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Archive for the tag “Hoyt Wilhelm”

Remarkable Relief Pitcher Seasons (Or Why the Modern Closer is a Bore)

Cropped picture of Tony La Russa on the outfie...

“If only I had another dozen lefties in my ‘pen, the world would be a better place.”

There’s no tactful way to say this, but you have to be pretty old to remember when the best relief pitchers weren’t merely “closers.”  Certainly, you have to go back to at least before Tony LaRussa stuck Dennis Eckersley in that role in the late 1980’s.

In truth, if you want to rediscover a time when relief pitchers were true workhorses, you have to go all the way back to the 1950’s through the ’70’s. Looking back on some of the statistics compiled by several of the best relief pitchers of that era reveals how much baseball has changed over the past generation or so.

Next time you wonder why your favorite team often seems to run out of position players so quickly, especially during extra-inning games, keep in mind that it wasn’t always this way.  Once upon a time, managers didn’t switch relief pitchers every time a new batter stepped up to the plate.

In chronological order, here are seven remarkable relief pitcher seasons from days gone by:

1)  Joe Black1952:  Back in the days when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, just a few years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, another 28-year old African-American played a significant role on the franchise from Brooklyn.

Manager Chuck Dressen utilized his rubber-armed rookie to great effect.  Black appeared in 56 games, leading the league in games finished with 41.  He pitched a total of 142 innings (which would be his career high), and posted 15 saves and an outstanding 2.15 ERA.

Now, the 15 saves might not seem like a remarkable total, but that was a pretty high total in those days.  Perhaps most remarkably, Black posted a record of 15-4.  Modern closers who accumulate 19 decisions in a year are as rare as a watchable Nicholas Cage film.

English: Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Joe Black in...

English: Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Joe Black in a 1953 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Hoyt Wilhelm1952:  There must have been something in the drinking water in 1952 that only affected older rookie relief pitchers.

Wilhelm, like Black, was an “old” rookie in ’52, throwing his first MLB pitch at age 29.  What a way for a Hall of Fame career to begin.

Wilhelm toiled for the Dodgers’ crosstown rival Giants over in the Polo Grounds.  Wilhelm’s numbers were also remarkably similar to Black’s.  Wilhelm appeared in 71 games and pitched a total of 159 innings.  Although his ERA was a little higher than Blacks’s (2.43), Wilhelm actually officially led the N.L. in ERA because Black just missed the number of innings pitched required to win the title.

Wilhelm also saved 11 games, and posted a win-loss record of 15-3, virtually identical to Black’s.  Joe Black won the Rookie of the Year award, and Wilhelm finished as the runner-up.  Black also finished 3rd in MVP voting in the N.L., while Wilhelm finished 4th.

But while Black was out of baseball after half a dozen years, Wilhelm pitched 21 years, until he was 49 years old!

3)  Roy Face1959:  Though he wasn’t a rookie, Roy Face was even older (31) than Black and Wilhelm when he enjoyed his most amazing season.  Face had some success in parts of five previous seasons with the Pirates, but nothing like the year he enjoyed in ’59.

Although his 57 appearances, 47 games finished, and 93 innings were not career highs, nor was the 2.70 ERA he recorded a career low.  And his ten saves, even by the standards of the day, don’t cause one to do a double-take. Yet there is no denying that Face’s 1959 season is one of the most awe-inspiring in baseball history.

Face recorded 19 decisions that season, the same number that Joe Black did in ’52.  While Black’s 15-4 record was fantastic, Roy Face’s final tally, 18-1, was simply unbelievable.  Face won 17 straight games in relief in one year.  He finished 7th in N.L. MVP voting in 1959, and would certainly have done well in Cy Young voting, but there wasn’t yet a Cy Young award to vote upon.

Though Face was never a serious Hall of Fame candidate, he did have a fine career, leading his league in saves three times, he pitched for another decade, finally retiring after the 1969 season at age 41.

English: Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Roy Face i...

English: Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Roy Face in a 1959 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4)  Eddie Fisher1965:  There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Eddie Fisher.  That’s what happens when you toil for the White Sox in the mid ’60’s (they actually finished in second place in ’65.)

Like Hoyt Wilhelm, Eddie Fisher began his career with the Giants, then pitched for the White Sox.  In fact, Fisher and Wilhelm were teammates on the ’65 White Sox. The de facto staff ace of that team was Joe Horlen; he was the only pitcher on the team to top 200 innings pitched.

But there were six other pitchers on the team that pitched at least 140 innings.  Relief pitchers Fisher and Wilhelm were two of them.  Though Wilhelm finished with a better ERA than Fisher (1.81 to 2.40), and more strikeouts, Fisher saved 24 games to Wilhelm’s 20.

The biggest difference, however was that while Wilhelm garnered seven wins in relief, Fisher posted a record of 15-7.  In fact, Fisher led the White Sox in victories, and in win-loss percentage (.682.)

