November 30, 2022

Chapman/Kimbrel and the History of Relief Aces

February 1, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

In 2015, it is inarguable that the Red Sox had a poor season.  Yes, they did play better in the last two months (is it coincidental that this was when John Farrell was out being treated for cancer?) but they still ended up below .500 and out of contention in the AL East.  Although the Sox had many weaknesses, one of their issues was a mediocre bullpen.  Robbie Ross, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa et al. were all at best, unremarkable.  And the closer, Koji Uehara, pitched well but at age 40, showed signs of wear and tear as he was unable to make it through the season.

So the Red Sox went out and acquired a closer- and boy, what a closer they got.  In Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox received one of the top few relievers of the 21st century and certainly in the game today.  And the price was prospects- several good ones but nobody they considered a blue-chip, “can’t miss” prospect.  The Sox kept promising pitchers Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens, catcher Blake Swihart and hot young Cuban signee Yoan Moncada.  They did give some decent mid-level prospects to San Diego.  In particular Manuel Margot is rated the 25th best prospect in baseball by and Javier Guerra the 76th best prospect- the other two, Logan Allen and Carlos Asuaje, are less promising.

The Yankees had a surprisingly successful year in 2015- they made the playoffs, albeit just the Wild-Card round, where they lost to Dallas Keuchel and the insurgent Houston Astros, when most pundits had picked them to finish near the bottom of their division.  One of their strengths was their dominant bullpen—closer Andrew Miller and setup man Dellin Betances had tremendous years, and role players Justin Wilson and Chasen Shreve, among others, did creditable jobs.  With a relatively weak and underperforming starting rotation and an old and injury-prone offense, Miller and Betances especially were significantly responsible for the Yankees making it that far.

It was rather surprising, then, when late in December, the Yankees went out and acquired one of the other top closers in baseball today, Aroldis Chapman. Like the Red Sox, the Yankees were able to do it without giving up any of their top prospects.  They held on to first baseman Greg Bird ( who I saw hit his first two major league homers to defeat the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium last August), outfielder Aaron Judge, and young starter Luis Severino, among others.  They gave up Eric Jagielo, Tony Renda, Rookie (now there’s a great name for a young player) Davis and Caleb Cotham- none of whom were expected to be at all prominent in Yankee plans for 2016 or the future.

Neither San Diego nor Cincinnati are expected to contend in 2016, making both Kimbrel and Chapman expendable.  I’m not going to get into Chapman’s problems in any detail—clearly, the spectre of domestic violence allegations and a potential suspension affected the price the Yankees had to pay for him, and it is possible that Chapman will miss a chunk of 2016 if his actions lead to a suspension.  But if the Yankees do get to have all three hard throwers in their bullpen at one time, it will be quite remarkable.  They combined for a 1.69 ERA, with 347 strikeouts in 212 innings and opposing batters hit a measly .163 against them- so if the Yankees have all three in the bullpen simultaneously, they will be the first team in history to have three 100-strikeout relievers from the previous year.

Boston won’t have such a vaunted trio in their bullpen, but Uehara will slot in nicely behind Kimbrel, and Boston also acquired Carson Smith, who struck out a mere 92 batters in 70 innings with a 2.31 ERA and 13 saves for the Seattle Mariners in 2015.

So who’s better?

Assuming that Chapman and Kimbrel both get to close for their respective new teams, which one is the better relief ace?

The answer is: it’s a toss-up.  Their careers to date have been remarkably similar.  They will both be only 28 years old early in 2016—Chapman is exactly 3 months older than Kimbrel.  Both came up late in the 2010 season.  Kimbrel was the Atlanta closer starting in 2011 whereas Chapman closed games starting in 2012, therefore Kimbrel has a good deal more saves—225 to 146 for Chapman. But both of them have an over 90 percent save percentage (successful saves as a percentage of save opportunities) in their careers.  Kimbrel has a somewhat higher wins above replacement (WAR) than does Chapman—13.4 to 10.9—but the difference is pretty small.  A quote I found on a site called Fansided summarizes the comparison thusly: “simply put, they have performed at an elite level in obviously high leverage situations better than any other pitchers in the game over the past half-decade.”  You could make an argument that Wade Davis has been even better for the Royals in 2014 and 2015—I certainly knew during the 2015 World Series that when Davis came in to face my Mets the game was over.  But Davis did not do it for the last 5 years, only the last two, and even then he only took over the closer role this past year when Greg Holland went down with an injury.

