In Part Three of this history of relief pitching series, we’re going to delve into the golden age of relievers, when closers were multi-inning specialists. We’ll discuss the careers of Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. Although Dennis Eckersley also pitched in this era, his main claim to the Hall started in 1988 when he became the proto-type of the one-inning closer. In this piece, we’ll also look at the careers of Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle, Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon and Dan Quisenberry.
1969 was a landmark season in Major League Baseball for a variety of reasons. You had the birth of four new franchises, a lower pitching mound and, for the first time, an extra round of October baseball with the creation of the East and West Divisions in each league.
1969 was also the year that a new baseball statistic became official, the “Save.” The brainchild of Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Sun-Times, by making the save an official statistic, fans and sportswriters alike finally had a fairly easily understandable metric that was unique to relief pitchers. While the definition of what would count as a save would change twice, the basic concept was simple: the relief pitcher “saved” the game for his team by finishing off a win.
In 1969, the definition of a save was simply that a relief pitcher had to enter the game with his team in the lead and that he had to hold that lead for the rest of the game. In 1974, the rule was altered to require that the tying run be on base or at the plate when entering the game or that the pitcher had to go at least three innings. In 1975, the rule was changed again (to what we still have today) to the following conditions:
- He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning.
- He enters the game, regardless of the score, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat, or on deck (this was the primary change).
- He pitches for at least three innings.
Holtzman actually invented the save stat in 1960 and it was reported unofficially in The Sporting News going back to that year. With the help of the website Baseball Reference, we can track saves going all the way back to 1871, with the 1969 version of the rule retroactively applied.
1969-1987: The Golden Age of the True Fireman
When it comes to relief pitching, it was the 1970’s that elevated the role for its purveyors from understudy to featured performer. Some of the most famous and colorful players from the ’70’s and ’80’s plied their trade by coming out of the pen.
The “firemen” of the ’70’s were stars: they were responsible for big moments in October and were notable for their style, in particular their facial hair. The faces of Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Mike Marshall, Gene Garber and Al Hrabosky are indelible on any baseball fan’s brain (if you’re old enough). The 1980’s featured the facial haired countenances of relief aces Lee Smith, Dan Quisenberry, Willie Hernandez, Jeff Reardon, Al Holland, Steve Bedrosian and Dennis Eckersley.
With the exception of Hoyt Wilhelm, all of the relief pitchers enshrined in the Hall of Fame made their marks primarily between 1972 to 1992. This will change soon (with the likely election of Trevor Hoffman in 2018 and near certain election of Mariano Rivera in 2019) but the ’70’s and ’80’s were the golden age of relief pitchers who didn’t just pile up saves but also put out fires.
The year 1970 marked the season that both the N.L. and A.L. single season save records were eclipsed, by Ron Perranoski (who saved 34 games for the Minnesota Twins) and Wayne Granger (who saved 35 for the Cincinnati Reds). Let’s see how the single-season save record has crept and then skyrocketed up:
- 1970: Wayne Granger (Reds): 35
- 1972: Clay Carroll (Reds): 37
- 1973: John Hiller (Tigers): 38
- 1983: Dan Quisenberry (Royals): 45
- 1986: Dave Righetti (Yankees): 46
- 1990: Bobby Thigpen (White Sox): 57
- 2008: Francisco Rodriguez (Angels): 62
As save totals rose, the 1970’s was also the first decade where the term “Save” was actually in the public consciousness as a recognized statistic and relief pitchers actually had their own award, the Rolaids Relief Man Award. We recall from Part Two of this series that during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the top relief pitcher each year would often receive significant recognition in the MVP balloting. Well, the 1970’s upped the reliever respect to another level. Between 1974 and 1992, eight different bullpen aces claimed Cy Young Awards and three also won MVP trophies. Here is the list:
- 1974: Mike Marshall (Dodgers): N.L. Cy Young
- 1977: Sparky Lyle (Yankees): A.L. Cy Young
- 1979: Bruce Sutter (Cubs): N.L. Cy Young
- 1981: Rollie Fingers (Brewers): A.L. MVP and A.L. Cy Young
- 1984: Willie Hernandez (Tigers): A.L. MVP and A.L. Cy Young
- 1987: Steve Bedrosian (Phillies): N.L. Cy Young
- 1989: Mark Davis (Padres): N.L. Cy Young
- 1992: Dennis Eckersley (A’s): A.L. MVP and A.L. Cy Young
This trend ended with Eckersley. In the 24 years since, only Eric Gagne (the 2003 N.L. Cy Young Award winner) has claimed a major award out of the ‘pen.
As we’ve tracked the relative usage patterns in Major League Baseball over the century, you can see that the rate of complete games by starters held steady in the ’70’s despite the other changes in the game detrimental to pitching success.
- % 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)
- All ERA = the collective ERA for all pitchers on all teams for the decade
In the 1970’s, pitching got harder. Besides the lower mound, in one of the leagues (the American), the designated rule was implemented. From 1973 until this day, an A.L. starter would no longer get the easy out that was the opposing pitcher in the 9th spot in the batting order. This also meant, however, that A.L. starting pitchers could sometimes complete games that N.L. starters could not because there was never a need for a pinch hitter.
You can see in the chart above that the distribution between starters tossing complete games and relievers coming out of the bullpen held steady in the 1970’s but started to skew towards the relievers in the 1980’s. However, the trend skewed heavily towards A.L. starters finishing their games because of the “no need to pinch hit” factor. In the first four years of the DH (1973-76, before the A.L. added two new teams), N.L. starters completed 1,762 games, compared to 2,480 in the A.L.
One of the relief pitcher trends from the 1970’s was that MLB managers relied on relievers who shouldered workloads just shy of what you would expect from a starting pitcher.
From 1952 (the year of Hoyt Wilhelm’s debut) to 1969, there were 124 different seasons in which a relief pitcher logged at least 100 innings out of the bullpen (Wilhelm himself was responsible for eight of those seasons). In the 18 years that followed (1970-1987), there were more than double, a total of 254 individual seasons in which a reliever threw 100 innings or more. Part of that can be attributed to the expansions of 1969 and 1977 but just a part. Keeping a workhorse in the pen and working that horse hard simply was the rage during the ’70’s and most of the ’80’s.
(Incidentally, only 61 relief pitchers tossed 100 innings or more in the 29 seasons since 1987 and it’s only happened 6 times in the first 17 full seasons of the 21th century).
Mike Marshall did not have a Hall of Fame career but he deserves a special mention here for being the poster child of the workhorse bullpen ace. Marshall, with the Montreal Expos from 1971-1973 and the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1974-1975, threw over 100 innings five years in a row (and also logged 99.1 IP in ’76).