Fisher also led the A.L. in WHIP with a mark of 0.974.  His 82 appearances and 60 games finished also led the league.

Fisher would go on to pitch effectively for several more years, finally retiring in 1973 at the age of 36 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.

5)  Wilbur Wood1968:  If you’re old enough, you may remember Wood as one of those workhorse starting pitchers who was as likely to lose 20 games as he was to win that many.  In fact, in 1973, this White Sox pitcher posted a record of 24-20 in 48 (yes, 48) starts.  Wood enjoyed four consecutive 2o-win seasons (1971-74) to go along with his two 20-loss seasons.  But before he was a workhorse starter, he was a tireless reliever.

English: Hoyt Wilhelm of the New York Giants

English: Hoyt Wilhelm of the New York Giants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of 26, Wood produced his first of three consecutive years leading the A.L. in appearances.  In all three years, he tossed well over 100 innings.

The most impressive of those three seasons, though, was 1968.  That year, in addition to saving a respectable 16 games and posting a sparkling 1.87 ERA, he also managed to accumulate 25 decisions in relief.  On a team that finished the year 67-95, Wood was one of two pitchers on the team (the other being some kid named Tommy John) that finished with a record above .500 (minimum of ten decisions.)

Wood’s record was 13-12, but obviously his ERA (as well as his ERA+ of 171) demonstrate that he was a much better pitcher than his record indicates.  And yes, Hoyt Wilhelm was on this team, too.

Wood retired after a 17-year career in 1978 at age 36.  His career ERA+ of 114 is the same as Luis Tiant and Rick Reuschel.

6)  John Hiller1974:  Hiller’s story is one of the most remarkable in baseball history.

This native of Ontario, Canada, was drafted by the Tigers at the age of 19 in 1962.  He threw his first pitch in the Majors at age 25 in 1965.  By 1967, he was firmly entrenched in the Tigers bullpen.  In 1970, Hiller enjoyed what to that point was a typical Hiller season:  104 innings, mostly in relief, a 3.03 ERA, an ERA+ of 124, a 6-6 record, and a hat-full of saves.

Then in 1971, at age 28, Hiller suffered a serious heart-attack.  Though he survived, most analysts at the time doubted he would ever pitch again.  But Hiller was determined that he would not allow his career to end prematurely.  He worked himself back into shape, and enjoyed the best part of his career in the years immediately following his return.

Pitching just 44 innings in 1972, Hiller posted a 2.03 ERA, and proved that he was ready for an even bigger workload.  In 1973, Hiller led the A.L. in appearance (65) and games finished (60.)  His 38 saves (a career high) also led the league.  And his 1.44 ERA was also outstanding.  In can be argued that ’73 was his finest season, but 1974 was, in some ways, even more amazing.

Hiller, just three years removed from a near-fatal heart-attack, pitched 150 innings in relief for the Tigers.  His ERA rose to a still very nice 2.64, and he saved just 13 games.  His win-loss record, however, nearly defies belief.  In 59 appearances, Hiller posted a record of 17-14, leading the 6th-place Tigers in victories…as a relief pitcher.  Thirty-one decisions in relief is the most I was able to uncover, and will never be approached again.

Hiller finally retired in 1980 at age 37.  Now 70-years old, Hiller is still one of the most beloved of all Tigers players.

7)  Mike Marshall1974:  You and I both know that this post can only conclude with Mike Marshall’s fascinating 1974 season.  We began this post with a pair of relievers battling across one city in the same season, 1952, and now we’re ending it with a pair of relievers — Hiller and Marshall — battling across two separate leagues, again in the same year, 1974.

Mike Marshall had already won 14 games in relief twice, in 1972 and ’73, and had pitched as many as 173 innings in relief in 1973, his final season with the Expos.  Traded to the Dodgers (for Willie Davis) before the 1974 season, he set a record of usage that no reliever is ever likely to break.

In 1974, Mike Marshall pitched in an astronomical 106 games, finishing 83 of them, and he led the N.L. with 21 saves.  As if his record of 15-12, all in relief, wasn’t impressive enough, Marshall pitched a still unbelievable 208 innings in relief, more innings than many starters pitch in a season these days.  His ERA was a solid 2.42, and his ERA+ was 141.  Clearly, the excessive number of innings pitched didn’t hinder his performance.

Marshall dropped to “only” 109 innings in 1975, but as late as 1979, at age 36, he was still leading the league in saves.  Five times in his career, Marshall won at least ten games in relief.  It may come as no surprise that Marshall won the N.L. Cy Young award in 1974, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting as well.

Marshall was one of the last of a line of relief pitchers for whom the term “overworked” was not in their vocabulary.  It’s unlikely, thanks to the current philosophy of bullpen use, that we’ll ever see their like again.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 21 – The Chicago White Sox

 

Fielder Jones of the White Sox hits the ball a...

