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.
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.