In ’72 (with the Expos), he went 14-8 with 18 saves, tossing 111.1 innings while posting a 1.78 ERA. It was a season which put him fourth in the Cy Young voting and 10th in the MVP vote. The next year, 1973, he dramatically upped the ante with 179 innings pitched, going 14-11 with 31 saves and a 2.66 ERA; he finished second in the Cy Young vote to Tom Seaver (and also was 5th the MVP balloting).
Then in 1974, after a trade to Los Angeles for All-Star center fielder Willie Davis, Dodger manager Walter Alston rode him harder than any relief pitcher in the history of the game. He appeared in a MLB record 106 games, went 15-12, saved 21 games, posted a 2.42 ERA, and threw an astounding 208.1 innings, a record for a reliever that will never be broken unless there’s a radical shift in the strategy of bullpen work. Marshall was rewarded with the N.L. Cy Young Award and finished 3rd in the MVP balloting (to his teammate Steve Garvey and Lou Brock, he of the 118 stolen bases).
To put Marshall’s 208.1 bullpen innings into a modern perspective, only nine starting pitchers in 2016 threw more than 208.1 innings. Just nine.
Marshall, an intellectual man, studied the science of kinesiology which undoubtedly helped his endurance and ability to throw multiple innings. And he did this while throwing a screwball, a pitch that puts a high level of strain on a pitcher’s elbow. He finished his career with 188 saves and a 3.14 ERA in 1,386.2 innings. It was a solid career but not Cooperstown worthy. In this relief pitching series, we’ve often shared the “Similarity Scores” for each featured hurler. (This is a Bill James invention, the details can be found here in the Glossary). Anyway, the top five most statistically “similar” pitchers to Mike Marshall were Gene Garber, Steve Bedrosian, Clay Carroll, Roy Face and Tug McGraw.
While, prior to 1970, there was only one legitimate Hall of Fame candidate who was primarily a relief pitcher (Hoyt Wilhelm), there are anywhere from zero to eight (depending on your standards and perspective) who deserve at least a cursory look from the ’70’s and ’80’s: Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley (who are in), plus Lee Smith, Dan Quisenberry, Sparky Lyle, and John Hiller (who are not).
While Marshall was making history in the National League, the Detroit Tigers’ John Hiller was doing the same in the American. The Canadian-born lefty debuted with the Tigers in 1965 and was a middling relief pitcher and spot starter for his first six seasons. In early January, 1971, he survived three heart attacks on the same day. He underwent an experimental surgery called intestinal bypass surgery, which was meant to help him lose weight. He missed the entire season and came back in 1972 , but as a minor league instructor and batting practice pitcher. It wasn’t until July of ’72 that he was able to return to a major league mound.
After the partial ’72 campaign, Hiller came back with a vengeance in 1973, authoring one of the greatest seasons for a relief pitcher in the history of the game. In 65 games out of the pen (spanning 125.1 innings), he won 10 games, saved a then MLB-record 38 games and posted a 1.44 ERA (adjusted ERA+ of 283, which means he was 183% better than average). He entered games with 84 runners on base and only allowed 13 to score (a 15% rate). The remarkable campaign yielded him 4th place finishes in both the Cy Young and MVP voting.
In his Historical Baseball Abstract (published in 2001), sabermetric pioneer Bill James listed Hiller’s 1973 season as the greatest season by a relief pitcher in the history of baseball. James is like EF Hutton used to be: when he speaks (or writes), you listen (or read).
Hiller pitched seven more seasons and finished his career with 125 saves and a 2.83 ERA over 1,242 innings. His career adjusted ERA+ was 134, good for 7th best among all relief pitchers who logged more than 1,000 innings, barely behind Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter and ahead of Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers. Hiller was only on the Hall of Fame ballot once time (in 1986) and received 11 votes (2.6%).
If you’re beginning to question the sanity of yours truly for even entertaining the notion of John Hiller as a Cooperstown candidate, I will start by saying that I’m not buying it. Excellent pitcher, not a Hall of Famer. The argument in favor rests with Wins of Replacement (WAR). For all relief pitchers (with at least 80% of their career appearances out of the pen), Hiller’s 31.4 WAR is 4th best in history (behind Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Goose Gossage).
This relatively high number is based on pitching a lot of innings in a hitter-friendly ballpark (Tiger Stadium) and in front of what was a below average defense. More than 1/4 of that WAR is from 1972, when he’s credited with 8.1 Wins Above Replacement. ’72 was a truly great year, one of the best ever for a relief pitcher.
In the six years that followed, the advanced metrics were still favorable but in terms of what actually happened on the field, Hiller blew 41% of all save chances. That’s just not good enough.
While Hiller and Marshall were fashioning some of the most impressive individual seasons as relief pitchers that the game has even seen, there was a pitcher in Oakland who made his mark by playing a crucial role in the A’s dynasty that won three straight World Series titles. In the history of baseball, the A’s franchise is the only outside of the New York Yankees to win three titles in consecutive years.
Cooperstown Cred: Rollie Fingers (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992)
- Career: 114-118, 2.90 ERA, 341 saves
- Career: 74 saves of at least 7 outs (2nd most all-time to Hoyt Wilhelm’s 76)
- Held all-time saves record from 1980 to 1991
- 1981 MVP and Cy Young Award winner: 28 saves with 1.04 ERA
- 4 times in top 10 Cy Young voting
- 7-time All-Star
- Member of 3-time World Champion Oakland A’s
- Career: 4-4, 9 saves, 2.35 ERA in 30 post-season appearances
- 1974 World Series MVP (1.93 ERA, Win, 2 Saves)
Like many relief aces, Rollie Fingers began his career as a starting pitcher. Roland Glen Fingers signed with the Kansas City Athletics at the age of 18 and spent four years in the minor leagues (almost exclusively as a starter) before making the big league club (which had moved to Oakland) in the spring of 1969. Fingers was the fifth starter in a four man rotation (only starting when there were no off days to give the other four an extra day of rest) so he only started 8 times while pitching 52 games in relief. In 1971, new manager Dick Williams removed Fingers from the rotation in May, turned him into his closer and Fingers only started two games for the rest of his career. The A’s made the 1971 playoffs but were swept in the ALCS by the Baltimore Orioles.
In the spring of 1972, Reggie Jackson showed up with a mustache. For some reason, Jackson’s teammates didn’t like it so they grew their own mustaches as a form of protest, thinking that they would all be forced to shave. But the mercurial A’s owner Charles O. Finley thought the mustaches would be a good marketing ploy so he offered to give any player who kept it on Opening Day a $300 bonus.
