As anyone who has ever seen eight cars parked right next to each other in a 200 car parking lot knows, we humans often behave very much the same as the sheep we like to make fun of do. This is often the case among management type folks, even in baseball. Hector Szerkopf, who deliberately walked in front of a moving streetcar in Brooklyn New York after making the first out at third base in a sandlot game in 1903, started a trend. Little did witnesses know that the real reason he did that was because of his failure to make people fully understand his proposal for the infield fly rule, which subsequently took a full half century to be properly implemented.
Sheepheads who currently run major league baseball teams abuse old fart traditionalists like myself in many ways. Today, we will discuss just one—the role of the “closer” on just about all of the 30 teams. I believe that a false need has been created and I tend to blame Tony LaRussa for being the Szerkopf in this instance.
In 1920, at the end of the so-called dead ball era, starting pitchers completed 1399 out of the 2468 games started, or 57 per cent. Many starters pitched between 250 and 300 innings for the season. At the extreme end, Pete Alexander of the Cubs completed 33 out of 40 starts and pitched in relief in six other games for a total of 363 innings. He won 27 and lost 14 for a Chicago team that finished three games under .500.
In 1954, starting pitchers completed 840 out of 2472 games played, or 34 per cent. So expectations for starters had decreased or, perhaps, recognition of the validity of bullpen usage had increased. Either way, in both of these seasons the pitching load was pretty much shared by nine or ten hurlers per team and there were at least six or seven bench players on every roster. Robin Roberts of the Phillies had taken up the Pete Alexander role with 337 innings pitched and a 23-15 record for the Phils, who finished four games under .500. He completed 29 of 38 starts and came out of the bullpen seven times in addition to that but, by this time, his was more like an extreme case and not very many (11) pitchers hurled 250 innings or more (and three of those pitched for Cleveland).
More roster spots were held by pitchers in 1988 despite the adoption of the designated hitter rule by the American League 15 years earlier. Complete games by starting pitchers totaled 622 that season, 15 per cent of the 4200 starts. Dennis Eckersley of the Oakland Athletics fit the image of relief pitcher for the years previous to that because he was an aging (33) flame thrower who had fallen on rough times with the Cubs, completing just one of 32 starts in 1986, with a 6-11 won lost record and a 4.57 earned run average. With the A’s in ’87, he made only two starts but appeared in 54 games and tied Jay Howell for the team lead in saves with 16 with an E.R.A. of 3.03. His role became more defined in’88 as Oakland waltzed to the A.L. West title with 104 wins. Their entire pitching staff had well defined roles as four starters began 132 games and Gene Nelson was used for long relief and Eric Plunk, Greg Cadaret, and especially Eckersley were used to finish games off. Eckersley bumped his saves total to 45 in 60 games with 73 innings of work and an E.R.A. of 2.35. LaRussa was hailed as a genius for, among other things, discovering the potential brilliance in the diminished stamina of the former starter. This, I believe, is when the perceptions of others in baseball began to separate from reality with regard to pitching staffs.
Now it is simply conventional wisdom that you have to have an Eckersley or a Mariano Rivera on your team or else you can’t win. Who is your closer? So we have a seemingly endless parade of “closer” candidates who are asked to , usually, throw as hard as they can or with “lights out” trick pitches until they need surgery, at which time we will desperately seek another. Well, Eck is in the Hall of Fame and Rivera will be soon but there is not and does not have to be an endless supply of Hall of Fame pitchers for general managers to pick and choose from in the year 2015, even though many are now being groomed in college and even high school. I think Whitey Herzog, who also had some success as a manager, was correct. He said that he felt that it was better for a reliever to throw two innings in one game and then not pitch the next day than to be out there every night for one inning because it’s a “save” opportunity. He also, I believe correctly, felt that many games are determined well before the ninth inning and that when big trouble exists and you need your best reliever in the 6th, 7th, or 8th inning, why wait?
That brings me to the final point which is that there is no more overrated and useless statistic in baseball than what is called a “save”, with the possible exception of “WHIP”. Jerome Holtzman had it right back in 1960: a pitcher should be awarded a save if he finishes a game in which he either faces the potential tying or winning run as the first batter he faces out of the bullpen or else he finishes the final three innings of a victory. Period. As it now stands, I can come into a game in the start of the 9th inning with a three run lead, give up two runs, leave the bases loaded, and get a save.That’s an E.R.A of 18.00, which no Hall of Famer to my knowledge ever logged. Worse, managers save their most prized possession, THE CLOSER, for only “save opportunities”. Rubbish. That’s a good definition of inflated currency. Then you hear about how it takes a “special kind of pitcher” to want that job. Well, yeah. That’s why they call it the major leagues.