Santiago Casilla is and has been, as far as anyone can tell, a good, honorable man who stays out of trouble, makes friends easily, and has worked hard and successfully at his job, which for the past seven years has been pitching baseball for the San Francisco Giants. Lately, however, to speak his name among followers of the San Francisco baseball team is to induce moans and groans and calls for his banishment to the caves where lepers and people who vote for third party candidates have been sent. Why? Has he been molesting children, beating his wife, or refusing to stand for the National Anthem? No. He has been “blowing saves”. Manager Bruce Bochy, an overly patient man if ever there was one, has apparently had enough. The other night Bochy turned to others to protect a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning but Hunter Strickland and Steven Okert yielded five runs and the Giants lost an important game to San Diego, 6-4. So who will be the Giants'”closer” now? Many teams every season face the same question. How about this for an answer: nobody.
I must confess that I was quite a statistics nerd as a youngster but that was before the onset of computers and now I sort of resent a lot of them. The most meaningless stat currently bobbing around is the one called “saves”. If I start the ninth inning of a game with my team ahead, 6-3, and I give up a walk and three hits that score two runs but then get the third out I get a “save” in the 6-5 victory. Wow. If I start a game and give up two runs in the first inning and then leave the game after six innings trailing 2-1 and my team never catches up while losing, 3-1 for instance, the statistic I get is a “loss”. Now, which job performance was better? Some saves are well earned but as they accumulate it gets hard to tell the difference. Okay, that’s one objection to the relatively new status of “closer” on every pitching staff but I have more. I think it was over rated genius Tony LaRussa who started us down this path to absurdity. In 1987 LaRussa was managing the Oakland Athletics and he had on his pitching staff a 32 year old right hander who threw pretty hard but seemed on the verge of burning out as a starting pitcher. Dennis Eckersley was that pitcher. He was mostly a starter between his rookie year of 1975 and 1986. His best season was 1978 for the Red Sox, when he won 20 and lost 8 with 16 complete games in 35 starts. He was just about as good in ’79, winning 17 and losing 10 with the same earned run average of 2.99 that he had the year before and 17 complete games in 33 starts. That’s particularly impressive when your home field is Fenway Park. By ’87 some wear and tear was starting to show. LaRussa was putting together his machine like efficient team that won a World Series in 1989 and probably should have won a couple more. The A’s had Dave Stewart, a 30 year old reclamation project who averaged over 7 innings per start that year with 261 innings pitched, but other starting pitchers like Curt Young and Steve Ontiveros were not so hardy. So Eckersley became a relief pitcher and, like Greg Cadaret and Gene Nelson, was able to keep things within reach after early departures while the offensive machine that consisted of Carney Lansford, Terry Steinbach and the McBashroid Brothers developed their run scoring capabilities and the A’s became a .500 team.
The next season the A’s really blossomed and Eckersley also did in his new role. They won 104 games, finishing 13 games ahead of the Twins in the A.L. West. LaRussa was looking very smart, both for making Stewart his ace starter and for the conversion of Eckersley to ace reliever, not yet termed “closer”. Eckersley’s innings decreased from the 115.67 in “87 when he had started two games to 72.67 in “88 with a league leading 45 saves in 60 games compared to 16 saves in 54 games in ’87. The ERA decreased from 3.03 to 2.35. He wasn’t perfect, though, as Kirk Gibson might tell you. Then, in 1989, the A’s just about were perfect and so too was Eckersley as they added Rickey Henderson to the mix again and won it all.
This led, as things so often do, to other organizations asking themselves, “Why don’t we try that?” What was now different was not so much having relief pitchers but having more specialized roles. Tony effectively had said to Eck, “Go let it all hang out, because I’m only going to use you when we are ahead in the ninth, and then go pound some Budweisers”. Now, of course, we have seventh inning pitchers, eighth inning pitchers, left handed specialists, and some very insidious myths being perpetrated.
First, the idea of not using one of your supposed best pitchers unless you have the lead after eight innings is nothing short of ridiculous.We all know that the game is very often very much on the line before that. Waiting for the offense to get you a lead first is both insulting to the rest of your pitching staff and not showing much confidence in your batters’ ability to score late (oh, that’s right–not against any of the 30 lights out invincible closers).
Second, sorry, but I believe it has become rather obvious that there aren’t 30 lights out, invincible “closers” on the planet at any one time. Why pretend that there could be? Eckersley and Mariano Rivera are in the Hall of Fame as are other relief pitchers.They are deserving but, at least for now, they cannot be cloned. What made more sense was the way teams used bullpens previously, which I predict they will return to before too long. What do I mean by that? Well, for one thing,it’s bad enough to have starters who can’t go past five innings but then to also have relievers who can’t pitch more than one or who can only face batters from one side of the plate borders on lunacy. What we have today is quantity over quality. Let’s jump into the wayback machine for a short hop to 1977 just for argument’s sake. One World Series team from that season was the New York Yankees, who won a lot of games despite having rather spotty starting pitchers. Their bullpen wasn’t exactly invincible either, but fortunately they had Sparky Lyle, a lefty who toiled 137 innings at various times in various games with a 2.17 ERA and 26 “saves”. They also had righty Dick Tidrow, who could give them a long start OR a long relief session. He pitched 151 innings. Starters sometimes don’t get that many innings these days. And the Yankees won the whole thing. The Pittsburgh Pirates had fairly good starters led by John Candelaria in ’77 but they also leaned heavily on a bullpen that featured Goose Gossage (133 innings, 1.62ERA), Kent Tekulve (103 innings), Grant Jackson (91 innings with two starts) and Terry Forster (87 innings including six starts). The Philadelphia Phillies were perhaps the best example. They had four guys who could finish a game: Tug McGraw, Gene Garber, Ron Reed, and Warren Brusstar. They had 46 saves among them. Reed started 3 games and they all pitched between 71 and 124 innings while backing a starting staff that featured Steve Carlton and several Hail Marys.The Phillies won 101 games and the East Division that year. The physiology hasn’t changed that much in 39 years.
Third, there are young people today being trained to pitch as relievers. This is all wrong. Every pitcher should begin as a starting pitcher just like every batter should learn to field a position. Give up on them when they are 35, not 13. This is the worst of all the bad features.
Finally, something we’ve now heard so many times that we start to assume it must be true: it takes a “certain mentality” to pitch the ninth inning. Look, it takes a certain mentality to get out of bed every morning and get ready for a workday that could be dangerous and body wrecking or perhaps just boring and repetitive with little reward. People do it, however, to get the bills paid and try to support their children or at least themselves. I got your certain mentality right here. If you can pitch you should pitch and that’s what managers need to get across.