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The Closer

One week in July 2008 provided baseball fans and, particularly, devotees of the bullpen, with a full measure of sorrow and joy. On Monday, July 19, at age 81, the venerated baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, my predecessor in the post of MLB Historian, died; six days later, on Sunday, pitcher Goose Gossage entered the game’s Valhalla with induction into the Hall of Fame, capping a 22-year career as a relief pitcher of the old school. By that last phrase I mean a reliever who was called in to put out the fire whenever it happened to erupt, not merely a closer in the current style, one who enters the game in the ninth inning with no one on base, succeeds at a rate of 90 percent or higher and, for a winning club, amasses 40 or more saves in a season.

Gossage owed no small portion of his success to Holtzman, who in addition to being “the dean of baseball writers,” may fairly be said to have invented the very thing that measured a reliever’s success: the save. Certainly “inventing” is a term that is fraught with peril for the history of any field of innovation, more so for a game that long embraced Abner Doubleday as its Edison (or Tesla). And it is true that Pat McDonough — who oddly enough went on to become “the dean of bowling writers” — developed a similar stat in 1924 which he called “games finished by relief hurlers”; its first appearance in print came in the New York Telegram three years later.

At about this time the game’s first great reliever, Fred “Firpo” Marberry, had complained that “if the relief pitcher holds the opposing club in check, he gets no credit. The pitcher who preceded him and couldn’t stand the pace wins the game.” As the decades progressed, a little-noticed trend was taking shape: fewer complete games, and more clubs employing relief specialists. From 1876 to 1904, 90.5 per cent of all games were finished by the pitchers who had started them. In 1924 to 1946, that figure was nearly halved (45.9), in then in 1959 to 1978, nearly halved again (25.7). By 2007 the percentage of games completed by the starter had nosedived to 2.3 per cent, producing an all-time low in complete games (112) and, since 1894, shutouts (43).

Holtzman recognized in 1959-60 that something dramatic was happening on the field that was invisible in the box score and, by extension, at the bargaining table when relievers came to negotiate their salaries for the next season. As he told Darrell Horwitz in an interview in 2005: “Elroy Face was 18-1 with Pittsburgh in 1959. I was traveling with the Cubs. The Cubs had two relief pitchers: right-hander Don Elston and left-hander Bill Henry. They were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it.” It burned him that Face was piling up wins by blowing saves and then having the Pirates rally for him.

Holtzman, then with the Chicago Sun-Times, came up with fairly rigorous rules for crediting saves, and The Sporting News began listing the league leaders during the 1960 season. In Holtzman’s rules, to gain a save a reliever needed to face the potential tying or winning run and his team had to win the game. Interestingly, a pitcher did not have to finish the game to earn the save, but only one save could be awarded per contest. Think how this definition, were it in force today, might impact managers’ use of their best bullpen pitchers.

By 1969, the year in which Major League Baseball made the save an official statistic, Holtzman’s original definition was simplified to credit only a reliever who finished a game that his team won. In 1973 the save was redefined again so that a reliever had not only to finish the game but also to find the potential tying or winning run on base or at the plate, or, alternately, to pitch the final three innings of a victorious contest (whatever the score when he entered the game). In 1975 the rule was liberalized to include a reliever’s game-ending appearance of one inning or more in which he protects a lead of three runs or less; or his entrance into and ultimate completion of the game with the tying or winning run on base, at bat, or on deck; or his pitching three innings to the game’s conclusion.

Now that the complete game has become a near anachronism — although it has bounced modestly each season since the low point of 2007 — interest focuses increasingly on the closer and his motley band of setup men. In 1979 I published a book titled, now quaintly, The Relief Pitcher: Baseball’s New Hero. Apart from a painfully thorough review of bullpen history from the 1860s to 1978, which I closed with a profile of the Yankees’ new star Goose Gossage, I also made bold to predict bullpen trends.

“Gossage represents the future of relief pitching,” I wrote, “which rests in the hands of the power pitchers. This trend, slowly developing since the introduction of artificial turf a decade ago, repudiates the wisdom of the past 75 years, that in the pinch what was needed was a sinkerballer who could ‘throw those grounders’ and get those double plays….” One day soon, I concluded, “it will be meaningless to think of the starting pitcher as primary and the finishing pitcher as secondary; they will be equally important. We are not really far at all from that being the truth.” If my crystal ball has proved a bit cloudy, I point out in defense that I wrote the book at a time when smaller ballparks were being phased out for larger ones, Astroturf was supplanting grass, and a ball hit in the air was a better outcome than one hit on the ground.

Now that we are deep into the age of the closer, who piles up saves and thereby adulation, not to mention dollars, it may be instructive to contemplate both Gossage’s career, in which he compiled more than 50 saves of two innings or greater duration, and Holtzman’s original definition of a save — which supposed that the crisis in a game could come at any time, not only in the ninth. Any fan who has witnessed the bullpen blow up in the seventh or the eighth while the preordained closer awaited his star turn may testify to the truth of that.

Not all runs are created equal — that is the presumption in MLB today. A run allowed or prevented in the ninth is more valuable because either your team or your opponent will be unlikely to respond. But this is the same thinking that has yielded the illusion of clutch hitting — that a .220 hitter who bats .320 with men on base in late innings is a star rather than a game-long slug and drag on the offense. It has turned out that clutch hitting by lesser players is not a repeatable skill but the product of chance, and the best hitters in the clutch over a career (a stretch long enough to reach a statistically meaningful conclusion) tend to be the best hitters in your lineup … the ones you bat in the middle of the order.

What if “saving” a game by marching on the field in the ninth, accompanied by the blare of your designated song, were as much an illusion as clutch hitting? Bill Felber did an ingenious study of this question for Total Baseball in the mid-1990s. After reviewing all closely contested games in each of three years (1952, 1972, and 1992) he concluded: “Although the styles managers employ to wrap up victories have changed over the decades — and although the salaries paid to relief pitchers have changed even more — the results have not. Major league teams today blow late-inning leads at almost precisely the same frequency they did twenty and even forty years ago, when there was no such thing as a closer or set-up man, bullpens were commonly refuges for failed starters, and managers signaled for relief help only at the moment of absolute peril.”

When Holtzman came up with the save, those pitchers who were not starters breathed a sigh of relief. Gossage made a Hall of Fame career with hard-earned saves; he was not a “designated hero” like Dennis Eckersley, who in 1992 won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards for garnering 51 saves, only 10 of which reflected his protection of a one-run lead. The system developed by his manager, Tony La Russa, so widely emulated today, disproportionately rewards one reliever in the same way that in football place-kickers seem to win or lose football games in the final minute, minimizing the efforts of real players who spilled their blood over the previous 59.

The former plight of the unrecognized relief pitcher led to the creation of the save. The creation of the save has now in turn yielded the over-recognized closer. And fans are the worse for it, enduring games that are a half hour longer because of bullpen machinations productive of largely nothing. The beauty of baseball has been that it is a players’ game … not, like football, one micromanaged at every stage by coaches.

The predictable end of the relentless advance of specialization in baseball was envisioned by John McGraw in the 1920s. When asked what he thought about the idea of having a designated hitter, he replied that “one might as well go all the way and let a club play nine defensive players in the field and then have nine sluggers do all the hitting.”

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