Fingers has confirmed the story multiple times, that he grew his trademark handlebar ‘stache for the 300 bucks.
The core of Fingers’ great career is the 1972-74 trifecta of championships. During those three seasons, Fingers saved 61 games with a 2.34 ERA during the regular season but he shined even brighter in October.
In those three title runs, the mustachioed closer came into 24 games and pitched 46.1 innings. He won 3 games, lost 3, saved 8, held the lead in 3 others and posted a 1.55 ERA.
This is crucial to understanding the Hall of Fame value of Rollie Fingers: he was by far the most valuable post-season performer for the A’s during that three-year championship run. By far.
Gene Tenace won the World Series MVP in 1972, Reggie Jackson won it in 1973, and Fingers won in 1974 but, over the totality of the three titles, nobody contributed more than Fingers.
Due to the financial woes of Finley and his unwillingness to pay the big money that the players’ newly won right of free agency conferred, the A’s dynasty of the 1970’s broke up in the years after their three World Series titles. Catfish Hunter, the ’74 A.L. Cy Young Award winner, signed with the New York Yankees a couple of months later, on New Year’s Eve, giving himself a raise of over a half million dollars per year. Shortly before the 1976 season, Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman were traded to the Orioles.
It’s forgotten from the official records but, in June of 1976, Finley sold Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Boston Red Sox for $1 million each and Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million. The sales were ultimately rescinded by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, saying that “the door would be opened wide to the buying of success by the more affluent clubs.” Finley’s argument was that, if the players left as free agents, he would get nothing in return. Finley sued Kuhn over the issue but lost the suit. Still, the matter of compensation of lost free agents lingered throughout the sport and was ultimately at the crux of the dispute that led to the 1981 players’ strike.
The sale of Fingers and Rudi to Boston were official long enough for there to be a photo of Fingers wearing a Red Sox uniform even though he never played for the team.
Ultimately, after the ’76 season (in which the A’s missed the playoffs for the first time since 1970), the mass exodus of stars occurred. I remember, as a 9-year old fan, opening up the sports page every day out of curiosity to see where all of the free agents were signing. Fingers and Gene Tenace signed with the San Diego Padres; Sal Bando went to the Milwaukee Brewers; Bert Campaneris signed with the Texas Rangers; Don Baylor (who had been acquired in the Jackson trade) went to the California Angels and of course Reggie went from Baltimore to the New York Yankees.
People often talk about how Yankees owner George Steinbrenner liked to “buy” the World Series with his free agent signings (he signed Hunter before the 1975 season and Jackson for 1977). San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s) was another one of many of the fraternity of owners that were also trying to “buy” a title. Steinbrenner’s Yankees simply had a better core of players already.
Fingers spent four years closing games in San Diego, saving 108 games while posting a 3.12 ERA, a number inflated by the one really bad season in his career, 1979. He had a 4.52 ERA and blew 10 out of 23 save chances in that forgettable season.
After the 1980 season, General Manager Jack McKeon (“Trader Jack”) sent Fingers and Tenace to the St. Louis Cardinals in an 11-player deal. Rollie’s tenure in St. Louis lasted just a day longer than his non-tenure in Boston; four days later he was dealt again, sent to the Milwaukee Brewers along with catcher Ted Simmons and pitcher Pete Vuckovich in exchange for outfielders David Green and Sixto Lezcano along with pitchers Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen.
The trade was a coup for the Brewers. Fingers had his best season ever in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign (winning the Cy Young and MVP) while Vuckovich would win the Cy Young in ’82 and Simmons was a still-productive All-Star behind the dish.
Fingers became just the fifth pitcher in history to win both the MVP and Cy Young in the same year (the others being Don Newcombe, Sandy Koufax, Denny McClain and Vida Blue) and the first to do it as a reliever (and the first since Jim Konstanty in 1950 to win the MVP out of the bullpen). His 1.04 ERA was the lowest for any pitcher logging at least 75 innings since the Deadball era. In today’s game, with one-inning closers, we’re seeing microscopic bullpen ERAs more than ever but, in 1981, Fingers posted that number while pitching more than one inning in 30 out of his 47 appearances.
(Now, to be fair, it is easy to sometimes cherry-pick statistics. Taken to three decimal points, Fingers’ 1981 ERA was 1.038. In 1964, Bob Veale (who did not win the MVP or even get a vote) had a 1.043. That’s a difference of one extra out over the course of an entire season. The minimum standard matters too: Fingers pitched 78 innings in 1981; the Expos’ Dale Murray posted a 1.03 ERA in 1974, pitching 69.2 innings).
The 1981 strike-shortened season had an unusual “split season.” In order to get the fans interested in the game again, it was determined that the teams that led their respective divisions when the strike began would make the playoffs automatically and everything else would start from scratch after the strike ended. So the Brewers won the “2nd half” A.L. East title and played the Yankees in the first ever “Division Series,” falling in 5 games to New York.
The Brew Crew returned to the post-season in 1982, this time advancing to the World Series but had to navigate October baseball without their post-season ace. Fingers tore a muscle in his right forearm on September 2 and had to miss the rest of the season. Ultimately, the team affectionately known as Harvey’s Wallbangers (named after manager Harvey Kuenn and their penchant for the long ball) would lose the Fall Classic to the Cardinals in 7 games.
Fingers missed the entire 1983 season, returned to his All-Star form in 1984 and then, at the age of 38, had his worst season ever in ’85 (going 1-6 with a 5.04 ERA). He was released by the Brewers after the season. In the offseason, Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose reached out and asked Fingers if he would like to try out with the Reds. But there was a catch: the Reds had a no-facial-hair policy and Fingers would have to shave off his trademark handlebar mustache. He refused, choosing retirement instead and still wears the perfectly styled ‘stache to this day.
When the members of the BBWAA received their ballots in December 1990, Fingers’ name was on it for the first time and his 341 saves was still the most in history, ahead of the not yet retired Goose Gossage (307) and the retired Bruce Sutter (300). Rollie received an impressive 66% of the vote his first time on the ballot, the most for any player who wasn’t actually elected that year. When the voting occurred the following December, Fingers cleared the bar, earning 81% of the writers’ vote and a plaque in the Hall of Fame. On the day his election was announced, he was still the all-time saves leader but the still-active Jeff Reardon (327) and Lee Smith (312) were closing in on the mark.
By the time he gave his speech in Cooperstown (on August 2, 1992), Fingers had been passed on the all-time list by Reardon; Smith would also pass him two weeks later. Today, with the proliferation of the cheap save, Fingers’ 341 ranks 13th all-time.