Maybe I am biased—definitely I am biased against the Yankees—but I like Kimbrel just a little bit more, and being that I am primarily a National League fan, I  have watched both Chapman and Kimbrel pitch.  Both of them bring it”—Chapman has even more speed than does Kimbrel—but I think Kimbrel has nastier movement.  Chapman had a better 2015—Kimbrel had a very slow start with San Diego although he came on after that and had a pretty decent year overall.  You really cannot go wrong with either one.

A brief history of relief aces

The quote above references high leverage situations in which both Kimbrel and Chapman have proved their mettle.  Which leads me to provide you a brief situation of the situations, high leverage and otherwise, that relievers were used throughout baseball history.

In the 19th and early 20th century, relievers were rarely used.  Until 1891, in fact, a substitute could not enter the game unless a player was injured or was consented to by the opposing team.  Before 1891, a player—usually an outfielder with a strong arm—might be called in to replace the starter, sometimes temporarily, sometimes to finish the game.  It was done occasionally, but not often, even in the late 19th century.  As the 19th century became the 20th century, relief pitchers became more common, especially after substitutions were freely allowed.  By now, the relief pitcher was usually a top-notch starting pitcher brought in to “save the day” (though we were still long before the “save” was created as a baseball statistic that measured the contribution of a relief ace).  Hall of Fame pitchers Clark Griffith, “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity and Cy Young ( yes, the man after whom they named the award—after all, he only won 511 games—a number no starter will ever come close to) were used pretty commonly between starts.

By the early 1900’s starters still completed the large majority of their games, but now, about 85 % of games were completed by starters, down from about 95 % in the previous decade.  The immortal Mordecai Peter Centennial (because he was born in 1876, the nation’s centennial) “Three-Finger” Brown led the National League in saves (the figures were calculated later on as saves did not yet exist as a statistic) from 1908 through 1911 and “Big Ed” Walsh led the American League in 1908 and from 1910 through 1912—again, two more Hall of Fame immortals.

It was right at this time that the first “true relief aces” came into being.  The first recognized relief ace was a gentleman named Otis Crandall.  Crandall was nicknamed “Doc” because, as commentary from ace writer Damon Runyon of the New York American indicated, “he is the physician of the emergency… he is the greatest relief pitcher in baseball.”  Crandall was a starter for John McGraw’s New York Giants in 1908 but was converted to relief in 1909, and is generally recognized as the first pitcher to be regularly called on during the games to relieve the starters and “save their bacon.”

After Crandall—Firpo Marberry, “Grandma” Murphy, Hugh Casey, and Joe Page

Fred “Firpo” Marberry was really the first great ace reliever.  Starting in 1923 with the Washington Senators, Firpo (nicknamed for his resemblance to the great Argentinian fighter Luis Firpo) was the first pitcher to relieve 50 times in a season, 300 times in a career, and to save 100 games in his career.  Without Marberry, the Senators would not likely have made the 1924 and 1925 World Series, interrupting the first Yankee dynasty.

There were other pitchers by now who specialized in relief, as by 1923, complete game percentages had dropped down to about 50 percent of games started.  Most, however, were not as successful as Marberry.  In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Johnny “Grandma” Murphy led the American League in saves 4 times and in relief wins 6 times (Murphy’s later success in life was as the General Manager of the 1969 Miracle Mets).  Murphy did not relieve very often but he was one of the best for the best team around- the second Yankees dynasty of 1936-1943 that featured Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey.