Image via Wikipedia

 

You can put together a pretty damn good team composed entirely of players who toiled for Chicago’s south side franchise over the past hundred years or so.  The list of best players in White Sox history looks something like this:

Carlton Fisk

C  Ray Schalk

1B  Frank Thomas

1B  Dick Allen

1B  Paul Konerko

2B  Eddie Collins

2B  Nellie Fox

SS  Luke Appling

SS  Luis Apparicio

3B  Robin Ventura

OF  Shoeless Joe Jackson

OF Magglio Ordonez

OF  Lance Johnson

DH  Harold Baines

SP  Eddie Walsh

SP  Red Faber

SP  Ted Lyons

SP  Lamarr Hoyt

SP  Jack McDowell

SP  Mark Buehrle

RP  Goose Gossage

RP  Hoyt Wilhelm

RP  Bobby Thigpen

A couple of the players on this list are more readily identified with teams they played with prior to coming over to the White Sox.  I am referring specifically to Carlton Fisk (Red Sox) and Dick Allen (Phillies).

Both players were born in the region or the state where they first debuted in the Major Leagues:  Fisk in northern New England (Bellows Falls, VT, a couple of hours north of Boston) and Allen in the small town of Wampum, PA (about an hour from Pittsburgh, six hours to Philadelphia.)    Both are small, rural towns, and both are about 97% white.

This is approximately where any similarities between the two players end.

Fisk is white; Allen is black.

Fisk was reticent; Allen sang in his own band.

Fisk was lionized by the people of Boston; Allen was generally regarded with disdain by the people of Philadelphia.

Fisk is in the Hall of Fame; Allen…should be?  We’ll get back to that topic later.

Although they both played for the White Sox, their careers never overlapped.  Fisk played 13 seasons for the White Sox beginning in 1981.  Allen played just three years with the White Sox, from 1972-74 (about the time Fisk’s career was just getting underway in Boston.)

Actually, they do have one more thing in common.  They each enjoyed one very productive season as hitters while playing in Chicago.  Although Fisk was generally productive in several of his seasons with the White Sox, one season in particular stands out.

1985 was Carlton Fisk’s Best Forgotten Season with the White Sox.

In 1985, Fisk was already 37-years old.  Yet he played in 153 games that year, catching in 130 of them.  He accumulated 543 at bats and 620 plate appearances.

While his .238 batting average might not seem all that impressive, his 37 home runs and 107 RBI’s were both career highs.

Fisk also scored an impressive 85 runs, quite a lot for an aging catcher who managed just 129 hits on the season.  Shockingly, Fisk even stole 17 bases, matching a career high he had set three seasons earlier (also with the White Sox.)

His .488 slugging percentage was good for tenth place in the A.L. in ’85.

He even chipped in 17 time hit by pitch, second most in the league.

Defensively, his range factor of 6.63 paced the junior circuit, as did his 801 putouts.

He made the 1985 All-Star team for the tenth time in his career.  (He was named to eleven All-Star teams in his career.)

For his efforts, and despite his low batting average, Fisk finished a respectable 13th in MVP voting in ’85.

Other than his famous moment in Game Six of the 1975 World Series in which he hit the game winning home run vs, the Reds, Fisk put together a quiet and steady 24-year career during which he belted 376 home runs, drove in 1,330 and amassed 2,356 hits.

When Fisk retired, he had caught more games and had hit more home runs than any other catcher in history.  ( Both records have since been broken.)

Fisk is obviously one of the top ten catchers in baseball history, perhaps top five.  He was a worthy inductee into baseball’s Hall of Fame in the year 2000.

One word that has never (to my knowledge) been used to describe Carlton Fisk is “controversial.”

Which brings us to Dick Allen.

In “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (p. 438), baseball stat guru Bill James called Dick Allen, “The second most controversial player in history, behind Rogers Hornsby.” He finished his terse little paragraph on Allen by claiming that he “…lost half of his career or more to immaturity and emotional instability.”

Harsh words.

What are we to make of that damning sentence?

Was Dick Allen diagnosed with a mental illness that only Bill James was aware of?  Can immaturity really shorten the career of an otherwise highly productive player?  Allen was enjoying an outstanding career through age 32.  Eying his age-33 year off in the distance, did he suddenly panic and become the black Adam Sandler?

It’s true that Dick Allen rubbed some people the wrong way, like the population of the city of Philadelphia.  But Phillies fans are notorious for their ability to find the dark cloud in the silver lining.  They have never been considered baseball’s most forgiving bunch of fans.

But let’s have a reality check.

Here’s what some players who were actually teammates of Allen said about him years later:  ( All quotes and text in the following three full paragraphs below are from Wikipedia-Dick Allen.)