You can’t tell the story about relief pitching in the 1970’s without talking about Sparky Lyle. While Fingers was plying his trade in the A.L. West, Lyle was dominating the A.L. East and they both did it in style with their signature mustaches. Lyle is notable in that he represents the player involved in the 2nd worst transaction the Boston Red Sox ever made with the New York Yankees (the first being the sale of Babe Ruth).
Albert Walter Lyle made his major league debut with the Red Sox in 1967 and quickly established himself as one of the best relief pitchers in the game. Unlike a great many relief pitchers of the era, Sparky never started a game, not a single one, in his career. Lyle saved 69 games with a 2.85 ERA in five seasons in Boston.
Before the 1972 season, the Sox dealt Lyle to their hated rivals in exchange for first baseman Danny Cater and a player to be named later (shortstop Mario Guerrero). Lyle’s first season in pinstripes was one of his best: he posted a 1.92 ERA while saving a league-leading 35 games, earning a 3rd place finish in the A.L. MVP voting.
Lyle’s most famous campaign was in 1977 when he won the A.L. Cy Young award. Lyle won 13 games out of the pen, saved 23 others and did it with a 2.17 ERA over 137 innings pitched. Most notably, he was the hero of the ALCS, winning Games 4 and 5 out of the bullpen in the 5-game series win.
Lyle entered Game 4 in the 4th inning with two runners on, George Brett at the plate, and the Yankees clinging to a 5-4 lead. He got Brett to line out to left to end the inning and then proceeded to pitch five innings of scoreless, one-hit ball for the win. Then, despite having pitched 7.2 innings in the previous two days, Lyle came to the rescue again, entering the bottom of the 8th inning with a one-run lead and two runners on base. He struck out Cookie Rojas, then pitched a scoreless 9th and sent the Bronx Bombers to the World Series, where his future Hall of Fame teammate named Reggie would take center stage.
As good as Lyle was in 1977, there were two pitchers in the National League who had seasons that were arguably even better.
In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James listed Bruce Sutter’s and Goose Gossage’s 1977 campaigns as the 3rd and 4th most valuable relief pitcher seasons respectively in baseball history.
Gossage, a flame-thrower who approached 100 miles per hour with his fastball, and Sutter, who was dominating with a pitch nobody had ever seen before (a split-fingered fastball), clearly had better numbers across the board than the A.L. Cy Young Award recipient. They key column in this chart is “Age.” Sparky had turned 33 years old during the season (he’s listed at 32 because he turned 33 after June 30th). Gossage was 7 years younger and available on the free agent market. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner decided to sign the right-hander and create a “super pen” but to Lyle, it was a slap in the face.
Still, even at the time Lyle understood the logic of it: you’d rather bet on a 26-year old’s fastball over a 33-year old’s slider. For Sparky, as Graig Nettles put it at the time, it was “Cy Young to Sayonara.”
Ultimately, King George made the right call. Lyle was still good in 1978 but Goose was better and he took over the closer’s role for the Yankees and was a mainstay in the Bronx for six seasons.
Lyle was traded to the Texas Rangers after the ’78 season (a deal that brought future closer Dave Righetti to the Bronx) and had four average seasons before retiring after the 1982 campaign, finishing his career with 238 saves and a ERA of 2.88.
It’s easy to forget that, after the 1977 season, Sparky Lyle was arguably the second best relief pitcher in baseball history at the time. His 201 career saves were (at the time) the 2nd most ever to Hoyt Wilhelm and his career ERA (at the time) of 2.44 was the best for any relief pitcher ever with at least 750 innings pitched and 50% of his games out of the pen. If Lyle had been able to continue at a peak level late into his 30’s (as many of the top closers in history did), he might have wound up with a plaque in Cooperstown.
Lyle debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1988, getting 13% of the vote; it’s the most he would ever get. After three more votes, he was under 5% and removed from future ballots.
For me, he’ll forever be in the baseball-playing authors’ Hall of Fame for his tell-all book about the ’78 Yankees titled The Bronx Zoo. Let me tell you, this was quite a read for a 12-year old boy! It was full of the scandals and salacious details of the controversial Bronx Bombers. If you remember that the key word in the the Hall of Fame is the word fame, Sparky Lyle certainly had that part of it covered.
In the narrative of the history of relief pitching in baseball, the fame of the career of Goose Gossage begins where Lyle’s fame started to fade but Gossage was an elite relief ace years before he donned the pinstripes of the Yankees.
Cooperstown Cred: Goose Gossage (inducted to Hall of Fame in 2008)
- Career: 124-107, 3.01 ERA, 310 Saves
- Career: 52 saves of at least 7 outs
- 9-time All-Star
- 4 times in top 15 MVP voting
- 4 times in top 5 of Cy Young voting
- Member of 1978 World Series Champion New York Yankees
- Career: 2-1, 8 saves, 2.87 ERA in 19 post-season appearances
- Career: 41.8 WAR, 3rd best for relief pitchers all-time (min 80% games as RP) (behind Mariano Rivera and Hoyt Wilhelm)
Rich “Goose” Gossage started his major league career, as a relief pitcher, with the Chicago White Sox in 1972. Gossage, who battled with his control early in his career, was a middle reliever for his first three seasons in Chicago but, with closer Terry Forster injured for most of 1975, manager Chuck Tanner gave the ball to his intimidating young righty. Goose responded with a 1.84 ERA in 141.2 innings while leading the league with 26 saves (good enough for his first All-Star appearance and a 6th place finish in the Cy Young balloting).
Gossage got the nickname “Goose” early in his career because of the way he stuck his neck out when staring into the catcher.
Tanner was fired after the ’75 season and the Chisox new manager, Paul Richards, decided to put Gossage into the starting rotation in 1976. You might recall from Part Two of this series that Richards did the same thing with Hoyt Wilhelm in 1959. Gossage didn’t take quite so well to the rotation, losing 17 games while his strikeout rate decreased dramatically. In the off-season, Goose was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates (along with Forster) for Richie Zisk and Silvio Martinez. Tanner had been hired to skipper the Pirates and is the one who orchestrated the trade. As we saw in the chart above (with Lyle and Sutter), Gossage had a superb season with the Bucs in ’77, posting a 1.62 ERA in 133 innings.
Gossage would have preferred to stay with the Pirates but the Bucs had a less expensive option to close games (Kent Tekulve) than the free-agent-to-be. George Steinbrenner signed the Goose to a 6-year, $3.6 million contract, at the time the biggest money deal by far for a relief pitcher. After a few stumbles in the beginning, Gossage earned the lion’s share of save opportunities (over Sparky Lyle) and was a mainstay in the Bronx until 1983.
