Thursday, March 28, 2013

Introducing Baseball Historical Insight

More than any other sport, baseball's history informs the present.  Baseball honors its history with both import and reverence, which helps keeps alive its heroes of the past as totems against which the accomplishments of current players, teams, and even managers are invariably measured.  Unlike for statesmen, for whom it is said that to be unaware of history is to be condemned to repeat mistakes of the past, for baseball fans, to be unaware or unmindful of the game's history is to be missing out on what makes the game so special and endearing.  As we are about to be caught up in the drama of the 2013 season and follow the daily highlights, my purpose in Baseball Historical Insight is to remind baseball fans of the legacy implicitly carried by every player, every manager, and every team in the major leagues today.

The following is the first Historical Insight:


As Mariano Rivera embarks on the final season of his Hall of Fame career,it is worth remembering that he follows in a New York Yankees' line of exceptional relief pitchers--typically the best in baseball, or at least the American League, during their time in pinstripes--dating back to Johnny Murphy, who pioneered the role in the mid-1930s.

Despite the success the Washington Senators had winning back-to-back pennants in 1924 and 1925 using hard-throwing right-hander Firpo Marberry nearly exclusively in relief--which was unprecedented for a pitcher with his talent--there was still no epiphany in major league baseball that "relief ace" deserved to be its own pitching discipline, that good pitchers might be developed and used for years specifically in that role.  In 91 relief appearances those two years, in which he finished 70 games, Marberry proved the value of his role by winning 15 games while saving 30 of Washington's 188 victories.  And thus was the relief ace born.

But the concept of a dedicated relief ace was slow to catch hold.  Major league teams were not especially warm to the idea of using talented young pitchers like Marberry in relief roles for very long before making them starters, and starting pitchers were expected to get complete game victories.  Consequently, most teams continued to use multi-role pitchers who both started and relieved to "save" close games, or auditioned pitchers in the relief role before either moving them after a season or two into the starting rotation or determining that they were unlikely to achieve starting-pitcher quality and letting them go.  And rather than use the designated relief pitchers in any given year to "save" victories, managers typically relied on some of their top starting pitchers for such an important task.  Lefty Grove and Dizzy Dean, for example, were both top-flight starting pitchers who, in their peak years, also routinely led their team in saves.  Most pitchers who worked primarily in relief spent much of their time replacing starting pitchers who were knocked out early, or working in games that were lost causes.  Obviously, no self-respecting pitcher with ambition wanted any part of "relief pitcher" as a career path.

It wasn't until the Yankees in 1935 that another team specifically groomed a young pitcher--in their case, Johnny Murphy--to be an ace reliever as a career calling.  The previous year, as a 25-year old rookie, Murphy had started 20 games and relieved in 20 games, and pitched well in both roles, but his manager, Joe McCarthy, did not see Murphy as a front-line starter--at least not on a staff that also included future Hall of Famers Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez.   Deciding to divide his pitching staff into exclusively-starters and exclusively-relievers, McCarthy persuaded Murphy to give up whatever dreams he may have had of being a starting pitcher to become his ace in the bullpen.  Unlike other managers of his day, McCarthy in all his years of winning success with the Yankees rarely used his top four starters out of the bullpen.  Instead, he routinely carried three (sometimes four) pitchers he used almost exclusively in relief, the best of whom--Johnny Murphy--was both his "fireman," coming in late in the game with runners on base to douse the flames of an opposition rally (and, indeed, one of Murphy's nicknames was "Fireman"), and his "closer" (although the term was not yet used in a Mariano Rivera context), coming in specifically to save games.

McCarthy used Murphy judiciously and efficiently.  From 1935 to his final season with the Yankees in 1946 (not counting the two years--1944 and 1945--he served in the military during World War II), Johnny Murphy appeared in as many as 38 games in relief only once (in 1939) and relieved in 35 games or more only four other times.  But his relief appearances were invariably productive.  Working about two innings per relief appearance, and leading the American League in saves four times, Murphy pitched 262 games in relief for the Yankees from 1936 to 1943, when they won seven pennants in eight years. His record in relief during those seasons was 60 wins and 34 losses with 88 saves, meaning that in 70 percent (182 games) of his total relief appearances, Johnny Murphy figured directly in the outcome of the game.  McCarthy was clearly using Murphy when it mattered the most.

Indicative of McCarthy's genius in handling his pitching staff during the Joe DiMaggio-era Yankee dynasty, the New York Yankees led the league in both complete games and saves in 1937, 1939, and 1942.  This had been done only once previously, by the 1926 St. Louis Cardinals, and would be done only once more in the twentieth century--by the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers.  The significance of this hardly needs to be said:  at least until the 1990s, when complete games plummeted to less than 10 percent, teams with starting pitching good enough to lead the league in complete games did not need to go to relief pitchers so often that their pitching staff also led the league in saves.  That happened only five times in the twentieth century,including three times in six years by a Yankee team that had excellent starting pitching and a strong bullpen led by Johnny Murphy.  Manager McCarthy was more than astute in how he employed his pitching staff.  He gave his starting pitchers every opportunity to complete a victory, but was intuitive enough to know when it was . . . Johnny Murphy time.

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