Wednesday, August 2, 2006

A Sigh Of Relief

I've come to the conclusion that the two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen. ~Bob Lemon, 1981

Bruce Sutter was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 30, and that's good. He certainly had to wait long enough, 13 years to be precise. A baseball player becomes eligible for the Hall five years after retiring as an active player. He then stays on the ballot for 15 years, assuming he gets a certain minimum of votes. It's been a lot of years since I've seen the voting setup, but the way it used to work is that voters (mostly sportswriters) pick 10 names from the list. If you appear on 75% of the ballots, whether as number 1 or number 10, you're in.

Now, many years, I'd have trouble picking 10 names worthy of enshrinement. Other years, it seems like there are obvious choices. But the voters are just plain weird. For example, Willie Mays, inarguably one of the greatest to ever play the game, was not named on all ballots his first year of eligibility. He still made it in handily, but how could anyone not put him on a ballot?

(There actually used to be a small hard core bunch of voters who never, ever voted a for a guy the first year he was eligible. Hopefully, those guys are all dead now.)

Where Sutter is concerned, the real issue seems to have been: Should a player who never appeared on a starting lineup card be in the HoF? Sutter is the first such player ever inducted.

For those of you who know absolutely nothing about baseball, Bruce Sutter was the prototype for the modern closing relief pitcher, the guy who comes in and seals the win. Sutter wasn't the first, but he was the best for the longest period of years. His key pitch was the split-fingered fastball, which does nasty things as it comes to the plate. Just as the batter thinks he's about to crush the grapejuice out of the ball, it darts downward, leaving the batter swinging at air.

Baseball has changed a lot over the years. For most of its first 50 years (counting from when the American League joined the National League to form Major League Baseball), relievers were washed-up starters, pitchers with worn-out arms who came in to mop up when the starter let the game get out of hand. Starters were the finishers back then. Teams went with a four-man rotation; if they were lucky enough to have a decent number 5 pitcher, that guy would do relief pitching in winnable situations. Mostly, though, he was just keeping sharp between double-headers (remember those?) when he'd be needed to fill the gap as a starter.

In the late '40's, the Yankees starting using Joe Black (I think the name was) primarily as a reliever. He was actually a good pitcher, who did start once in a while, but he got a lot of relief appearances, too. Gradually, more relief specialists began to appear, although they either were guys who weren't successful as starters, or they were young pitchers who worked relief until they could work their way into the rotation. No pitcher wanted to be known primarily as reliever.

For example, the Cleveland Indians were one of the first teams to have an effective righty-lefty combination coming out of the pen. Don Mossi and Ray Narleski generally alternated relief appearances, but who came in often depended on whether the opposition had mostly left-handers or right-handers batting. They were a very effective duo, but Narleski was dissatisfied with pitching out of the bullpen. He wanted to be a starter. As I recall, the Indians tried him as a starter a few times with unhappy results. Despite his lack of success, he continued to complain so he was traded to someone who would make him a starter. He didn't hang around for too long after that.

As we got to the sixties, teams started converting guys who were starters into relievers. Usually, the pitcher had had some arm trouble and couldn't be counted on to go a full nine innings any longer. The bullpen, with its three-inning-or-less stints, was perfect for a guy who had pitching smarts and knew he only had to go all out for a short time. Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley, both HoF members, were examples.

Goose Gossage was a one-pitch pitcher, a blazing fastball. That's great a couple of times through the lineup, but once batters get the timing on that fastball down, it starts to leave the park faster than it arrived at the plate. But, if you come in at the eighth inning, following a tiring starter whose fastball has been dropping in velocity, and throw 95 MPH BB's, batters are going to have a tough time adjusting.

Sutter, though, never started a game in the majors. He came up as a reliever and retired as one. Like many relievers over the years, he would have three or four very good years, followed by a down year or two. Successful relievers would get into a lot of games, often tiring their arms over the course of a couple of seasons. Then it might take a season to get some life back. Relievers got traded a lot because of those down years, only to make the team that traded them look bad when the arm recovered. Sutter had a lot more good years than bad ones.

Voting relievers into the Hall is going to be a tougher decision in years to come. The game has changed again. Starters aren't expected to be finishers any more. They'll go five, six, or occasionally seven innings. If it's five or six innings when the starter leaves, we have a “middle-inning” guy come in who can hold onto things until the eighth inning, when the “setup man” comes in. Then, in the ninth inning, the closer saunters onto the field. Where Gossage, Sutter, et. al., might come in with tying runs on base and the other team's top hitter coming up, the closer today generally starts the inning fresh with a two or three run lead. If the lead is more than three, someone else, probably another setup guy, will the call, saving the closer for tighter situations.

So the closer pitches even fewer innings. Does that detract from his worthiness for the Hall? And how about those setup guys? They don't get wins, they don't get saves, they don't get noticed. How are they ever going to get credit for a job well done? I guess if you're good enough at being a setup man, you might get to be a closer some day.

All this specialization is at least partly the fault of Sparky Anderson, who had great success managing Cincinatti and fair success running the Tigers. Anderson, known as “Captain Hook” for his willingness to yank a pitcher out of a game, really set the standard for having specialists in the bullpen. Sometimes it seemed as though he had a guy who was his “seventh-inning-face-a-left-handed-batter-with-one-out-and-two-on” pitcher. People complain about the length of games today (although that's mostly due to the increased number of commercials between innings), but a game featuring Anderson on one bench and Dick Williams, another great believer in situational pitchers, on the other, could go on forever with one pitching change after another.

Teams used to carry eight or nine pitchers: Four starters, a fifth-starter and part-time reliever, and four more-or-less full-time relievers. Early in the year, some times might only go with seven pitchers. Last night, I was watching a game, and an announcer mentioned that one team had 13 pitchers on the roster. That's at least four less position players for a manager to work strategy with. The strategy is in the pitching now.

For good or for ill, that's the game as it is today, and Bruce Sutter helped make it that way. When a player has that sort of impact on the game, it shouldn't take 13 years to vote him into the Hall of Fame.

Congratulations, Bruce.

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