Baseball is a game that always seems to serve up reminders. Just last week, former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel came to Cooperstown to sign copies of his new book, Phenomenon, which details his sudden loss of control and his career-saving decision to make himself into an outfielder. Ankiel’s presence in Cooperstown immediately brought up memories of past players who have suffered from the so-called “yips,” beginning with Steve Blass in the early 1970s and continuing with players of more recent vintage, like Steve Sax, Joe Cowley, Chuck Knoblauch and Mark Wohlers. Ankiel’s story also rekindled difficult memories of a former Detroit Tigers relief ace, one who seemed to have a long career ahead of him, only to have it come crashing down.
By now, Kevin Saucier (pronounced so-SHAY) has become somewhat of a forgotten name in Tigers history. It’s been 35 years since he last pitched in a game, and his tenure in Detroit predated the team’s world championship season of 1984. But his tale remains worthy of note; it’s one that features some of the same elements as the Ankiel story. Only it didn’t have the happy on-the-field resolution that Ankiel was able to muster.
Saucier’s professional career began in 1974, when the Philadelphia Phillies made him their second round selection in the 1974 amateur draft. Saucier had the kind of live, left arm that makes scouts salivate, but like a lot of young southpaws, he battled control issues at times. Enduring a bumpy five-year road in the minor leagues, he made it to Philadelphia for one game in 1978 and a half-season in 1979. His first real success came in 1980, when he pitched well out of the bullpen and helped the Phillies to the National League East title on the way to the franchise’s first world championship.
The stocky Saucier wasn’t the Phillies’ relief ace—that role was held by Tug McGraw, with some assistance from Ron Reed—but he was Philadelphia’s most effective set-up reliever. He gave the Phillies some quality work in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 25 to 20. Still, the Phillies liked Saucier, who was always willing to take the ball and had the kind of stuff that made him a candidate to replace McGraw in the near future. Fans particularly appreciated Saucier, an emotional sort who pitched with a high level of energy and passion.
During the latter stages of the 1980 season, the Phillies had acquired another veteran left-hander for their crowded bullpen, picking up Sparky Lyle from Texas for a player to be named later. By November, the Phillies had to pay the piper on that player to be named. The cost was exorbitant; it turned out to be Saucier. While the Phillies could justify the deal by pointing to their world championship trophy, the trade seemed lopsided against them. In exchange for an aging 35-year-old reliever clearly past his prime, the Phillies had given up a 23-year-old with the potential to close games for years to come.
As it turned out, Saucier never pitched a day for the Rangers. At the Winter Meetings in December, the Rangers decided to reroute Saucier in another trade, sending him to Detroit for light-hitting shortstop Mark Wagner, who was already blocked by a fellow named Alan Trammell. On the surface, the deal looked like a steal for the Tigers, who had managed to acquire a young left-handed relief ace with enormous potential for a shortstop who had no place to play in Detroit.
Saucier fit the Tigers perfectly. While they already had an acceptable closer in Aurelio Lopez, they desperately lacked a left-handed presence in their bullpen. Of their top five relievers in 1980, only one was left-handed, the moderately successful Pat Underwood, who was hardly overpowering. At the very least, Saucier figured to balance a bullpen that was top heavy from the right side.
Saucier’s impact turned out even more substantially than the Tigers had thought. With his herky jerky motion and his aggressive approach, Saucier pitched so well during the first half of the 1981 season that he wrested the closer’s role away from Lopez. He also became one of the Tigers’ most colorful characters, energetically doing pirouettes on the mound and then frantically shaking his hands teammates after recording one of his saves. The Tigers now understood why Saucier had been nicknamed “Hot Sauce” during his days with the Phillies’ organization.
Hot Sauce could pitch, too. “He’s been outstanding,” Tigers manager Sparky Anderson told Tigers beat writer Tom Gage. “He takes no nonsense and goes after everyone. I like that. He is very aggressive.” At season’s end, Saucier’s strikeout rate looked unimpressive (23 K’s in 49 innings), but he induced soft contact, posted an ERA of 1.65, and saved 13 games to lead the Tigers’ staff during the strike-shortened season. While the Tigers missed out on the postseason, Saucier had more than done his part, becoming one of the most effective relievers in the American League.
