Baseball’s capacity to amuse is almost as profound as the game’s ability to inspire. It’s amusing to see the gnashing of teeth and the wringing of hands over this postseason’s phalanx of starting pitchers who had to yield to their bullpens for assorted reasons. You’d almost think someone was trying to legislate the pitching star out of baseball.
If someone is, they simply weren’t watching the games or hearing the crowds. They also have a rather troublesome ignorance of baseball history. And maybe, too, a continuing bias against relief pitching.
Sure, we love to see and remember the greatest starters of our times. I grew up watching the Hall of Fame like of Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver.
But I also remember seeing and feeling the thrills and kicks when the bullpen like of Dick Radatz came into a game. Hell, Radatz was practically the only reason to bother with the 1963-65 Red Sox. He was big, beefy, intimidating-looking (not for nothing was his nickname The Monster), and looked as though he was about to eat the opposing hitters for lunch.
Until his shoulder deserted him (overwork, plus [speculated] taking someone’s advice trying to add a slider to his howitzer fastballs) some time in 1965, Radatz was as big a pitching star as any starting virtuoso. Even if he did come in for the ninth of the 1964 All-Star Game and surrender a walkoff bomb to then-Phillies star Johnny Callison.
There were more relief aces than you might remember in Radatz’s time. Ted Abernathy, for a few seasons, anyway. Lindy McDaniel. Elroy Face. Eddie Fisher. Stu Miller. Ron Perranoski. Pedro Ramos, at least for the final weeks of that staggering Yankee stretch drive to snatch the 1964 American League pennant. Phil (The Vulture) Regan. Larry Sherry (the 1959 World Series MVP). Hoyt Wilhelm (the first Hall of Fame relief pitcher). Al Worthington.
You might care to note that, whether you’re paying attention now or paid attention then, four of those relievers had top-five Most Valuable Player finishes: McDaniel (1960) and Radatz (1963) each had a fifth-place finish; Perranoski (1964) and Fisher (1965) each had a fourth-place finish.
Think about that for a moment: In four of those seasons there were MVP voters who thought a quartet of relief pitchers might have been among the most valuable players in baseball. Now, those voters then considered won-lost records; those guys were credited with double-digit wins, and a few of them probably got their wins after blowing leads but hanging in while their teams managed to eke or bang out the wins late.
(Face, of course, was an 18-game “winner” in 1959, still a record for relief pitchers, never mind that he also had nineteen save opportunities—applied retroactively—and blew nine of those. In fact, according to Cooperstown Cred, one of the major reasons Chicago Tribune scribe Jerome Holtzman came up with the dubious “save” stat was his feeling that Face’s won-lost record actually over-stated his real value.)
Were you really watching when AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek clamped the vault door shut on the Dodgers in Game Six of the National League Championship Series? The noise in Truist Park when that pair threw four scoreless relief innings, helping the Braves punch their tickets to the World Series, could have drowned a heavy metal concert out.
Especially when Matzek walked right into a small fire his immediate predecessor Luke Jackson left behind. With eight pitches, Jackson surrendered a leadoff double, a walk, and an RBI double setting up second and third. With eight more pitches, Matzek struck out the side—including future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and fellow former MVP Mookie Betts.
When Matzek got the Mookie Monster swinging to finish that escape act—if you can go from crossing the high wire to breaking your way out of the chains in the tank in one inning, Matzek did—the Truist crowd went from nuclear to Crab Nebula.
There’s been no better moment of absolute pressure relief pitching than that in this postseason. So far. Who knows what the World Series will bring, above and beyond Yordan and Eddie Tonight? Whatever it brings, come on, baby, don’t fear the reliever. (Unless you have to hit against him.) Or, for that matter, the starter-as-reliever.
You say the starter-as-reliever is just another nefarious creation of today that’s ruining pitchers and pitching? It didn’t exactly come up roses for Max Scherzer this time, of course. But it hasn’t crossed a lot of minds, either, that maybe a 37-year-old man who threw a heavier workload in September than he had any month all season might have been bound for a dead arm by the time he had to say no to starting NLCS Game Six.
