Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 4, 2001
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Gossage, Sutter & Other Relievers
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
The starting-pitcher analysis is taking longer than I expected; look for me to wrap up the Hall of Fame debate with an overview of Morris, Blyleven, Tiant, John & Kaat next week. For now I’ll take a brief look at the relief pitchers on the ballot.
Let’s start with the basics: There have been two Hall of Famers elected as career relief pitchers: Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm. Until about the 1950s (with rare exceptions like Fred “Firpo” Marberry), outstanding pitchers rarely spent a significant period of their careers in relief. The top relief pitchers of the 1900-1955 period do include a number of Hall of Famers, but those were starters who closed games between starts (including Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson) or old guys playing out the string (Satchel Paige, who was a highly effective reliever in the majors, and still a strikeout pitcher, in his mid-40s). Because of this we have no established standards for what is and is not a Hall of Fame reliever. What we do have is Fingers and Wilhelm.
The clearest conclusion we can draw is that both of these guys lasted an extraordinarily long time as effective relievers, carrying heavy workloads in a business where few guys have that combination of effectiveness, consistency, longetivity, and ability to pitch a lot of innings. Counting his brief trial as a starter, Wilhelm threw over 100 innings 11 times, with an ERA below 3.00 in 8 of those, and over 80 innings 17 times, with an ERA below 3.00 12 times, including a streak in the late 60s of five straight seasons below 2.00. Fingers threw over 100 innings 11 times, including 10 in a row, with an ERA below 3.00 nine times, including 8 of those in a row (he only cleared 80 innings 1 other time, with a bad ERA, though he won an MVP award throwing 78 innings with a 1.04 ERA in the two-thirds of a season played in 1981). It helped, of course, that both guys retired as the all-time saves leader.
I’m satisfied that both guys belong, given their combination of these virtues. But I’m in no great hurry to build a relief pitcher wing in the Hall of Fame. There are no pinch hitters in Cooperstown, no backup catchers, no late-inning defensive subs – heck, Yaz, Paul Molitor, and Jim Rice are the closest we are soon likely to see to a career DH in the Hall (unless Edgar Martinez keeps hitting .330 until he’s 45). And that’s OK, because none of those jobs is nearly as important to a baseball team as an everyday player or a guy who starts 35 games a year, at 6 to 8 innings a pop. Neither is a relief pitcher; the modern 60-70 inning closer faces somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 batters a year, while regular players bat 600-700 times and starters generally face at least 800-1000 batters a year (even today).
It's certainly true that 100 innings of relief, from a closer or a key middle reliever, is worth a lot more than 100 innings of starters’ work, because teams save their best relievers for the late innings of close games, where they can have a disproportionate impact on a team’s record. Then again, starting pitchers ALWAYS enter the game with a tie score, and a team’s ability to maximize the number of games where it has a big lead or is in a close game entering the seventh inning has a much bigger effect on its overall record than its ability to win the close ones. After all, few pennant winning teams play better than .540-.550 ball in close games.
To be extremely generous to the relievers, let’s estimate the value of a relief inning as twice the value of an inning of starters’ work, on the theory that starters spend half their time pitching in games that are not close and were never in danger of being close. This is demonstrable nonsense, but it gives us a floor that we expect relievers to meet. That makes the 100-inning reliever worth just as much as the 200-inning starter. It does NOT, however, make today’s 60-inning reliever worth much more than half the value of a 230-inning starter, let alone the 320-inning starter of the early 1970s or the 270-inning starter of the 1978-85 period.
Then, let’s do one other critically important thing: ignore saves. That’s right, ignore saves. Examine saves, wins and losses as measurements of how much time a reliever spent pitching in critical situations, but don't use those stats to evaluate a reliever’s bottom line -- saves are just too dependent on how a manager uses a pitcher, and with the game on the line a guy’s “ability” to convert save opportunities is useless.
You don’t believe me? The World Series is on the line with three outs needed and a 1-run lead, and you have two choices: bring in 1978 Goose Gossage, who saved 27 games, had a 2.01 ERA, with 122 K, 87 hits allowed in 134.1 innings, and a fastball that could pound a catcher’s mitt into diamonds; or 1998 Rick Aguilera, who saved 38 games, had a 4.24 ERA, with 75 hits and 57 K in 74.1 innings (I don’t have their save % numbers here, but you get the idea). Who are you going to call? Aguilera’s saves are meaningless at this point – you want Goose’s firepower. I could list pages of examples like this. Starting with the assumption that most relievers who are up for Cooperstown weren’t mop-up men, we should throw saves out the window and just ask three things:
1. How much did they pitch?
That makes the Goose a pretty easy call. In his heyday, he was a totally dominating figure, throwing between 133 and 141.2 innings with an ERA between 1.62 and 2.01 in 1975, 1977 and 1978. Leaving aside his disastrous 1976 foray into starting, when you combine 1975 with 1977-85 he threw at least 79 innings with an ERA below 2.30 seven times in 10 years, and with an ERA below 3.00 eight times. Gossage threw in an 0.77 ERA in 46.2 innings in 1981; the only off year was 1979, when he was his usual self but pitched just 58.1 innings because he broke his hand in a clubhouse fight with Cliff Johnson. And he was better than his ERAs indicate because he was so unhittable entering games with men on base.