The local rival Brooklyn Dodgers developed their own successful closer in the late 1930’s, a sinkerballer named Hugh Casey.  Casey had two claims to fame—he blew the critical game 4 of the 1941 World Series when his catcher Mickey Owens could not hold onto the third strike with two outs in the 9th inning against the Yankees—Casey then gave up 4 runs, turning a 4-3 “win” into a 7-4 loss and a 2-2 tie in series games into a 3-1 deficit.  He also engaged in a wrestling match with literary great Ernest Hemingway—not in a ring, but in Hemingway’s Havana home during spring training.  Oh, and in 1949 Casey committed suicide, not because of the prior two events but because of domestic troubles in his life.

In the late 1940’s, after Murphy’s career had ended, the Yankees developed yet another topnotch reliever for the start of their third dynasty, Joe Page.  Page’s peak was brief, but it was a new high—he saved 27 games, and made notable contributions to the 1947 and 1949 World Series winning teams. Page was well known for his off-field exploits—it could be said that Joe DiMaggio, who roomed for a while with Page, was really rooming with Page’s suitcase.  It was therefore no surprise that Page’s heyday was short.

The “Modern Era” of Relief—Jim Konstanty, Joe Black and Hoyt Wilhelm

Right when Page was flaming out, relief pitching achieved a new milestone in the person of Jim Konstanty.  In an otherwise unremarkable career, Konstanty, a 33-year old journeyman reliever, won the NL Most Valuable Player award as a relief pitcher for the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies pennant winner.  Ironically, the team was known as the “Whiz Kids” because it featured a number of fresh young stars.  Konstanty set records by winning 16 games in relief and pitching in 74 contests, along with leading the league with 22 saves.  Manager Eddie Sawyer then decided that the best way to use his ace reliever against the Yankees was to have him start—for the first time that season—the first game of the World Series.  Konstanty pitched well, but lost 1-0, the first loss in an eventual four-game sweep by the Yankees (and the second of 5 consecutive World Series won by the Yankees).

Relief pitching was never the same again.  The relief ace was now an essential part of any winning team- for the first time pretty much every major league franchise searched for players to head their bullpen and come in when the game was on the line.  In 1952, the Dodgers developed the first great African-American reliever.  Joe Black blazed onto the scene by winning 15 games for the Dodgers, a team with generally weak pitching and astonishingly good hitting- the team featured Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider all still in their prime years.  Black only started two games that year, both in the last 8 days of the season, but, like Konstantly, was called on to start in the 1952 World Series, in his case starting the first, fourth, and seventh games of an eventual loss by the Dodgers.  Black’s career was short but sweet- he never again came close to his great 1952.

In 1951, the New York Giants, the “other” New York team, debuted a 28-year-old rookie named Hoyt Wilhelm.  Wilhelm was notable for two things—he was a knuckleballer, the first great reliever to feature a “specialty” pitch ( an unusual pitch that was designed to “throw off” the timing of batters, and unfortunately, often threw off the catchers as well), and he ended up being the first reliever to ever pitch in over 1000 games in his career.  Wilhelm also had 6 straight years in the 1960’s with ERAs below 2.00.  He ended up being the first reliever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The 1960’s—Jerome Holtzman creates the save

In 1958-1959, the next great reliever, Pittsburgh’s Elroy Face, won 22 straight games in relief.  At the end of this piece I will talk about the evolution in how ace relievers are used—today we don’t care whether a closer wins games or not, as he generally only comes in when his team has a lead at the game’s end ( usually the 9th inning).  But at this point, relievers were not so restricted, so the best of them often came in when the team was tied or close behind, although sometimes they got wins because they gave up a lead and then stayed in while their team came from behind and won.

The next year Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman came up with the concept of a save. Perhaps Holtzman had been watching Face, Wilhelm, and some other top relievers of the day, including Larry Sherry, who had an unremarkable career but whose highlight was winning 2 and saving 2 games of the Dodger’s 4-2 1959 World Series win over the Chicago White Sox, successfully holding onto leads.