But it wasn’t exactly a new thing, either. Not. even. close.
Go back to the 1924 World Series, Game Seven, for openers. When Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris not only delivered what we call a bullpen game to win that Series but secured the Old Nats’ shot at it by bringing (and the crowd went wild, too) Hall of Fame starting pitcher Walter Johnson in from the bullpen for what proved four innings’ shutout relief.
When Casey Stengel managed the Yankees, his five straight pennants and World Series rings out of the chute came in no small measure because he was audacious enough to use a starter in relief. You may have heard of him: Allie Reynolds.
The Ol’ Perfesser used Reynolds as both a starter and reliever in several of those World Series. (Including in the ninth of Game Four, 1950 Series, when Stengel brought him in to get the final out of the Yankee sweep—after rookie Ford allowed the potential tying run to reach.)
Reynolds also spent 1951 throwing two no-hitters and making six relief appearances on the regular season. Pay careful attention now: Reynolds, his Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, and St. Louis Browns starter Ned Garver—credited with 20 wins for the hapless Brownies—tied for the most first-place votes in that year’s American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. (Yogi won the award by way of his superiority in the secondary votes.)
And, even with the stat applied retroactively, Allie Reynolds—who started 71 percent of his games and relieved in 29 percent of them—is tied for the third-most relief saves in World Series history, behind The Mariano and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.
Starters as relievers? Unprecedented and the End of the Grand Old Game As We Knew It? Please.
Smokey Joe Wood, 1912 World Series Game Eight. (Two scoreless after coming in in the eight; surrendered the tying run, bailed out by “Snodgrass’s Muff” in the tenth inning.) Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, Game Seven 1926 Series. (The fabled bases-loaded, inning-ending strikeout of Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri.)
Hank Borowy, 1945 Series. (Four scoreless relief innings, Game Six.) Harry Brecheen, 1946 Series. (Credited with his third win of the set in Game Seven—in relief.) Bob Turley. (Won the ’58 Series MVP winning one start and making two relief appearances including the Game Seven-winning seven-inning gig.)
Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, Game Five 1979 Series. (Four innings shutout relief in a Pirate must-win.) Four Royals starters in relief in the 1985 World Series. Sid Fernandez, Game Seven, 1986 World Series. (Four strikeouts in two and a third’s shutdown relief enabling room for a Mets comeback win.)
Orel Hershiser, 1988 NLCS. (A save in Game Four.) Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Game Seven 2001 Series. (An inning and a third shutout relief preceding Luis Gonzalez walking it off for the winning Diamondbacks.)
Madison Bumgarner, Game Seven 2014 Series. (Five scoreless in relief for the Giants’ third Series rings in five years.) Charlie Morton and Clayton Kershaw, Game Seven 2017 Series.
Nathan Eovaldi, 2018 Series. (The Game Three extras, six virtuoso before Max Muncy ended it with an eighteenth-inning home run.) Chris Sale, 2018 Series. (The final three Game Five outs for the Red Sox triumph.) Stephen Strasburg, 2019 NL wild card game. (Three scoreless in relief.) Max the Knife, Game Five, this year’s NLDS.
The only reason any of those ballpark crowds wouldn’t have gone nuts was because the deeds were done by the visiting pitchers. (Game Five, this year’s NLDS between the age-old-rival Dodgers and Giants in San Francisco, a notable exception.)
And if starters-as-relievers looks like a more contemporary phenomenon, it may well be because they’ve played more postseason games as the years went passing by.
Well, it was amusing to see the teeth gnashing and hand wringing over the starters-as-relievers this time around—for a little while. The problem is that it comes from lack of self-informing, willfully or otherwise. It’s not funny anymore to see some stubborn “purist” or “traditionalist”—in the stands, in front of television, or in the press—blow his or her gasket first and do their homework later.
Smart and well written. Good stuff.
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