Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hard Stuff, Stinginess, and Control in the Bullpen--A Historical Perspective, Part II

Previously on this blog we observed that ace relievers in the pre-expansion era rarely had the high strikeout per nine innings (K/9) ratios, high strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) ratios, and the very low WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched)--all far better than the league average for pitchers--that are characteristic of today's best closers.  This Baseball Historical Insight tracks the arc of the modern relief ace from Dick Radatz and Hoyt Wilhelm in the 1960s, through Dennis Eckersley (whose use and excellence popularized the term, "closer"), to the best of them all--Mariano Rivera.

Hard Stuff, Stinginess, and Control in the Bullpen--A Historical Perspective, Part II

The age of enlightenment in relief pitching began in the 1960s.  Even though a strong bullpen was increasingly recognized as an important ingredient to winning success in the postwar period, few teams followed the practice of developing or inserting a dominating pitcher into the role of relief ace.  Jim Konstanty, appearing in nearly half his team's games (74) with a 16-7 record and 22 saves while averaging more than two innings per relief appearance for the Phillies in the only stellar season of his career, had won an MVP award in 1950, but few relievers were considered even by their teams to be as valuable as front line starting pitchers. That changed in the 1960s when managers began relying on their ace relievers as never before, and their bullpen saviors were expected to be as dominating in their short stints as the best starting pitchers in the game.

Boston's Dick Radatz, known as the "Monster" (not to be confused with the Green Monster in his home ballpark) because of his intimidating 6-6, 230-lb. build and his intimidating fastball, was at the beginning of a wave of power pitchers in the bullpen to close out games that has persisted to this day.  From 1962 to 1964, when he averaged 10.6 strikeouts per year while appearing in 207 games and saving 78 of them (along with a 40-21 record), Radatz's ratio of 3.3 strikeouts for each walk was far better than the dedicated relievers who came before and comparable to power starting pitchers with excellent command and control, and his 1.1 WHIP during those three years was appreciably better than the league average.  Averaging two innings per relief appearance and pitching in 42 percent of the Red Sox' games during those years, however, took a significant toll, and Dick Radatz pitched only four more years after 1964.

Meanwhile, Hoyt Wilhelm--while striking out nearly 7 batters per 9 innings, better than the league average--set an unprecedented standard for stinginess in his six years as the White Sox' bullpen ace from 1963 to 1968.  In 358 relief appearances (and 98 saves) for Chicago, Wilhelm allowed fewer than one base runner per inning.  This was all the more remarkable because Wilhelm was a practitioner of the knuckleball, a pitch whose difficulty to control typically inflates a pitcher's WHIP. Despite his relying on a fluttering pitch, Wilhelm had an excellent 3.1 K/BB ratio during his ChiSox years that was better than most of the power relievers of his and the next generation of relief specialists.  For those who recall that he had been an ace in the New York Giants' bullpen from 1952 to 1956, Wilhelm's K/9 ratio (5.7), control (1.4 strikeouts per walk), and WHIP (1.3) were not nearly what he would achieve in the 1960s.