Accordingly, Holtzman believed that there needed to be a statistic that counted how many times a reliever came in with a lead and finished the game holding onto the lead for his team.  The definition of what constitutes a save has changed several times over the years—these days, it is considered a save when a relief pitcher comes into a game with a 3 run or less lead and pitches at least an inning, or pitches less than an inning but comes in with the tying run at bat or on deck, or (which rarely happens today) he pitches three innings and finishes the game.  And, of course, his team wins and he does not get credit for the win.  Holtzman came up with an earlier version of today’s save rule in 1960, but the save did not become an official statistic until 1969.

One of the most powerful relievers of the 1960’s was Dick “The Monster” Radatz.  Radatz was a 6 foot 5, 235 lb. reliever who in many ways was a forerunner of people like Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, and other power pitchers.  Radatz’ period of dominance was brief—for the 1962-1964 Red Sox, an otherwise terrible team, Radatz saved 78 games, leading the league in saves in 1962 and 1964, and struck out a total of 487 batters, including 181 in 157 innings of relief in 1964.  He declined rapidly thereafter and was out of baseball after 1969.

The 1970’s—Rollie Fingers, “Iron Mike” Marshall, and “Goose” Gossage

Although I called the 1950’s the beginning of the modern era of relief, I think of the 1970’s, when I first started following the game, as the second modern era of relief pitching.  In this era, relievers started to be used more and more frequently, although the “aces” were still not “closers” as they often came in before the ninth inning.

Rollie Fingers was famed for his handlebar mustache but was also the ace reliever for the 1972-1974 World Series winning Oakland Athletics, and later won both the Cy Young and MVP awards for the 1981 Milwaukee Brewers.   Fingers made the Hall of Fame, as did Richard “Goose” Gossage, who pitched into the 1990’s but had his best days mowing them down in the late 70’s and early 80’s for the first dominant Steinbrenner-owned Yankee team.  Gossage was another in the Radatz line—although “only’ 6 ft. 3 inches and 217 pounds, he was nonetheless a menacing presence who struck out over 120 batters each year from 1975 through 1978.

Relief pitchers often pitched a lot in those days and no one pitched more than Mike Marshall.  Marshall had a checkered career-he pitched for 9 different teams, with varying degrees of success. But in 1974, Marshall relieved in 106 games and pitched 208 innings—nobody before or since has come close to those numbers.  Maybe that is why Marshall is one of the most insufferably arrogant guys I have ever had the “pleasure” of hearing speak.  He is a PhD in kinesiology and certainly a knowledgeable and intelligent guy, which he will make clear to you over and over again, as he presents himself as the expert in at least the physical/motion aspects of pitching.

The 1980’s—Sutter, Eck and Lee Smith

Things began to change into what I would call the third modern era of relief aces in the 1980’s.  Bruce Sutter was more of a throwback to the Wilhelm line—a guy with a specialty pitch, the forkball/splitter, who had some ungodly years for the Cubs and Cardinals starting in the late 70’s and continuing well into the 80’s.  Sutter started all of 2 games in the minor leagues before reaching the majors,making him unusual in that regard to that point in major league history, although it was already much more common for pitchers to start their major league careers as relievers, most had begun in organized baseball as starters.  Sutter had arm injuries that cut short his career in the late 80’s, but he was dominant enough in his early years to be later inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Dennis Eckersley was different—he was a top starter before he became a reliever, winning 20 games for the 1978 Boston Red Sox.  In the mid-80’s, though, his starting career was foundering.  He ended up with the Oakland A’s, where visionary manager Tony LaRussa and his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan converted Eckersley into a reliever and made him into the first real “closer,” not only the key pitcher in the bullpen who saved the most games, but also one who almost always came in for just the ninth inning.  Eckersley became the first pitcher in baseball history to win more than 200 games and also save more than 150, and only John Smoltz has done that since (and both, of course, have made the Hall of Fame).  Eck was a hoot; he came up with his own lingo, with terms for ballplayer’s hair (moss), money (iron) and a batter hitting a home run (goin’ bridge) and many other hysterical phrases.  But he also had unbelievable numbers, including his very best being his 1990 season when he saved 48 games with a 0.61 ERA, walking only 4 batters while striking out 73 in 73 innings.  Then, two years later, he won the MVP and Cy Young awards for a 51 save, 1.91 ERA performance for the 1992 Oakland divisional champions.

