October 2, 2023

Dousing the Flames

May 26, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

My, have the one-time accessories known as pitchers evolved. You see, when baseball began, pitchers served as a launching pad for batters’ rockets. Standing 50 feet from their counterpart, only a few moments snuck by before their rockets went up, up and away on contact.

As recently as 1980, relievers milled around in the shadows. “Relievers were like utility players who weren’t good enough to start,” seven-time All-Star and three-time Rolaids Relief Award winner Lee Smith says of his big-league beginnings in 1980 (vii, Fireman). Try to catch up with a 103 m.p.h. Joel Zumaya pitch in the present. The question is, how did we get here? Fran Zimniuch examines in “Fireman.”

Read this book because:

1. Zimniuch presents thorough historical research.
The first thing you should know is that we’ve come a long way from baseball’s first relief appearance in April 1876 to Zumaya’s hybrid heater at present. Substitutions were in fact prohibited, injury or sickness notwithstanding.

Historian Bill James credits “Firpo” Marberry as “the first true reliever in baseball history who was the first pitcher aggressively used to protect leads, rather than being brought in when a starter was knocked out.” (22) When Marberry logged a career-high 64 appearances in 1926, 59 came out of the bullpen. Other than Lefty Grove, no pitcher meant more to his team from 1926 to ’34, James says. Marberry’s evaluation may be subjective, but Jim Konstanty’s 1950 performance stands for the ages. Twenty-two saves and a 2.66 ERA made him the first reliever to earn an MVP award. 

Plenty of purists scoffed at the thought of a lofty reliever then and for many years later. “The role of a starting pitcher when I played in the ’60s and ’70s was to get into the late innings,” Cubs Hall of Fame hurler Fergie Jenkins said. “There were no pitch counts in those days. The first or second time you pitched in spring training, you went for as long as you could to build up the stamina.” (59) Continued fellow Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, “Your mindset as a starter was to go nine. Nowadays if you pitch six innings, you did a great job.” (61)

Nolan Ryan is fed up. As President of the Texas Rangers, Ryan has abolished pitch counts throughout the organization. The “Ryan Express” never heard of the idea, and he chugged for 27 years. In 1973, Ryan threw around 134 pitches per start. Still want to talk pitch counts and micro-managing?

2. Fans can see box score has evolved.
 Like many baseball junkies, Chicago journalist Jerome Holtzman couldn’t get enough stats. “At that time, there were only two stats to measure the effectiveness of a reliever: ERA and the W-L record. Neither was an appropriate measure of a reliever’s effectiveness.” (124) The rule eventually evolved to credit a reliever for saving a game that is decided by two runs or less. About the time the save became an official baseball statistic in 1969, Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle rose to prominence. Lyle’s 26 saves went a long way toward securing the 1977 World Series for the Bombers and earned him the first Cy Young awarded to an American League reliever.

3. Cringe or cheer, changes in the on-field product are everywhere.
Pat Gillick has been around the game for a long time. He is very familiar with baseball’s ins and outs and won a World Series as Phillies General Manager in 2008. “Just because some guy pitches in the seventh inning some night and doesn’t do well doesn’t mean he can’t do it,” Gillick says. “He just needs more opportunity.” (167)

No matter when that chance comes, a reliever has to be ready. For that reason, writer Maury Allen recommends: “Start the team out with a good relief pitcher and go from there.” He continues, “All around baseball, they make a fuss over these closers. [But] a closer is never in a 10-1 game. He’s in a 2-1 game or a tie.” (143, 149)

Given those stakes, how can only five relievers possess Hall of Fame credentials?

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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