Gossage was an intimidating figure on the mound. At 6’3″ with a strong build, most onlookers felt that only Nolan Ryan threw fastballs at a higher velocity than the Goose.
In six seasons with the Yankees, Gossage saved 150 games with a 2.10 ERA (park-adjusted for a 183 ERA+) while holding opposing batters to a .205 average and striking out over 9 hitters per 9 innings. The ERA, ERA+, BAA and SO/9 were all tops (by a significant amount) for all relievers during those six years.
Not that he wasn’t intimidating enough but, in 1981, Goose got with the relief ace “program” and grew a mustache, one of the Fu Manchu variety that he maintains to this day. According to his SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) profile, “I didn’t grow it to be intimidating, I did it to tick off Steinbrenner.” (Yankees policy then and now required mustaches to remain entirely above the lip).
In the off-season before the 1984 campaign, Gossage signed a free-agent contract with the San Diego Padres, following a move made by Rollie Fingers seven years prior. The Padres of the early ’80’s accumulated multiple players with post-season experience. They signed long-time Dodgers first basemen Steve Garvey after the ’82 season, Gossage in early ’84 and then traded for the Goose’s Yankees teammate, third baseman Graig Nettles. With the veteran presences of Garvey, Gossage and Nettles, a future Hall of Fame manager in Dick Williams, and young studs Tony Gwynn and Kevin McReynolds, the ’84 Padres made the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s history.
Despite a Game 4 blown save by the Goose, the Padres won a thrilling 5-game series against the Chicago Cubs before bowing out in 5 games to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
Despite his overall post-season prowess and regular season dominance, Gossage did give up two of the most memorable post-season home runs of the 1980’s. In 1980, protecting a 2-1 lead in the 7th inning, Gossage gave up a towering 3-run home run to Kansas City’s George Brett, sealing a 3-game sweep that sent the Royals to their first World Series. And then, in ’84, in Goose’s final post-season appearance, he gave up two home runs to the Tigers in the clinching Game 5. The famous blow came off the bat of Kirk Gibson, a three-run blast when Gossage talked Williams out of intentionally walking him. It’s a famous clip that you can see here, with Tigers manager Sparky Anderson yelling at Gibson, “he don’t wanna walk you!”
Gossage had his last All-Star campaign with the Padres in 1985 (the second of his four years in San Diego). In February 1988, Goose was traded to the Cubs, the first of six major league stops from ’88 to ’94 with an interlude in Japan in 1990. The final outing of his career, with the Seattle Mariners on August 8, 1994 at the age of 43, was a three-out save, recorded just days before the players’ strike that ended the season.
Goose Gossage was the fifth (and, for now, the last) relief pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame. He debuted on the writers’ ballot in 2000 with 33% of the vote, 5.2% behind fellow closer Bruce Sutter, on the ballot for the 7th time because his career had ended six years earlier. Gossage got up to 44% in his second year on the ballot but stalled there for several years. In the meantime, he watched Dennis Eckersley sail into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2004, which he felt was kind of insulting to him and to Sutter, though not meant as a slam on Eckersley (his teammate in Oakland in 1992 and 1993).
For whatever reason, the year after Eckersley’s induction saw Gossage and Sutter both spike in their voting support. Goose went from 41% to 55% to 65% to 71% and then, finally to 86% on his 9th try at the ballot. Notably, Gossage’s election to the Hall on the BBWAA ballot occurred on the second year that Mark McGwire was eligible.
Since then, the Goose has been one of the most outspoken Hall of Famers on the issue of Performance Enhancing Drugs. In an interview with ESPN Radio in 2012, Gossage teed off, calling McGwire a great teammate but asked, “are we going to reward these guys for cheating?” The interview took place a few days after Roger Clemens had been acquitted for perjury and obstruction of justice. In the interview, Gossage compared Clemens’ acquittal to O.J. Simpson’s, asking “did you believe he didn’t kill those two people?”
What was interesting about the interview was that he admitted that he “probably would have” used steroids if they had been prevalent while he was playing.
Gossage remains outspoken today about how relief pitchers today earn “cheap” saves compared to the stoppers of his day (and he’s absolutely right about that). Gossage’s fame and the respect he earned as a multiple-inning stopper has even spawned a statistic in his honor. Nate Silver, the statistical wizard at fivethirtyeight.com, has recently created a new metric called the “Goose Egg,” in which a reliever gets a “goose egg” for each clutch, scoreless inning of relief. It’s not entirely that simple; Silver’s piece is deep into the statistical weeds but he’s definitely onto something. In the most basic version, Goose is the all-time leader in Goose Eggs, which should put a big smile on his face.
Gossage was larger than life and larger than most pitchers. He was an all-time great no matter how you measure it.
- He was a dominant closer in the era where bullpen stoppers were highly valued.
- He reached the benchmark of 300 career saves at a time when that plateau was meaningful.
- He was a pioneer, the first significant pitcher to feature the split-fingered fastball.
From his bio on SABR, as a minor league player in the Chicago Cubs organization, Sutter pinched a nerve in his elbow and paid for his own surgery, not wanting the team to know about his injury. When he got to spring training in 1973, he realized that he had lost his fastball. Looking for any answer that would save his career, he turned to minor league pitching instructor Fred Martin, who taught him the split-finger. It took several years for Sutter to master the pitch but, by the age of 23, he was ready for the big leagues, making his debut with the Cubs in 1976.
The ’76 Cubs weren’t a very good team (finishing at 75-87) but, even though he was mostly used in mop-up roles, Sutter got off to a terrific start, posting a 1.13 ERA in his first 18 games. In July, he took over primary closing duties (when they existed) from veteran Darold Knowles.
In 1977, the Cubs were a contending team for most of the season, leading the N.L. East from May 28th to August 3 before fading. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Cubs went 9-14 in August while Sutter was on the D.L. with a shoulder strain. As we saw earlier, Sutter’s ’77 campaign was one of the greatest for a relief pitcher in the history of the game: he threw 107.1 innings with a 1.34 ERA, an extraordinarily impressive number for a pitcher who called Wrigley Field his home ballpark. For his efforts, the 2nd-year star was 7th in the MVP vote and 6th in the Cy Young vote.
Two years later, Sutter was the N.L. Cy Young Award winner.