Saucier’s performance stirred memories of another talented left-handed reliever for the Tigers, the recently retired John Hiller. Still only 24 years old, Saucier seemed fully capable of succeeding Hiller as the next great southpaw relief ace in the history of the franchise.
That best-case scenario did not develop. The 1982 season started with a spring training blow-up; Saucier, upset with two balk calls against him, berated home plate umpire Dave Pallone and then made a charge at him from the pitcher’s mound. Thankfully, Tigers pitching coach Roger Craig pulled Saucier to the ground before he made contact with Pallone. After leaving the field, Saucier littered the field with clubhouse furniture. Such flashes of temper had occasionally plagued Saucier, while providing yet another explanation for his nickname of Hot Sauce.
Shortly after the season began, Saucier began to struggle with his control. As the season wore on, his control only worsened. His walk total exceeded his strikeout total. The situation became so bad that the Tigers decided the best remedy would involve a temporary demotion to Triple-A Evansville.
Saucier did not take the news well, storming out of Anderson’s office when he heard about being assigned to the minor leagues. Anderson tried to call him back, but Saucier was not interested in hearing more from his manager. “If I could do anything so I would never have to play for the Tigers again, I would do it,” Saucier complained to The Sporting News. The Tigers hoped that Saucier would need only a short time in Evansville, but the demotion evolved from temporary to long-term. In fact, Saucier’s pitching actually regressed further in the minor leagues, as the strike zone became more and more elusive. In 22 innings, he walked 23 batters, his ERA climbing to 7.36. Saucier simply could not throw the ball over the plate, no matter how hard he tried.
After the season, the Tigers assigned Saucier to the Instructional League, where he showed some improvement. He also consulted a doctor, who provided him with some relaxation skills. There seemed to be hope that he could bounce back.
In 1983, Saucier reported to spring training, more subdued and serious than in the past. One day, he started to pitch batting practice, but he felt lost on the mound. He felt that he had no control over where he could throw the ball. Shortly thereafter, the Tigers released Saucier. He signed on with the Atlanta Braves, reported to their camp, and accepted an assignment to Triple-A Richmond. There he put in work with the team’s pitching coach, the legendary Johnny Sain. If anybody could fix Saucier, it would be Sain, arguably the greatest pitching coach in history.
After a few days with Richmond, Saucier told Sain, “[Pitching’s] not for me anymore.” Just like that, Saucier announced his retirement. In citing the reasons for his decision, Saucier said it involved more than just his sudden lack of control. Although he loved the game, his concern for his mental health, and his belief that he might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, forced him to move on. “I wanted to keep my sanity,” said Saucier, in trying to explain why leaving the game was the right thing to do.
Saucier also worried that he could physically harm somebody while on the mound. “It just came over me,” he told the New York Times, recalling his feelings during an exhibition game between Richmond and Columbus. “Whacko. I was throwing the ball all over the place. I thought I was going to kill somebody.”
Unlike Rick Ankiel, who had played as an outfielder in the amateur ranks, Saucier had no other position that he could turn to; he was a pitcher, and a pitcher only. Saucier left the game and did not look back—at least initially. He opened up a pizzeria in Pensacola, FL, but within a few years returned to baseball as a scout, working as a member of the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau.
As a scout for the bureau, Saucier does not work for any specific team. Rather he compiles reports for the bureau, which then provides the information to all 30 teams.
Having worked for the bureau for 30 years, Saucier has found the kind of long-term success in baseball that eluded him as a pitcher. As a scout, there are no cases of the yips. As long as you’re willing to enter the ballpark and watch the players, you can do the job. Given his love of the game, a game that he reluctantly left in 1983, it’s a job that Saucier has no intention of giving up anytime soon.