The Evolution of the Star Closer in Major League Baseball
Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
The story of the Major League Baseball closer is not unlike the story of man. It's an evolutionary saga.
A few years back, an asteroid fell to earth. When it cracked open, humanoid apes crawled out and populated the land. Then there was a monolith. Then there was a mound, high heat, wicked sliders and goofy facial hair.
And that's how closers came to be. The short version of the tale, anyway.
Personally, I prefer the long version, for the evolution of the closer breed makes for a fascinating narrative.
If you'll follow me this way to the TARDIS, we can go back and relive it.
1920s: Let Me Tell You About a Guy Called "Firpo"
Before Rollie, Bruce, Goose, Eck and Mo, there was a man called Firpo.
Well, if we're being technical about it, his real name was Frederick. Frederick Marberry. He broke into the big leagues in 1923 with the Washington Senators and was dubbed "Firpo" because of his striking resemblance to famed boxer Luis Firpo, according to Mark Armour of SABR.
Marberry made seven relief appearances to only four starts in his rookie year, playing a distant second fiddle to Allen Russell in Washington's bullpen. Russell was the team's top relief specialist in a day and age when there really weren't any relief specialists.
The 1923 season saw Russell pitch in relief a record 47 times. But he struggled out of the gate in 1924, prompting new Senators manager Bucky Harris to turn to Firpo as his primary reliever.
Like Lou Gehrig coming in for Wally Pipp in 1925, this would turn out to be a watershed decision.
Firpo also pitched well in the World Series, appearing in four of the seven games against the New York Giants. He saved two of them and allowed only one earned run in eight innings to help the Senators win their first World Series.
Marberry went on to lead the league in games finished and saves again in 1925, and in 1926, he became the first pitcher in history to save 20 games in a season. Nobody else had more than 10 in 1926, which highlights just how unique Marberry really was.
He wasn't just a great pitcher either. Like all the great relievers who would come after him, Firpo was also something of a cult hero.
The time at which Marberry typically came in to pitch was called "Marberry Time," and Senators teammate Ossie Bluege recalled that Marberry would approach the mound with purpose when it was his time to pitch.
"You should have seen Fred walk across the outfield when he was coming in to relieve," said Bluege, via Armour's article. "He moved just as fast as he could and just as determined and as confident as could be."
As for what kind of presence Marberry had on the mound, Armour described him as...well, as a typical closer:
A big man for his time, Marberry stomped around the mound, throwing and kicking dirt, glaring angrily at the batter. He relied on no fancy stuff-he basically just reared back with a high leg kick, and fired the ball to the catcher.
Way ahead of his time? Yeah, that about says it. Marberry was the first true star relief pitcher, and he laid the groundwork for all other star relievers.
It would be a while before the next one arrived. But when he did, he made a slowly rolling ball start careening.
Late 1940s: Joe Page Makes Relief Pitching Cool
Firpo Marberry's 20-save season in 1926 didn't open the floodgates for more 20-save seasons, presumably because nobody at the time knew what the hell a "20-save season" was.
It wasn't until 1949 that the next 20-save season came, and it was Joe Page who accomplished it.
In and of itself, that makes Mr. Page an important part of the closer saga. But there's a lot more to his story than that.
The 1949 season was the last of three straight dominant seasons for Page, a left-hander for the New York Yankees. Managed by none other than—you guessed it—former Senators skipper Bucky Harris, Page compiled 60 saves and a 3.02 ERA between 1947 and 1949. He was an All-Star twice, and he also twice finished in the top five in the American League MVP voting.
By WAR, Page was the best reliever in baseball in that three-year span. He also compiled nearly twice as many saves as the next guy on the leaderboard, which would be yet a sign that, like Firpo, Page truly was a one-of-a-kind species in his time.
In more ways than one, in fact.
Matthew Callan wrote in a piece for Baseball Prospectus earlier this month that Page was the first real "crazy" closer to ever arrive on the scene. In addition to having a live arm, Page was a live wire.
And this reality wasn't lost on the contemporary press. Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote in 1951 about how Page was just so unlike any other reliever:
Before Page came ambling unconcernedly over the bullpen fence, relief pitchers had always been in the shadows. There had been a few who had taken positions occasionally in the spotlight. But they were comparatively few...
Joe was the fellow who dramatized and glamorized the job as none of the others ever had done. He became as important as any starting pitcher, maybe even more important. The others had been, in effect, mop-up performers. Page was a full-fledged star and was paid accordingly at a handsome $30,000 a year. He opened a new vista for every pitcher and reluctance to become a relief man disappeared.
Firpo Marberry may have been the first star relief pitcher in history, but Joe Page holds an arguably more important claim to fame: He was the guy who made being a star relief pitcher cool.
Page faded into irrelevance in 1950, but he wasn't really needed by then. The trail had already been blazed, and many pitchers found themselves walking on it in the 1950s and 1960s.
1950s and 1960s: Closers for Everyone!
After Joe Page snapped the string of consecutive seasons without a 20-save campaign, it didn't take long for it to happen again. Jim Konstanty did it in 1950, saving 22 games for the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was a proper start to a decade that would see star relief pitchers pop up all over the place. There would be six more 20-save seasons before the 1950s were out and eight seasons that featured at least seven pitchers who finished 30 or more games.
For some perspective, there had been just one such season in all the years before: 1947.
However, there was something that the star relief pitchers of the day had in common. Most of them were older guys, veterans who had been around the league for a while and knew how to handle themselves. For all the 30-games-finished seasons that were happening, relatively few of them were being turned in by pitchers aged 27 or younger.