Cooperstown Cred: Bruce Sutter (inducted to Hall of Fame in 2006)
- Career: 68-71, 2.83 ERA, 300 Saves
- Career: 46 Saves with at least 7 outs
- 6-time All-Star
- 1979 N.L. Cy Young Award Winner: 37 Saves, 2.22 ERA in 101.1 IP
- 5 times in top 10 MVP voting
- 4 times in top 5 of Cy Young voting
- Led league in Saves 5 times
- Member of 1982 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals (2-0, 3 Saves, 3.00 ERA in post-season)
In the off-season after his Cy Young campaign, Sutter was awarded a $700,000 income in salary arbitration, a record at the time for that process and a higher single-season salary than Goose Gossage’s. What Sutter really wanted though was a long-term contract but the Cubs weren’t interested. After the 1980 season, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, who promptly signed him to a four-year deal.
In his first year as a Redbird, Sutter continued his All-Star form and, in fact, saved the Midsummer Classic for the N.L. In 82.1 innings, he saved 25 games with a 2.62 ERA, good enough to finish 5th in the Cy Young Award vote.
During that strike-shortened ’81 season, the Cards were one of the victims of the split season format. Despite the best overall record in the N.L. East for the year, they fell just short of the Phillies in the first half and Expos in the second half, missing the 2nd half title by just a half a game. It’s perhaps a bit unfair to even bring this up but, in the third to last game of the season, Sutter was the losing pitcher when, entering a tie game in the bottom of the 9th, he yielded the game-winning run against Pittsburgh Pirates. In addition, Sutter blew two saves in the middle of September that resulted in losses. If the Cardinals had won any of those three games, they would have made the playoffs. Sutter was brought to St. Louis to save the day and, in the last few weeks of the season, he didn’t get the job done.
The 1982 edition of the Redbirds did make the playoffs, winning the N.L. East by 3 games. Sutter had a solid season, saving a MLB-leading 36 games in 102.1 innings with a 2.90 ERA. It wasn’t one of Sutter’s best but he had earned the respect of the writers and for that reason, plus his league leading save total, he finished 3rd in the Cy Young and 5th in the MVP voting. In the playoffs, Sutter earned two wins and three saves in six post-season appearances. In Game 7 of the World Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, Sutter entered the game in the top of the 8th with the Cards clinging to a 4-3 lead. Six batters and six outs later, Sutter and the Redbirds were celebrating a World Series victory, winning 6-3.
In 1983, Sutter had a terrible year by his standards, blowing 9 out of 30 save chances, losing 10 games out of the pen while posting an ugly 4.23 ERA. In his final year in St. Louis, he bounced back, sporting a 1.54 ERA and a MLB-leading 45 saves (tied for the most ever in a single season) in 122.2 innings. The timing of this, his last great season, was excellent because it was his free agent walk year. He signed a six year, $4.8 million contract with the Atlanta Braves that, because of the way it was structured with an interest-earning annuity, actually paid him an estimated $44 million over 36 years, according his SABR bio.
Braves owner Ted Turner did not get his money’s worth. In four injury-plagued seasons (including the 1987 season, which he missed entirely), Sutter managed just 152.1 innings, saving only 40 games (out of 64 chances) while posting an ugly 4.55 ERA. Ultimately, if the $44 million number is to be believed, he was paid $288,840 per inning over his three years of service and over one million dollars per save. Ouch. After the 1988 season, highlighted by recording his 300th save in his final career appearance, Sutter’s career was over at the age of 35.
When he retired after the 1988 season, Sutter’s 300 saves were third most in MLB history (behind Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage).
Even though he began his career eight years after Fingers and four years after Gossage, Sutter debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot just three years after Fingers and six years before Gossage because his career ended so early. Fingers had sailed into Cooperstown on the second ballot but Sutter’s path was far longer. Sutter’s long Hall of Fame wait was perhaps because of the sour note on which his career ended and perhaps because, by the time he was eligible for the BBWAA vote, 300 saves didn’t seem like very much anymore. Lee Smith had zoomed to 401 with Jeff Reardon at 365.
Anyway, Sutter got just 24% of the vote on his first year on the ballot (1994). In his 9th try (2002), he finally cracked 50% and, in 2006, after spending 13 years on the ballot, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Today, in the middle of the 2017 season, a total of 300 saves is merely a tie for 26th place on the all-time list.
But 300 saves meant so much more in the ’70’s and ’80’s. Fingers had 135 saves in which he pitched two innings or longer; Sutter had 130, Gossage 125. Trevor Hoffman, who is on the doorstop of Cooperstown for 2018, had a grand total of 7 saves of two innings or longer. Seven. In his entire career.
In Part Six of this series, we’ll draw some conclusions about the relative value of the one-inning closers of the last three decades compared to the firemen of the ’70’s and ’80’s.
In Bruce Sutter’s final season in Chicago (1980), a big right-hander named Lee Arthur Smith made his major league debut. Smith would enjoy a prolific 18-year career, one in which he saved 478 games, which remains the third most in the history of the game.
In 1992, both he and Reardon passed Fingers for the most saves in history, with Reardon finishing the season two ahead of Smith (357 to 355). It didn’t take long for Smith to pass Reardon on the list; he did it in his fourth appearance of the next season, on April 13th, 1993. Smith would remain the game’s all-time leader in saves until Sept 24, 2006, when he was passed by Trevor Hoffman.
On the mound, Lee Smith was a hard thrower and a bigger and taller version of Goose Gossage; at 6 foot 5, 220 pounds, he looked like he could have played linebacker or tight end in the NFL.
From his SABR bio:
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s the hardest thrower in the game,” said Cubs catcher Jody Davis. Catching Smith “was scary, very scary!” said Keith Moreland. Dusty Baker of Los Angeles admitted, “I don’t run from anybody, but the opinion around the National League is that you’re in no real hurry to get to him.”
What made Lee Smith scary in the minor leagues was that he was wild (he walked 213 batters in 259 innings in AA ball in 1978-79). It was in ’79 that he was converted from a starting pitcher to relief pitcher and he liked the opportunity to pitch as a “stopper.” After his 1980 big league debut and his official rookie season as a set-up man, Smith became the Cubs’ closer in 1982 and achieved stardom the following year. In 1983, Smith appeared in 66 games, went 103.1 innings, saved 29 games and posted a 1.65 ERA (adjusted for a 229 ERA+).
Interestingly, as it was with Sparky Lyle, in what was his best MLB season, Smith wasn’t necessarily the best closer in the majors or even in his league.
Quisenberry pitched many more innings and saved 16 more games while Orosco posted a lower ERA and won 13 games in relief. The Cy Young voters seemed to feel that Smith was third best relief pitcher in ’83; Quisenberry was 2nd in the A.L. Cy Young vote. In the N.L., Orosco was 3rd in the Cy Young balloting; Smith was 9th.