Gene Mauch of the Phillies and Chuck Tanner of the White Sox  managed Allen the longest.  Asked if Allen’s behavior ever had a negative influence on the team, Mauch said: “Never.” According to Tanner, “Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth.”

Hall of Fame teammate, Mike Schmidt, credited Dick Allen in his book, “Clearing the Bases,” as his mentor.

In a Mike Schmidt biography written by historian William C. Kashatus, Mike Schmidt fondly recalls Dick Allen mentoring him before a game in Chicago in 1976, saying to him, “Mike, you’ve got to relax. You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”

Mike Schmidt responded by hitting four home runs in that game. Mike Schmidt is quoted in the same book, “The baseball writers used to claim that Dick would divide the clubhouse along racial lines. That was a lie. The truth is that Dick never divided any clubhouse.”

Playing in a pitcher’s era, Dick Allen amassed some outstanding statistics in his 15-year career.

From 1966-74, he led his league in slugging percentage three times.  He led his league in on-base percentage twice.  He also led his league in OPS four times.  In various seasons, he also led his league in runs scored once, triples once, home runs twice, walks once, RBI’s once, total bases once, and OPS+ three times.

Dick Allen won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award.

He was named to seven All-Star teams.

His career .534 slugging percentage is good for 44th best of all time.

Perhaps most impressively, his career adjusted OPS+ is 156, good for 19th best in baseball history, and tied with another White Sox slugger, future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.

By way of comparison, Stan Musial’s OPS+ was 159; Tris Speaker’s was 157; Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio are each at 155.

That’s pretty select company to be able to share.

But Dick Allen’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season with the White Sox was in 1972.

Dick Allen won the A.L. MVP award in 1972 by leading the league in home runs (37), RBI’s (113), walks (99), OBP (.420), slugging (.603), OPS (1.023), and OPS+ (199).

An OPS+ of 200 means that a player is exactly twice as good as a typical replacement level ballplayer.

Allen also batted .308 and scored an even 90 runs.  His 131 runs created also led the American League.  Not usually a prolific base-stealer, Allen even contributed 19 stolen bases to his efforts.

He enjoyed another fine season for the White Sox in 1974 at age 32.  His swift and steep decline dovetailed with his off-season trade back to the city he once demanded to be traded from in the first place, Philadelphia.

Dick Allen retired after playing in a limited capacity for the Oakland A’s after the 1977 season.  Allen was 35-years old.

Two questions come to mind:

1)  Was Dick Allen a victim of racism?

2)  Does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?

As for question #1, yes, of course.  Phillies fans often hollered highly offensive racial slurs at him, not to mention bottles and batteries while he played the outfield.

More to the point, some writers then (and now) have always been uncomfortable with the idea of an assertive black man who isn’t interested in schmoozing with the media.

Historically, black athletes in America who have flaunted their wealth, confidence and pride have often been labeled as surly, divisive, angry and controversial.  This reality goes all the way back to the great heavy-weight boxer Jack Johnson a hundred years ago, and has continued in recent years with players like Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds.  (Bonds was subject to many of these demeaning terms long before he was linked to steroids.)

Meanwhile, Joe DiMaggio, who certainly flaunted his confidence, wealth and pride was spoken of as, at worse, aloof, but was more frequently praised as classy and noble.

For what it’s worth, if you do a google search using key words: “Controversial white baseball players,”  you will find there are 174,000 hits.

If you substitute the word “white” with the term “African-American”, you will find there are 263,000 hits.

Do I think baseball writers like Bill James and others are inherently racist?  No.  Bill James, for example, has also written eloquently on the subject of race in baseball in  books like, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame.”

But I do think there is an intrinsic racial bias in the kinds of knee-jerk reactions and words writers, fans and others use that has evolved down through the generations.  These auto-responses have imprinted themselves in our psyches, and  handily come to the fore in place of more reasonable, sensible alternatives for which we might have to dig just a bit deeper.

I think this is as true for myself, Bill James and perhaps you today as it was for others generations ago.

So does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?

Depends on your definition of a Hall of Famer.

A case can be made that he does belong in The Hall.  Some of the numbers and other career accomplishments I have alluded to already in this post make the case that he is a viable candidate.

For those of you, however, who favor a more Career Numbers and Milestones approach, I suspect that Allen’s 351 career home runs, 1119 RBI’s, .292 career batting average, and fewer than 2,000 career hits has you firmly ensconced in the NO column.

So be it.

But one thing remains true.  During his career, few players were as feared, respected and productive between the lines as Dick Allen.

And it is also true that places like Wampum, PA, Bellows Falls, VT, and other small towns and hamlets across our country will continue to produce ball players who will, whether controversial or not, bestow their legacy in some fashion on our timeless yet ever-changing National Pastime.

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