with the Yankees (they won every time in which he appeared) and he posted a 1.10 ERA over 16.1 innings during those Fall Classics, saving 4 games and winning 2.
Murphy finished his career with the Boston Red Sox in 1947 and retired with 107 career saves which, at the time, was the most in MLB history, not that anybody knew what a save was back then. Again, using Similarity Scores, statistically speaking the most comparable pitchers from the last 50 years are Pedro Borbon and Aurelio Lopez.
Doc Crandall, Dave Danforth, Firpo Marberry, Wilcy Moore, and Johnny Murphy were among the most significant pioneers of the role of bullpen specialist. But, as we’ve noted throughout, it was more often than not starting pitchers who served out of the pen when they weren’t starting.
In the first 75 years of recorded baseball (1871-1945), of the mere 48 pitchers who Baseball Reference retroactively credits with saving 30 or more games in their careers, 11 of them were Hall of Famers as starters.
SV Rk = rank on the all-time saves list through 1945
GS = Games Started
GR = Games in Relief
% GR = % of career games pitched in Relief
Some notes about some of the pitchers on this list and the highlights of their outings as relief pitchers:
Lefty Grove, pitching for the 1929 Philadelphia Athletics, did not start any of the five World Series games against the Chicago Cubs. Apparently, manager Connie Mack was worried about using the lefty (Grove) against the Cubs’ lineup that was almost all right-handed. Instead, Grove was used in relief and played a crucial role in the wins from both Game 2 and Game 4 in the Athletics’ five-game championship run. Also, in 1930, the day after tossing a complete game, Grove came out of the ‘pen for two scoreless innings and the save in the pivotal Game 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals (the Athletics would wrap it up in Game 6).
Grove was one of the truly great pitchers of the 1920’s and ’30’s, leading his league in ERA nine times while winning two World Series titles with the Athletics.
It’s fair to say that Waite Hoyt is in the Hall of Fame for reasons other than his 53 career saves, 2nd most among those inducted Cooperstown on the basis of being a starting pitcher. It’s also fair to say that the primary reason that Hoyt has a plaque in the Hall is because he was the pitcher with the most wins for the Murderers’ Row New York Yankees of 1927-28, who swept the World Series both years. The 1927 and 1928 seasons were the only years that the pitcher known as Schoolboy was able to win 20 games. Hall of Fame voters give Mike Mussina grief for only winning 20 games once, during the steroid and bullpen-fueled era, but I digress.
Hoyt was primarily a relief pitcher for the final six years of his career because he was no longer effective as a starting pitcher. From 1929-1932, after his two 20-win seasons, Hoyt went 40-42 with a 4.59 ERA. So, from 1933-1938, 66% of his appearances were out of the bullpen.
In his career, Hoyt was 237-182 with a 3.59 ERA (adjusted ERA+ was 112). What makes him a Hall of Famer is that he won three rings with the Yankees, posting a 1.83 ERA in 83.2 post-season innings. Ironically, Hoyt’s best World Series showing (by far) was in 1921, a series they lost to the New York Giants. Hoyt, in that series, started 3 games, pitched 27 innings and gave up a grand total of 2 runs (both unearned). He lost Game 8 by a score of 1-0 because of a first inning error. By the way, yes, there were a few Fall Classics of that era that went beyond 7 games.
Hoyt was not considered a Hall of Famer by the BBWAA (he never earned more than 19% of the vote in 16 tries) but the Veteran’s Committee put him into the Hall in 1969.
Having fun again with Bill James Similarity Scores, the most similar pitchers in the last 50 years were Dennis Martinez and Jim Perry.
Herb Pennock was Waite Hoyt’s teammate in New York and is even more of a borderline Hall of Famer. Like Hoyt, Pennock only won 20 games two times (not a lot for a pitcher in the ’20’s and ’30’s, especially one mostly pitching for the New York Yankees). Like Hoyt, Pennock owes his Hall of Fame plaque to his post-season performance. In ten games, he went 5-0 with a 1.95 ERA and participated in three championships, in 1923, ’27 and ’32. He did not participate in the ’28 World Series win because, after a shutout win against the Boston Red Sox in August, he couldn’t raise his arm high enough to comb his air (per his SABR bio).
Pennock, known as the Squire of Kennett Square in honor of his hometown in Pennsylvania, a town about 40 miles from Philadelphia, debuted with his hometown Athletics in 1912 (at the age of 18). In his first six MLB seasons (between the Athletics and the Red Sox), he was mostly a relief pitcher, coming out of the pen in 68% of his starts. After a brief stint in the Navy, Pennock returned to the Red Sox in 1919 and was mostly a mediocre starter for four seasons. In January 1923, he was traded to the Yankees and had an excellent six-year run in which he compiled a 115-57 record with a 3.03 ERA.
Pennock lost his effectiveness in 1929 (at the age of 35) but hung around long enough to pitch in 152 games over six seasons while posting a 4.48 ERA. In the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, no longer good enough to entrust with a starting gig, Pennock came out of the bullpen to earn saves in the 3rd and 4th games in the Yankees’ four-game sweep.
Pennock was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1948 (by the writers) shortly after passing away from a stroke at the age of 53. That happened a lot in the early years of the Hall of Fame voting, where players would get a “death” bump in the vote.
Two years after Walter Johnson’s Game 7 heroics that we detailed at the top of this piece, the other “original” Hall of Fame pitcher, Pete Alexander, had his October moment from the bullpen. Alexander, alternatively known by his full name Grover Cleveland Alexander, had won Games 2 and 6 of the 1926 World Series, pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals and against an emerging dynasty in New York.
In Game 7, the day after tossing a complete game against the Yankees, Alexander was summoned to bail out starter Jesse Haines with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th inning and future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri at the plate. With the Cardinals clinging to a 3-2 lead, Old Pete, then 39 years old, struck out Lazzeri to retire the side. Alexander pitched two more scoreless innings to secure the save and the first ever title for St. Louis.
Alexander finished his brilliant career with 373 wins and a 2.56 ERA but, like Big Train Johnson, he had his finest moment and only World Championship late in his career and pitching in relief.
With a few exceptions, the pitching mound for the first 75 years of baseball history was owned exclusively by the game’s starting pitchers. In 2014, there was general amazement at the sight of Madison Bumgarner coming out of the bullpen, on two days rest after tossing a shutout, to pitch the final five innings of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series to propel the San Francisco Giants to a 7-game World Series championship. The feat was considered something not much short of Herculean and, in today’s game, it is exceptionally rare. In the first half of the 20th century, a starting pitcher being used as a World Series closer was not much more than a normal day at the office.
As we will see, in Part Two of this series on the history of relief pitching, the post-World War II era began a transformation, one where relief specialists became pitchers of value and starting pitchers mostly kept to starting games and only finishing those that they started themselves.
Thanks for reading.