1984 was an off year for Smith (a 3.65 ERA) but a great year for his team. It was Ryne Sandberg’s MVP season and the team acquired two excellent starting pitchers (Rick Sutcliffe and Dennis Eckersley) for the stretch run. There was an enormous amount of excitement in Chicago for the Cubs’ first post-season appearance since 1945. Things got off to a great start for the Cubbies in the NLCS, with a 13-0 Game 1 rout over the San Diego Padres behind Sutcliffe. Game 2 was closer but resulted in a 4-2 Chicago victory, with Smith coming out of the pen to get the final two outs and the save.
The Padres won Game 3 fairly easily before the epic Game 4. The Cubs were down 5-3 entering the top of the 8th inning but scored two runs off the Pads’ Goose Gossage to tie the score at 5. Smith came out of the pen, in the 5-5 tie, to pitch the 8th inning and, after a dribbler infield single and an error by Sandberg, got out of the inning. The Cubs loaded the bases in the top of the 9th but Craig Lefferts got out of the inning by getting Cubs’ third baseman Ron Cey to ground out to 2nd.
In the bottom of the 9th, Smith got Alan Wiggins on strikes to start the inning. Tony Gwynn followed with a single. Then, on the 2nd pitch of the next at bat, Steve Garvey hit a 2-run home run to deep right-center field to give the Padres the walk-off 7-5 win. The Padres would go onto win Game 5 and advance to the World Series and the Chicago Cubs would have to wait another 32 years before getting back to the Fall Classic.
The ’84 Cubs were a one-hit wonder, dropping from 96 wins in ’84 to just 77 in 1985. Smith’s three seasons after the NLCS disaster were just a bit above average. If you take the 1984-87 seasons (which should have been the prime of his career), Smith’s adjusted ERA+ of 125 was just 11th best among all relief pitchers with at least 300 innings for those four years. He was still piling up the saves and striking out over a batter per inning but he wasn’t the dominant stopper that he was in 1983.
After the ’87 season, Smith was traded to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, a fairly low haul for someone who was considered an elite relief ace. From his SABR Bio and Fran Zimniuch’s book Fireman: The Evolution of the Closer in Baseball, there were organizational concerns about his weight, thus the trade. The deal to Boston did give Smith something he wanted, a chance to play for a winning team and the ’88 Sox were the champions of the A.L. East. Unfortunately, they ran into the juggernaut Oakland A’s and were swept in 4 games. Smith entered Game 2 in the 9th inning of a tie game and gave up the run that was the margin of victory.
Smith had a 2.80 ERA in his first season in Boston but just 3.57 ERA in 1989 and, in the off-season, the team decided to sign another closer (Jeff Reardon) to a free agent contract. Reardon was coming off a World Series title in 1987 and an All-Star season in 1988 and, although he was two years older, the Sox decided that he was their guy. Smith was traded in May 1990 to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Smith pitched a little over 3 1/2 seasons in St. Louis (mostly for manager Joe Torre) and saved 160 games (out of 186 opportunities for an impressive 86% rate). It was a mid-career renaissance that earned him three consecutive All-Star berths (out of his seven total), a 2nd place N.L. Cy Young vote in 1991 and a 4th place Cy Young vote in 1992.
In 1993, with free agency looming and the Cards out of contention, he was dealt late in the season to the New York Yankees. After spending September in New York, Smith signed a one-year free agent contract with the Baltimore Orioles. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, he led the majors with 33 saves (with a 3.29 ERA) which was good enough to place him 5th in the A.L. Cy Young vote. His last year as a “designated closer” was in 1995, when he saved 37 games (2nd in the A.L) with the California Angels. After a couple of middling partial seasons as a set-up man in Cincinnati and Montreal, Smith retired as a player in the spring of 1998 at the age of 40.
Lee Smith is a unique Cooperstown candidate as a relief pitcher in that he spanned two eras, the “relief pitchers go multiple innings era” and the “closers just pitch the 9th inning era.” For Smith, we’ll cut his career into two 9-year halves, the “multiple inning” half (1980-1988) and the “9th inning only” half (1989-1997).
By downloading his career game logs from Baseball Reference, we can see how his usage pattern shifted dramatically in the second half of his career, comparing how he was used in “clean” one-inning-to-get-the-save situations compared to all others.
For thirteen years, 5 months and 11 days, Lee Smith was the all-time saves leader in Major League Baseball. When he hit the Hall of Fame ballot in December 2002, he had 56 more career saves than anybody else (John Franco had 422) and that was enough for Smith to get 42% of the vote. From a historical perspective, a path that starts with 42% in your first year traditionally ends with a plaque in Cooperstown. The only other player ever, ironically, who debuted on the BBWAA ballot with over 40% and never made it into the Hall of Fame is Garvey.
For perspective, Smith’s teammate with the Cubs (Ryne Sandberg) debuted on the ballot with 49% (just 7% more than Smith) and was in the Hall of Fame two years later. But Smith had one of the most unusual Hall of Fame voting patterns in history. He stayed on the ballot for a full 15 years, never getting higher than 51% and never lower than 30%.
- Bruce Sutter debuted on the ballot in 1994 with 24% of the vote and was inducted into the Hall on his 13th try.
- Goose Gossage debuted on the ballot in 2000 with 33% of the vote in 2000 and made it into Cooperstown on his 9th effort.
- Lee Smith debuted on the ballot in 2003 with 42% of the vote and is now kicked off future ballots, finishing with 34% in his 15th and final try this January.
There are a few easily understood reasons for this:
- Smith’s second year on the ballot (2004) was Dennis Eckersley‘s first. (We’ll take a look at Eckersley’s career in Part Four of this piece). Although Eckersley’s career save total (390) was significantly less than Smith’s 478, Eck also had a 12-year career as an effective starter, winning 151 games with a 3.67 ERA. He didn’t have a Cooperstown-caliber career as a starting pitcher but, when combined with his 12 years as a closer, a highly compelling and unique resume was created. Eckersley sailed into the Hall with 83% in 2004 while Smith, suffering by comparison, sagged to 37%.
- As the years passed, Smith’s 478 saves no longer looked so remarkable. He was passed by both Hoffman and then Mariano Rivera, the gold standard of relief aces.
- The PED era has now clogged the Hall of Fame ballot so that many voters who might have wanted to vote for Smith simply couldn’t find room with a 10-man limit.