Lee Smith held the record for most career saves with 473 for quite some time, although he has been surpassed in recent years by Trevor Hoffman and the great Mariano Rivera.   A hulking presence at 6 ft. 6 inches and 225 lbs., Smith is still on the Hall of Fame ballot but does not look like he is going to make it. Smith saved 29 or more games in 13 straight years—pretty impressive, I would say.

The Greatest of All—Rivera and (maybe) Hoffman

Before there was the Rivera phenomenon, Trevor Hoffman started out unobtrusively with the then-named Florida (now Miami) Marlins in 1993, before a midseason trade that year started him out on his primarily San Diego Padre career, which ended in 2010 with him accumulating 601 saves, second only to Rivera’s final total of 652.  Hoffman had great years interspersed with a few stinkers, ending up with a very good but not great 2.87 lifetime ERA.  In his defense, the Padres had a couple of great years interspersed with a lot of stinkers as a team. Hoffman ended up short of the Hall of Fame on his first try this year, but I think he will get there eventually.

Rivera was the best of all-time and I think that is indisputable.  He started out slowly, with a 5.51 ERA mostly as a starter for the 1995 playoff-bound Yankees.  He was converted to relief in late 1995.  By 1996 he was the setup man to closer John Wetteland and his career took off.  What makes Rivera so remarkable is that, after his mostly-starting rookie year, he never had a bad year thereafter—one year after the other of good to excellent to remarkable pitching—ending with a 2.21 career ERA, 9 years of 40 or more saves, and most remarkably, in 141 postseason innings (an amazing number for a reliever—of course, the Yankees were always in the postseason, in an era when they played three postseason series per year) he had a 0.70 ERA.  And he did it all with essentially one pitch—that dastardly cut fastball or “cutter.”

The 21st century

In the 2st century, we have had a pitcher save 62 games in a season (Frankie Rodriguez, still racking up saves in 2015) and another, Smoltz, convert to the bullpen after a long career as a starter (which he resumed, albeit for only a few seasons, after a 3-plus year stint as closer) and save over 150 games in just 3 seasons.

Today, there are several topnotch relievers in addition to Chapman and Kimbrel.  I have already mentioned Wade Davis, who after a slow start to his career starting for Tampa Bay and Kansas City, was converted to the bullpen with remarkable results in 2014 and 2015—back-to-back ERAs of 1.23 and 1.16, which may be unprecedented for a pitcher throwing more than 50 innings in two consecutive seasons

Jonathan Papelbon has had quite a topnotch career for the Red Sox and Phillies and a brief stint terrorizing Bryce Harper for the Nationals—349 career saves and a 2.33 career ERA to date.  My own Mets received a great season in 2015 from Jeurys Familia—43 saves and a 1.85 ERA—although he did blow 3 saves in the World Series (although really one of them was entirely his fault as his defense contributed heavily to the failures of the other two games)

My apologies to others I have left out—Kenley Jansen for the Dodgers, or the now-retired Billy Wagner, a little (5ft. 10 in.) guy who could consistently throw 100 mph and saved tons of games for the Astros, Phillies and Mets.

Finally—Relief Aces today- and yesterday

When Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, not to mention Davis, Familia, Jansen, and all the other closers come into the game in 2016, it is usually the same situation—a 1-3 run lead, with nobody on and nobody out in the 9th inning.  Occasionally, that closer will come in during the 8th inning and get a 4 or 5-out save—the Mets did it quite a bit towards the end of the season with Familia—but often that happens because the “set-up” personnel are not reliable.  So the Mets were trying to get from a starter directly to Familia because they didn’t trust the guys who were supposed to be the bridge from the starter to the closer.