The Goose was a classic “fireman” rather than a modern “closer,” sometimes riding the bench during easy “save situations” but often entering close games in the seventh or eighth innings with men on base. Twice he averaged more than two innings per game for an entire season (1975 and 1978), and he averaged over 1.5 innings per game in nine of his ten “peak” seasons. He made nine All-Star teams. True, Gossage stuck around too long, but even after 1985 he had ERAs below 3.00 twice plus a 3.12 mark in hitter-happy 1987; he also pitched well in 1993 (at age 41) but had his season ERA ruined by one horrific outing where LaRussa left him in during a blowout to give up something like 7 or 8 runs to save the younger arms in the pen.
In short, while Gossage’s declining years and early struggles as a starter don’t help his reputation, they certainly don’t detract from his towering peak. For example, he had a 3.01 ERA in 1809.1 innings, but it was 2.55 in 1366.1 innings if you throw out those four early seasons where they screwed around with him as a starter and 2.93 in 1714.1 innings if you remove his last two seasons. In my book, he’s IN.
As for Bruce Sutter, when he was on with the Cubs, he was UNTOUCHABLE -- the toughest pitcher I've ever seen (including Pedro), the most unhittable pitcher I've even seen (including Ryan and El Sid), and the guy who humilated batters most that I've seen (including the Big Unit). In his second season in the NL, Sutter had a 1.34 ERA, striking out 129 batters while allowing 92 baserunners in 107.2 innings; the league ERA was 4.40, more than three times Sutter’s. Even Pedro can’t top that (nor any other starting pitcher ever).
Though Sutter’s late-season fades, and restrictions on his use to combat them, presaged the modern closer, Sutter never threw less than 82.1 innings (and that in 1981) in his first ten seasons in the majors. In 1984 he had another eye-popping year, a 1.54 ERA in 122.2 innings, Dwight Gooden-ish numbers if you indulge in our fantasy that a reliever’s inning is worth two for a starter.
Still, the outstanding seasons for Sutter number only 7 or 8, and he neither had as many dominant seasons as the Goose nor as many good ones. He cleared 110 innings but once, and had ERAs below 2.60 just three times, pitching in a more pitcher-friendly league. He was totally and utterly through by age 32. He was in six All-Star games, good but not really a Hall of Fame mark. In his Cardinal years he didn’t have the same intimidating effect as he had before. Yeah, he was a Candy Cummings-like pioneer, but I’m not a big fan of honoring innovators unless they can turn their inventions into Cooperstown-worthy results. Hey, Steve Yeager invented that thing that hangs down from the catcher’s mask . . . he pitched just over 1000 innings in his career, barely half as many as Fingers or Dizzy Dean, the patron saint of pitchers with short careers. Sutter’s not so far off – but he has to stay OUT.
Keith Woolner of the Baseball Prospectus lays out a case for Tom “the Terminator” Henke, but again I don’t see it. Henke pitched 789.2 innings in his entire big league career; Bert Blyleven, on the ballot with Henke, threw almost 5,000 innings and appeared in 50 more games, even as a starter. Henke never threw 100 innings and only once appeared in more than 66 games in a season. He even only led the league in saves once, if that’s your criterion. Henke was an extremely good and consistent closer – 311 saves and a 2.67 career ERA – and pitched well in the postseason, but I put Henke’s Hall of Fame case in the bin with Manny Mota, Herb Score and Smokey Joe Wood. OUT.
Dave Righetti three years as a promising starter, three years as an outstanding closer, five years playing with matches in the ninth inning of close games, and three years accepting charity from major league organizations. Sound like an immortal to you? He saved 46 games once; Antonio Alfonseca saved 45 last year. OUT.
Steve Bedrosian won a Cy Young award by default when the best starting pitcher in the NL went 8-16 for the defending NL West champs (you can’t give a guy with an 8-16 record the Cy Young award). Bedrock should be content with that piece of immortality. OUT.
(A final note: one other guy who was even more valuable than Sutter and almost comparable to Gossage in his career, and another who wasn’t far behind Sutter? Kent Tekulve and the late Dan Quisenberry, respectively, neither of whom threw hard enough to dent play-doh. Tekulve had a 2.85 career ERA in over 1000 games and over 1400 relief innings, and the Quiz in his best season threw 139 innings with an ERA less than half the league’s. You could look it up).
Also, random HOF thought for the day: In 1984, one of the four seasons on which Don Mattingly’s boosters rest his Hall case (Mattingly won the batting title), the AL MVP voters rated him third AMONG FIRST BASEMEN, behind Kent Hrbek and Eddie Murray. After finishing first in 1985 and second in 1986, Mattingly didn't finish in the top five in '87. Think about that the next time somebody tells you that Mattingly was revered as a god in his prime.
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