Lee Smith pitched 1,022 regular season games in his career (with four more in the post-season). He won 71 games and saved 478 more, all with a 3.03 ERA. But sometimes, especially when you’re a relief pitcher, one game defines your career and, for Smith, Game 4 of the NLCS is that defining moment. What if he had gotten Garvey to hit into a double play and the Cubs went on to win the game? What if the Cubs upset the mighty Detroit Tigers in the World Series and the iconic image of Smith’s career was him hugging catcher Jody Davis after a World Series win with fans going bonkers at Wrigley Field? Would he be in the Hall of Fame if that October script was a little bit different? I think that the answer might be “yes.”
As we wrap up this rather lengthy Part Three of this seven-part series on the history of relief pitching, I’d like to comment on two other key relief pitchers from the 1990’s, neither who came remotely close to the Hall of Fame but are significant with respect to how we viewed relief pitchers then and now.
Jeff Reardon was a very good pitcher but he was not a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. Still, if you play the “if player X is in the Hall then player Y should be as well” game, there is a case to be made. At the end of the 1992 season, Reardon had more career saves (357) than any other pitcher in baseball history. As we saw earlier, he would be passed by Smith early in 1993.
Reardon debuted in 1979 with the woeful New York Mets. He was traded in 1981 to the Montreal Expos for the then-highly-heralded Ellis Valentine. This was the first of two times he was traded to a team about to make the post-season. The ’81 Expos won the 2nd half N.L. East title of the strike-shortened season and fell one game shy of the World Series. In 1987, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins and was a member of that World Champion title team. He spent the last five years of his career moving from Minnesota to Boston to Atlanta to Cincinnati and finally to the New York Yankees before retiring after the ’94 season.
The bearded right-hander, nicknamed The Terminator, finished his career with 367 saves and a 3.16 ERA. Playing the “if X then Y” game, here is how he stacks up against Hall of Famers (and contemporaries) Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter:
IS% = percentage of inherited runners who scored
With just this cursory look, there are two possible conclusions.
- Jeff Reardon belongs in the Hall of Fame
- Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter don’t belong in the Hall of Fame
I haven’t read anybody anywhere who subscribes to conclusion #1 but there are quite a few people who subscribe to #2, that Fingers and Sutter don’t belong. The knock against Fingers is that his ERA is nothing special for a pitcher who spent most of his career in pitcher’s parks. The knock against Sutter is that his career was simply too short.
With respect to Fingers, I’m not buying it. He threw dramatically more innings and, as we’ve seen, was the key figure in three World Championships. With respect to Sutter, the argument in favor is that he was the dominant purveyor of his craft for many years while Reardon was not. But there is another “if X then Y” scenario that applies to Sutter, and its embodied by the final subject of this piece.
There is one final relief pitcher from the 1980’s who deserves special mention and, depending on whether you believe in a bigger Hall of Fame or a smaller one, might actually deserve a plaque. I’m talking about the submarining closer for the Kansas City Royals, Dan Quisenberry. If you believe that a player can be worthy of entrance into the Hall on the basis of a six-to-eight-year peak of brilliant work, there is a case to be made for Quiz.
Quisenberry made his MLB debut at the age of 26 in July 1979. After six scoreless outings in a mop-up role, Quiz was moved into high leverage situations by manager Whitey Herzog. Overall, it was a campaign of mixed results for both Quisenberry and the Royals, who missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Herzog was let go after the season. From a piece in Sports Illustrated in 1983, “fate played a hand that winter. At a banquet Jim Frey, who had just taken over as the Royals’ manager, ran into the Pirates’ submarine reliever, Kent Tekulve, who was fresh from helping Pittsburgh win the World Series. Frey asked Tekulve if he would mind working with Quisenberry during the spring and Tekulve said sure.”
Quisenberry threw a sinker from the same kind of side-armed delivery that Tekulve featured. He instantly became a star, saving 33 games in 128.1 innings in 1980, helping the Royals back into the playoffs and ultimately the World Series. His 1983 campaign (139 innings, 45 saves, 1.94 ERA) was rated by Bill James (in 2001) as the 2nd best relief pitcher season in history.
For seven years, from 1980-1986, Quiz was indisputably the best relief pitcher in the game. For those seven seasons (among pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched), Quiz was first in saves (224), third in ERA (2.48), first in park-adjusted ERA+ (163), second in innings pitched (for anyone with at least 80% of their appearances out of the pen) and issued by far the fewest walks per 9 innings (just 1.3). In fact, for any relief pitcher in baseball history with at least 400 innings thrown, his career rate of 1.4 walks per 9 innings is the best ever.
The best case that can be made for Quisenberry as a Hall of Famer is in comparison to Sutter, because they each dominated their craft for a significant period of time and because they finished their respective careers with a nearly identical amount of innings pitched.
In terms of pitching style, the obvious difference is that Sutter’s split-fingered fastball got him lots of strikeouts, highly useful when entering a game with runners in scoring position. Therefore, Sutter had a better rate of preventing inherited runners from scoring. Still, in totality, Quiz saved a higher percentage of his save chances. He was not a strikeout guy but rather a ground ball pitcher who was adept at getting the key double play and, as we’ve seen, one with impeccable control.
Sutter won a Cy Young, while Quisenberry did not, but they each had five top 6 finishes and they each earned a World Series ring.
Ultimately, the biggest statistical difference between Sutter and Quisenberry is in the total number of saves. Sutter hit the then-magic number of 300; Quiz fell far short. Sutter was a below average pitcher in last three seasons but got plenty of save chances nonetheless.
Both pitchers were ineffective and saw their careers end early but Sutter, likely because he was earning big free agent dollars, kept getting save chances in those final mediocre seasons while Quisenberry, bouncing from Kansas City to St. Louis to San Francisco, did not.
This happens a lot in the Hall of Fame debate: player A hits a milestone while player B does not and that makes all the difference in the voting. Draw your own conclusions here. Sutter is now in the Hall of Fame and makes the annual visit to Cooperstown every summer. Quisenberry is not and, even if some future version of the Veterans’ Committee decides to put him (which is highly unlikely), he would not be able to make the ceremony. Sadly, he died in 1998 from a brain tumor.
If you’ve made it all the way through this lengthy Part Three of the History of Relief Pitcher series, congratulations! You are the Mike Marshall of readers, logging all of these words into your brain! The 1970’s and ’80’s were the glory years of the relief ace. The top closers routinely threw over 100 innings per season and were true firemen, coming into games with runners on base, with real fires to be stomped out. This all started to change in 1988, when teams started moving to one-inning closers. This will be the subject of Part Four.
Thanks for reading.