But it did not used to be that way.  Back in the days of Crandall, Marberry and even as late as Murphy, Casey and Page, teams did not really have a developed bullpen.  The relief “ace” might have been the only dedicated, full-time reliever on the staff, while others would be guys who were no longer starting because they had pitched poorly and were used in the bullpen to see if they could resurrect their careers in limited work.  Or they could be new pitchers who were pitching occasionally, both as relievers or as “spot” starters (when doubleheaders accumulated or pitchers were out with injuries), who were waiting for their chance to get a regular starting slot.

Over time, teams developed a full bullpen.  The first type of reliever to be established after the “ace” was probably either the “tandem” relief ace—the Cleveland Indians of the mid-to-late 1950’s, for example, had right-handed Ray Narleski and left-handed Don Mossi as twin “aces.”  Or the long reliever/mop-up man—a guy who came in early in the game when the starter got “knocked out of the box,” and who was left in to pitch as long as he could, eat up innings, and perhaps occasionally, keep the game from getting too far out of hand on the off chance that his team could make a big comeback.

By the 1960’s, most teams had a staff of relievers.  At that time, though, the roles of relievers were not very well defined.  You would have a “long man” and an “ace” but everyone else would be used pretty much anytime from about the 6th to the 9th innings, and of course beyond if extra innings were needed.  And the relief ace came in whenever the manager thought the crucial outs of the game were at hand, generally not before the 6th inning, but anytime thereafter.  The ace could stay in sometimes for two, three or even more innings.  Most of them would pitch around 100 innings or more in a season.

As stated earlier, the modern concept of the “closer” really began with Eckersley.  What is remarkable is that almost immediately, this model took over- and then, managers defined the rest of the bullpen roles. So, gradually but picking up speed in the late 1980’s, into the 1990’s, and pretty much established by the beginning of the 21st century, a bullpen now had a “closer” for the 9th inning, a “set-up” guy for the 8th inning, a second set-up guy for the 7th inning, an occasional right-handed pitcher for the tough righties, and a bunch of “loogy” pitchers ––loogy standing for “left-handed one-out guy”—often lefties with extreme pitching motions, who threw big sweeping curves and novelty pitches (splitters, cutters, even occasionally sidearm or underhanded, and a very few knuckleballers) that would throw the lefty hitters off balance.

I have to admit that I am tired of managers bringing in a new pitcher almost every batter, trying to make sure that as many right-handed batters as possible are facing their righty hurlers, and especially that lefty batters are facing lefties.  I also sometimes feel like the closer gets off easy—isn’t it a big advantage to mostly come in with nobody on base, with only one inning to pitch?  Granted, it is a critical inning, but I think that the Gossages, Sutters, Fingers, and going back to the Wilhelms, Faces etc. had perhaps a tougher task coming in whenever the game was in the balance, often with men on base.

It does appear, however, that model of today with the defined roles mentioned above is pretty much established and not likely to change anytime soon. Using that model, you cannot do any better than having Kimbrel, or Chapman (especially if he is set up by Betances and Miller) as your bullpen ace.


2 Responses to “Chapman/Kimbrel and the History of Relief Aces”
  1. Joseph T. Bonanno says:

    The Red Sox’s improvement in the final two months of last season not only coincided with John Farrell’s absence in fighting cancer but also and probably more significantly with Hanley Ramirez’s “banishment” from the team. Travis Shaw has earned the first base position for the Red Sox in 2016. Ramirez should be exiled back to LA or better still back to Miami where his selfish lack of hustle style first fully surfaced .

  2. Duke Goldman says:

    Without a doubt, Hanley was a royal disaster for the Sox. I still have some hope that he can improve this year, playing at first base- he cannot possibly be as bad as he was in left field- his butchered plays in the outfield made me long for the days that another Ramirez was in left!

    Shaw’s minor league performance did not suggest that he would do so well as he did in his partial season 2015 for the Red Sox- but baseball history is filled with players who far exceeded their minor league performances when they reached the majors. Still, I think the jury is out on him. Ramirez has previously come back from an off-year at bat, although he is older now. I still think he can contribute, at least on offense.

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