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The Evolution of Relief Pitching

Relief pitching is a huge part of baseball today. Without a strong bullpen, no team has a hope of winning. A starter is expected to go his five innings, and then give way to the middle reliever, the setup man, and finally the closer whose job it is to shut the door. It’s been that way for a few decades now. Most managers today start with the bullpen and build the staff forward from there, filling in with the starters.

But it was not like that when the American and National Leagues first locked horns at the turn of the twentieth century. Starters were supposed to finish every game they started. Teams couldn’t afford to pay one pitcher to start a contest and someone else to finish it. Once considered a necessary evil, relievers were on the roster, sure, but usually sore-armed cases who couldn’t go nine, hoping one day to make it back to the rotation.  If not, they were gone.

Outside of some serious relief efforts by New York Giants’ famed manager John McGraw at the turn of the century, pitching strategy began to change significantly when Fred “Firpo” Marberry, the first of the game’s true relievers--that is someone who made a living at it--entered the scene in the Roaring Twenties.  In a 14-year career beginning with the Washington Senators in 1923, this fastball-throwing six-foot, 190-pounder relieved 364 games, while starting 187. Five times he had double-digit save seasons and another five times appeared in at least 50 games. Lifetime, he won 147 games and lost 89 for a .623 win percentage, besides 101 saves and a 3.63 ERA (3.42 in relief) in an era where hitters actually dominated.

With the pennant-winning Senators in 1924 and 1925, Marberry often bailed out the great Walter Johnson, who was winding down his Hall of Fame career and could no longer pitch the distance the majority of the time. Marberry was a key factor in his team’s World Series runs where he recorded another three saves. Both seasons, the Senators led the American League in ERA. In 1926, he was the first reliever to post 20 saves (with 22), while pitching 64 games, five of those starts.

When Marberry was traded to the Detroit Tigers for the 1933 season, he showed his versatility by sliding right into the rotation where he started 32 games, finished 15, won 16, and logged a 3.27 ERA. By then, he had developed a very good changeup and curve to accompany his still-lively fastball.

Joe Page 1948
Joe Page 1948 Bowman Gum card (US Public Domain)

The New York Yankees were the first team to act on Marberry’s effectiveness: In the 1927 season, they signed 30-year-old rookie Wilcy Moore, a sidearm sinkerball pitcher who had been bouncing around the minors with various clubs. In his first year, while Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit their iconic 60 and 47 homers, respectively, Moore anchored the pitching staff of perhaps the greatest team in baseball by appearing in 50 games for 213 innings (12 starts, six complete games) and 19 wins with a league-leading 2.23 ERA. In the bullpen, where he especially excelled, he had a 13-3 won-loss and 1.95 ERA season. In his six-year MLB career with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, he won 39 games in relief and saved another 49 others.

In 1939, Clint Brown of the Chicago White Sox had 11 relief wins, 18 saves, while appearing in 61 relief games, a new game record for relievers. Throughout the early- to mid-1930’s some of the best relievers were actually rotation pitchers who helped out between their starts. Lefty Grove saved 55 games in his career. Dizzy Dean saved 11 games in 1936, to go along with his 24 wins.

The next solid reliever was another Yankee, Johnny Murphy, who acquired the nickname “Fireman” because he shone at putting out the fires late in the game. A dominating presence on the mound at six-two, he took relief pitching to even greater heights. Starting in 1934 as a reliever-spot-starter with his outpitch a wicked curveball, he was quickly turned into a bullpen artist within a year. In 13 seasons, 12 with the Yankees, he pitched 415 games, 375 of those coming out of the bullpen. In relief lifetime, he won 73 games to 42 losses, saved 107 games and yielded an average of 3.25 earned runs. In the World Series, he saved another four, three of those during the four-straight 1936-1939 Yankee championship years.

A decade later came the flakey southpaw Joe Page, still another New York Yankee with decent credentials: 14-8, 2.48 ERA, and 17 saves in 1947, while unleashing a blazing, high-90s fastball. After an off-year in 1948, he came back stronger in 1949, setting a record 27 saves in 60 bullpen appearances to help Casey Stengel win World Series championships in his first of five seasons at the helm of the team.

By 1950, Page’s career fell apart and Stengel had to look for other bullpen artists because he was a firm believer in relievers throughout the 1950s. For one thing, he wanted the team’s hardest throwers as the big stoppers, unheard of at the time. Page was a prime example of the strategy, then Allie Reynolds, who also started about the same amount of games as he did in relief. Like Johnny Murphy, Reynolds saved four games lifetime in World Series play. Some seasons, Stengel liked to shift his talent around by calling on a staff of closers.

On way to leading his team to a pennant in 1950, bespectacled Jim Konstanty of the “Whiz Kids” Philadelphia Phillies was the first reliever to win an MVP award. In 74 games, all in relief, he won 16 games, lost 7, with 22 saves in 152 innings, accompanied by a 2.66 ERA. New York Giants’ Hoyt Wilhelm arrived on the scene in 1952 as a 28-year-old rookie who had taken a decade to perfect--as well as finally control--his knuckleball.

In 1952, Wilhelm led the league in several categories: 15 wins, 2.43 ERA, .833 winning percentage, 71 relief appearances, and 159.3 innings as a reliever. Former Negro Leaguer Joe Black was a one-year flash that same season as a 28-year-old Brooklyn Dodger closer compiling a 15-4 mark with 15 saves in 55 relief showings. The decade ended with relief pitching firmly entrenched as a recognized and potent profession with Pittsburgh Pirates’ Elroy Face’s 1959 numbers rising to the surface: 18-1, 10 saves, 2.70 ERA in 57 games, thanks to an over-powering forkball.

In 1961, Yankee Puerto Rican-born southpaw reliever Luis “Yo-Yo” Arroyo and his screwball set a new closer record with 29 saves, helping starters like Whitey Ford, who won the Cy Young Award that year as the best pitcher in baseball. At the New York Baseball Writers banquet in the winter, Ford brought the house down when he received the award, saying that he had prepared a nine-minute speech for the event, but instead would speak for only seven minutes, then let Arroyo finish up the last two.

Hoyt Wilhelm 1954
Hoyt Wilhelm 1954 Bowman Gum card (US Public Domain)

It’s interesting to note that up to this time-period closers averaged about two innings for each appearance, or at least came in sometime in the eighth inning after an out or two. That pattern continued well into the 1980s. Case in point, two hard-throwing Cy Young winners: Mike Marshall in 1974 with the LA Dodgers when he pitched a whopping 208 innings in 106 appearances, with a 15-12 record, 21 saves, and 2.42 ERA; and the Detroit Tigers’ Willie Hernandez in 1984: 140.3 innings, 80 appearances, 32 saves, 1.92 ERA and 9-3 won-loss. These were only two relievers from the pool of two-inning-average hurlers. Not so now: The closers arrive in the ninth and not sooner. That’s how much the game has changed in only three decades.

More recently, we’ve seen some great closers: Rollie Fingers, Dan Quisenberry, Jeff Reardon, Dennis Eckersley, Bobby Thigpen, Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez (a season-record 62 saves in 2008), and the iconic Mariano Rivera (lifetime-record 652 saves).

Did the relievers of the past enjoy their roles? Sparky Lyle, New York Yankees closer in the 1970s, may have said it best: “Why pitch nine innings when you can get just as famous pitching two.”


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