One of the inevitable facts about being a baseball fan in 2013 is that you are almost always going to spend a lot of time listening to other fans gripe about the closer. It comes with the territory of being a fan nowadays.
Unless you’re a Yankee fan and have had the pleasure of watching Mariano Rivera for the last 15 years or so, you’re probably filled with grief and anxiety when games reach the 7th inning. Hell, maybe even the 6th inning.
Yes, modern baseball has a lot of bull today – bullpen that is. Every team has a closer who invariably becomes the lightning rod of talk radio, newspaper columns and the internet, social media, and the like. Like goalies in hockey and placekickers in the NFL, the “closer” is a specialist who is scrutinized on an almost daily basis. Do your job, and you are usually patted on the head and allowed to go back to your seat in the far distance beyond the outfield wall. Mess up, and you may be hung in effigy.
But that’s the modern game. It hasn’t always been that way. Would it surprise you to learn that the 1984 Detroit Tigers didn’t have a “closer”? How shocked would you be if I told you that the “Bless You Boys” championship team – lauded by many as the greatest the franchise has ever fielded – relied on three relief pitchers pretty much all season?
As Paul Harvey used to say, “It’s truuuue.”
When the Tigers broke spring training camp to head north to start the ’84 campaign, they had exactly nine pitchers on their 25-man roster. That’s right – the Tigers started the season with exactly nine arms. That left them 16 position players (one of the great strengths of the ’84 team was their bench, and the reason they failed to repeat in ’85 wasn’t a failure of their starting lineup or pitching staff, it was the complete collapse of their bench). But I digress – this is an article about bullpens.
Sparky Anderson went north in ’84 with nine pitchers: Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Milt Wilcox, Dave Rozema, Juan Berenguar, Aurelio Lopez, Willie Hernandez, Doug Bair, and Glenn Abbott. There were five starters, four relievers, and Abbott was what was called a “mopup man” – he was there to pitch when the game was well out of hand or to start in an emergency should someone get hurt.
Anderson’s intention was to use Morris, Petry, and Wilcox as much as he could in April and early May, when there were enough off days scheduled to allow them to pitch with normal rest but operate in a three or four-man rotation with Rozema as #4. Morris, Petry, and Wilcox were expected to go 8-9 innings, so relievers weren’t at a premium like they are in 2013, when starters are on pitch counts. Strangely, though pitch counts are supposed to protect pitchers today from injury, Morris, Petry, and Wilcox all pitched at least 12 seasons in the big leagues and rarely missed a scheduled start.
With his starting rotation set, Sparky had three workhorses in his bullpen: the left-handed Hernandez, acquired in a trade late in spring training, and two right-handers: Lopez and Bair. All three of these relievers were veterans who had been in the trenches and pitched often out of the pen. Bair was a very good reliever who used a good curveball to complement a sinking fastball. He had once saved as many as 28 games in a season and was a smart pitcher. Hernandez and Lopez each had one A+ pitch: with Willie it was a screwball, and with Aurelio it was a blazing fastball in the mid to upper 90 MPH range. Lopez had been an All-Star and was considered to be the go-to guy out of the Tiger pen. In that era, top relief pitchers were known as “stoppers” because they were expected to enter the game to stop the other team from capitalizing on a rally. That may occur in the 7th, 8th, or 9th innings. They were also known as “firemen” because they were expected to put out the fires.
A look at the very first month of the season shows how different bullpens were used back then. On opening night, Morris was cruising with an 8-1 lead after seven innings. Sparky summoned Lopez and Hernandez to pitch an inning each to get some work. Two days later, with the Tigs ahead by four runs, Hernandez was called in to pitch the 8th and 9th innings, responding with two hitless frames. It was a non-save situation and no one questioned why Willie was being used there. Lopez was considered to be the big gun in Sparky’s bullpen arsenal.
Then Willie got his first save in the next game, and a few days later, Lopez came in to relieve Rozema in the 5th inning, and tossed four innings of one-run ball to get the win as Hernandez nailed down the ninth. Bair pitched 4 1/3 innings of relief less than a week later after Wilcox got in early trouble, and Lopez and Willie again finished it off. But at this point, though Hernandez’s screwball was obviously a deadly weapon that American League hitters were finding nearly impossible to figure out, Lopez was still being used in crucial spots, and Bair was too, when needed.
In fact, in ’84, Lopez was used in 16 save situations, converting 14 of them. That’s right, Lopez had 14 saves that season, to go along with Willie’s 32 in 33 opportunities. Bair was even given seven chances in save situations. There was no “closer controversy” in ’84, and there was never a formula for the bullpen – not really at least. Yes, Hernandez emerged as the stopper and he ended up winning the Cy Young and MVP awards for his great season, but Lopez was far from being a “setup man” and Bair was not a “7th inning guy”. The trio was the backbone of a relief corps that chewed up innings.
There used to be a saying that the more a pitcher threw, the stronger his arm got. The Tigers bullpen in ’84 seems to support that theory. Here are the innings pitched totals: Hernandez (140 1/3); Lopez (137 2/3); Bair (93 2/3). Bair’s total is more than most closers will toss in a season today. And note that the per game averages for the three: 1 2/3 innings for Willie; almost two innings per outing for Lopez; and two innings per game for Bair. When the relievers came in they were used in multiple innings, they weren’t pulled according to some pecking order that was arbitrarily assigned based on status. And it worked.
Later in the season, after the July trade deadline, the Tigers acquired two more left-handed relievers: Sid Monge, a veteran from the Padres; and Bill Scherrer, a quirky southpaw who was used as a specialist against left-handed batters. At times, such as a stretch in late July and early August when the Tigs played several doubleheaders, the pitching staff swelled to 10. But for most of the season, only nine pitchers were needed.
The 2013 Tigers have arguably the best starting rotation in baseball, and the first four guys in that rotation have a reputation for usually going 7 innings. Yet, the current team has seven (count them – seven) relief pitchers. Why? So there will be lively conversations in the bullpen? It’s head-scratching. The ’84 team didn’t have the talent nor the depth in their starting rotation that the ’13 team does, but they got away with 4-5 relievers all season long.
Times they are a changing, but not necessarily for the better.