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 Black – 1952: 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.
2) Hoyt Wilhelm – 1952: 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 Face – 1959: 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.
4) Eddie Fisher – 1965: 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 Wood – 1968: 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.
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 Hiller – 1974: 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 Marshall – 1974: 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.