Over next two decades, most of baseball's best relievers had high K/9 ratios, including Goose Gossage, who fanned more than a batter an inning (657 Ks in 651.2 innings pitched) from 1977 to 1983--all but the first of those years with the Yankees; Bruce Sutter, who averaged a strikeout an inning in the five years he was ace of the Cubs' bullpen from 1976 to 1980; and Lee Smith, who averaged more than 10 Ks per 9 innings over six years from 1985 to 1990 (pitching for the Cubs, Red Sox, and Cardinals), and 8.7 per 9 innings over the course of 18 years and 1,016 relief appearances for his career.  Gossage and Sutter "closed" their way into the Hall of Fame, and Smith--now in his fourteenth year of eligibility--has been a strong contender, although his prospects for selection by the Baseball Writers Association of America may be dimming because of the prominent players now becoming eligible.  During the years mentioned for each, Gossage allowed fewer than one runner on base per inning three times in seven years and Sutter twice in five years; Smith did not break the sub-one WHIP barrier.  Sutter was the only one of these three to average better than three strikeouts per walk, including an excellent 5.6 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 1977--his best year, when he had a 7-3 record and 31 saves for the NL East fourth-place Cubs.  A third Hall of Famer from this era, Rollie Fingers--possibly the most storied reliever until the coming of Mariano Rivera, if for no other reason than his handlebar mustache and pitching for the great (and dysfunctionally colorful) Oakland A's teams in the first half of the 1970s--did not match Gossage, Sutter, or Smith in K/9 ratio or WHIP in their five consecutive best years, but was much better than the league average for starting pitchers in both those categories, as well as in strikeouts per walk.
Enter Dennis Eckersley, the first of the modern closers to command the ninth inning, thanks to his manager Tony LaRussa's innovative scheme for the Oakland Athletics.  Eckersley mastered a closer's trifecta in his five best seasons with the A's from 1988 to 1992, during which he notched saves in 220 of his 310 appearances.  In 359.2 innings pitched in those five years, Eck fanned 378 batters for a 9.5 K/9 ratio while walking only 38 batters, yielding a superb control ratio of 9.95 strikeouts for every batter he walked.  Take away his 12 intentional walks on LaRussa's orders, and Eckersley had a K/BB ratio of 14.5 over five years, which trumps by far Koji Uehara's exceptional 11.2 K/BB ratio in 2013.  Eck not only had exceptional control but was about as difficult to hit as it gets, surrendering 6.2 hits per 9 innings, which contributed to his having a WHIP below 0.8 base runners per inning.  No other closer in history--not even Mariano Rivera--had Dennis Eckersley's combination of strikeouts per 9 innings, control, and stinginess over any five-year period.

Most of the great closers since Eckersley have been high strikeout power pitchers with a ratio of strikeouts to walks at least double the league average for all pitchers and a WHIP in the area of only about one base runner per inning.  Billy Wagner, for example, in a 15-year career from 1996 to 2010 had a strikeout ratio of 11.9 Ks per 9 innings, fanned four for every batter he walked, and had a WHIP just under 1 at 0.998 in 903 innings of relief; Trevor Hoffman in 16 years (1993-2008) charging out of the Padres' bullpen to save the day had a 1.04 WHIP, a K/9 ratio of 9.7, and a K/BB ratio of 4.04 in 902 games and 952.1 innings of work; and Joe Nathan in six years as the Twins' closer from 2004 to 2009 had a 0.94 WHIP, averaged 10.4 Ks per 9 innings; and had a 4.3 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

And finally, appropriately and as always, the last word belongs to Mariano Rivera. The Sandman may not have matched the 1988 to 1992 Eckersley when it came to WHIP, K/9 ratio, and control in any five-year period, but while Eck had only six outstanding seasons as a closer, Rivera's entire 19-year career was outstanding.  In 1,105 games and 1,233.2 innings out of the Yankees' bullpen (including 1996 when he set up for John Wetteland and not including his 10 starts in 1995), Rivera's WHIP was below 1 at 0.97, he struck out 8.3 batters per 9 innings, and had 4.3 strikeouts for every walk he surrendered.  The last time he averaged better than a strikeout an inning was in 2009 (9.8 K/9) at the age of 39, but Rivera remained a control artist and nearly impossible to hit right to the end of his career.  Not including his injury-lost season of 2012 (when he appeared in nine games before ruining his knee shagging fly balls), Rivera allowed fewer than one runner per inning in six of his last eight years closing out Yankee victories.  In his swansong season of 2013, Mariano had a 1.05 WHIP, 7.6 Ks per 9 innings, and struck out six batters for each walk. Although Eckersley's closing brilliance was decisive in his making it to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, he had been a closer for less than half of his 24-year big league career, and voters took into account his full body of work--which included a first career as a starting pitcher.  That means Mariano Rivera will be the first pitcher to be elected to the Hall of Fame exclusively as a reliever on his first very ballot--a percentage certainty even greater than the certainty that the game is saved when the Sandman doth enter.

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