Last year we took on a project called the HoG25. Loyal readers will remember this fondly, assuming we ever had readers. If we did, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts they were damn loyal. As loyal as blind, diabetic Irish Setters. This project entailed us three intrepid scribes discarding our normal neutral objectivity and rendering opinions on the finest selections among many diverse categories. We ranked the 25 best quarterbacks of the past quarter century, and we were ripped by a contingent of Eagles fans for excluding Donovan McNabb—history has vindicated us, now that Mike Shanahan exposed McNabb as a fat lazy imbecile. We did the same with wide receivers, books, movies, and a bunch of other stuff I’m far too lazy to look up. You have a brain, a mouse and access to the Googles, knock yourself out.
We also took a swing at the game of baseball, distilling hitters and starting pitchers into neat little columns of alleged greatness. Along the way, however, we were tripped up by a few semantic barriers. Are we ranking “hitter” by its most basic literal definition: one who strikes ball with wooden bat? Or is a “hitter” a catch-all description of a complete offensive player: one who has an eye for the strike zone, runs the bases, and gets himself and others across home plate via a variety of athletic skills? There’s really not a right answer (actually, there is, it’s the latter), but it made for interesting discussion.
Similarly, we’ve been stymied by our next topic, the misunderstood modern relief pitcher. Actually, I’ve been stymied. Bank and Cecil knocked their picks out months ago, but I’ve been stuck at the starting line. This is mostly due to my previously detailed sloth, but I also have a philosophical hangup with how to quantify the “greatest” closers and setup men. This is because all of them are failures as ballplayers, and their very existence also signifies a large and growing failure within the game of baseball.
I'll explain: I’m not talking about “failure” as it is lovingly embraced by baseball fans—cue the old saw that this is the only sport in which you can fail seven times out of ten and they put you in the Hall of Fame. Of course every player fails in his duties. He fails to get the batter out. He fails to get a hit. He fails to cleanly field a ball that he should have. This is part of why baseball is so elegant and definitive to a romantic fan like myself, and why baseball statistics are a special language to us. Our stats display the fine line between success and failure, and the minute increments of these stats delineate the line separating mere competence and greatness. It’s subjective, of course, but we can make these arguments much more definitively in baseball than in other sports.
At least I thought we could, until we arrived at relievers. Because all those guys you see languishing in the bullpen are representative of failure. They only appear in games if and when the starting pitcher fails to record the 27 outs necessary to complete a game. And as individual pitchers, each has failed to some extent in his career. Organizations only make a pitcher a reliever if they are convinced he can’t hack it as a starter, and this is simple math. If a pitcher is effective at getting hitters out, you want that pitcher to throw to as many batters as possible while remaining healthy. A top starter throws over 200 innings a season, while the same level of closer tallies between 60 and 80.
When you identify your best hitters, you don’t leave them on the bench, save them to pinch-hit in certain situations, or bat them at the bottom of the order. You get them to the plate as often as you can, because that’s what gives you the best chance to score the most runs and win. It’s the same with pitching, you want your best arms throwing the most innings, because that’s what will yield the fewest runs and, again, give you the best chance to win.
Look, I’m not dumb. I know relief pitchers matter and are important. It’s just that I don’t know HOW important they are and how vital they are to winning baseball in this day and age. Amid that uncertainty, can they truly be considered “great?”
I’ll tell you one thing that rankles me just a little bit about the entire process of comparing relievers from the past 25 years—the mythical idea of toughness. This isn’t limited to just pitching or just baseball, of course, we’re constantly reminded that football players once wore leather helmets, that rugby players wear no helmets, that olde tyme hockey goaltenders played maskless and that pioneer women delivered children while plowing fields AND NEVER STOPPED OR COMPLAINED. I get it, kids to today are punks. Sissified. So quick to pick up a gun, scared to take an ass-whoopin.
But what you call sissification, I’ll call progress. I like a lot of modern things. I like not having to rewind videocassettes, and not dying from smallpox and shit. And what we’ve seen with pitcher usage should be looked at as progress instead of the spread of limp-wristed babying in our national pastime.
Allow me to create a hypothetical to emphasize my point. We don’t really play pickup baseball in this country anymore, but pretend for a moment we do. You and eight of your buddies from your neighborhood are going to play a nine-inning game every afternoon against the guys from down the street. This game is important, there’s something valuable on the line, and whichever team wins the most games over the course of one year gets the prize. Your team has to divvy up positions, and you will all play that same position for every game for the entire year. Let’s say you end up pitching, and you have to throw all nine innings every day.
How much are you going to put into every pitch?
I know this seems a bit ridiculous, but this was how baseball was played 100 years ago. Just as position players took the field for each and every complete game, pitchers threw every single game. They weren’t called “starters,” just pitchers. And they threw and threw and threw. Then one day a bright manager decided to use two pitchers, giving each a day of rest between starts. The rotation was born, and the average quality of each pitch thrown increased.
As time has gone by, of course, rotations have grown to the current five-man staff, with four days rest standard. In theory, this allows each pitcher to have his best stuff/velocity each time out. This same theory led to the beginning of the modern bullpen. First, some bright manager decided to bring a relief ace in to finish off the opposing team when his starter got tired. Then, more bright managers added more and more relief pitchers to fill more and more specialized roles. We currently see teams employing specific arms to handle the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings, pitchers whose job it is to retire only righties or lefties, pitchers whose one key skill is inducing a double-play ground ball.
The net effect of all this maneuvering is this: the quality of the average pitch in Major League Baseball is better right now than at any point in history. It simply is. Pitchers are fresher, scouting and strategy expose hitters’ weaknesses, and matchups are maximized.
The question of whether this has made for better baseball is wholly separate. I personally disdain the endless pitching changes that take place at the end of ballgames these days, they totally disrupt the flow. And I do have mad respect for the tough guys of yore, guys who threw a ton of complete games and refused to come out of games.
What I don’t buy is the argument my brethren will make here, that closers from the 70s and 80s (particularly Goose Gossage) were BETTER than closers from the 90s and 00s (particularly Mariano Rivera) because they threw more innings per appearance and were inherently “tougher.” I can’t buy this logic, because again the very existence of Goose Gossage’s career as a relief pitcher came from two failures—his own failure to hack it as a starter and the failure of human evolution to throw nine innings of maximum velocity daily. Goose Gossage was a reaction to a trend in baseball, and Mariano Rivera is a reaction to the reaction. Goose was asked to throw multiple innings to get a save quite often, because his managers had no visible alternative. Rivera throws one inning for one reason: it works. His managers aren’t in the business of proving how tough he is, they’re in the business of locking down wins.
And in 10 or 30 years, this will all be irrelevant. Some bright manager will come up with a new way to deploy the arms at his disposal and get the 27 outs he needs to win, and today’s pitcher usage patterns will be obsolete. Then bloggers (or whatever they’re called in the future) will point to whatever whippersnapper is top dog in 2040 and say he’s not as tough as Mo Rivera was back in the day.