The perfect man for the job at the time was a guy like Roy Face, who was already 30 when he established himself as baseball's best relief pitcher in 1958 with 40 games finished and 20 saves. He went on to save 99 games between 1958 and 1962, his age-34 season.
But something happened in 1959 that changed everything. A young right-hander named Larry Sherry burst onto the scene with the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning seven games in only 23 appearances during the regular season at the age of 23.
When the Dodgers found themselves in the World Series, Sherry played a starring role. He appeared in four of the six games the Dodgers needed to defeat the Chicago White Sox, allowing one earned run in 12.2 innings. He won two games and saved two others.
The next year, in 1960, four of the 10 pitchers who finished 30 or more games were aged 27 or younger. That was a new high, and it got our friend Arthur Daley of The New York Times to pondering aloud:
Sherry’s triumph [in the World Series] served to dramatize anew the ever-increasing importance of relief pitching. But it also punctured the generally accepted theory that only grizzled, crafty veterans can be entrusted with so vital an assignment….
But wherever managers look, they had better peer well, knowing that baseball has now reached such a point of specialization that pennants are won or lost in the bullpen.
The reason for this paradigm shift? Daley pinned it on Babe Ruth.
When the Bambino moved to the outfield on a full-time basis, his home run production greatly increased. And when it did, more and more fans came to see him. That gave baseball owners the idea that the ball should be juiced and that ballparks should be smaller. These changes benefited all hitters and made pitching a nightmare.
"No longer could pitchers concentrate on the big hitters and coast past the little ones," wrote Daley. "The slightest slip could mean a home run and the ballgame."
The increased strain on starting pitchers created an increased need for talented relief pitchers. Baseball, as it is wont to do, just took too long to come around to this reality.
Baseball had started catching up in the 1950s, but it really caught up in the 1960s.
By the end of the decade, star relief pitchers were commonplace. The 1969 season saw a record 28 pitchers finish 30 or more games, and 20-save seasons were nothing special anymore. Ted Abernathy became the first player to save 30 games in a season in 1965; Jack Aker duplicated the feat just a year later in 1966.
The 1960s also saw baseball's first elite closer arrive on the scene. Hoyt Wilhelm used his knuckleball to rack up 392 games finished and 152 saves in the 1960s, marks that topped all other pitchers during the decade.
Wilhelm, of course, was Jamie Moyer before Jamie Moyer was Jamie Moyer, as he didn't stop pitching until he was in his late 40s in the early 1970s. In 1985, he became the first relief pitcher ever elected to the Hall of Fame.
By that time, superstar closers were all over the place.
1970s and 1980s: The Closer Revolution
When the 1970s began, there had been only three 30-save seasons in baseball history. There were four more in the books by the time 1972 was over, and then the star closers started to come fast and furious.
The decade saw 12 pitchers rack up at least 100 saves, including notables like Rollie Fingers, Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage, who didn't get his start as a closer until 1975.
All four hold their own claims to fame. Fingers was (and still is) known for his trademark mustache and sharp slider that he rode to a rich free-agent contract with the San Diego Padres in 1976. Marshall was the first reliever to win a Cy Young Award when he won it in 1974, and Lyle became the first American League reliever to win the Cy Young when he took it home in 1977.
Gossage, meanwhile, raised the bar for the notion of the closer as an intimidator. In addition to his arsenal of power pitches, Gossage had the look. In the words of Chris Cobbs of the Los Angeles Times:
The cap pulled dangerously low over the forehead, the bushy walrus mustache curling menacingly back toward the ears, Gossage would test the creativity of the cartoonists who festoon editorial pages with bizarre caricatures.
"If there's a batter who likes to face him, he's gotta have rocks in his head," said Padres manager Dick Williams of Gossage.
In 1976, Bruce Sutter broke into the majors with the Chicago Cubs. Like Sparky Lyle and unlike Fingers, Marshall, Gossage and many other relievers from years past, Sutter ended up never starting a game at the major league level.
More importantly, Sutter, with a nudge from Cubs manager Herman Franks, helped usher along the notion that closers didn't need to be used for multiple innings over and over again.
When Sutter led the National League in saves with 37 and won the Cy Young in 1979, he only pitched 101.1 innings in his 62 appearances. By comparison, the three guys immediately behind him on the save charts that year all logged at least 130 innings. Marshall had topped 200 innings, all in relief, the year he won the Cy Young in 1974.
When Sutter saved 45 games in 1984, he did it while pitching only 122.2 innings. He was the second player in history to save as many as 45 games after Dan Quisenberry just a year prior in 1983, but Quisenberry had needed close to 140 innings to do it.
The stage was thus set for baseball's first truly modern closer to come along. That happened when Tony La Russa came up with an idea for how to use starter-turned-reliever Dennis Eckersley in 1988.
La Russa made Eckersley his closer, and he developed a system designed to leave him with comparatively little work to do when it was his turn to enter the game. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated recalled in 2011:
In order to give closer Dennis Eckersley as much of a clean window to close games -- to start the ninth inning with nobody on base -- as he could, La Russa used a parade of lefthanded and righthanded specialists, not to mention sinkerballers and power pitchers, to create matchups in his favor. He would avoid intentional walks or overusing his closer by using as many arms as possible to create matchup advantages.
La Russa's system worked. Per FanGraphs, his A's had the fifth-best bullpen ERA in the league in 1988, and Eckersley needed only 72.2 innings to save 45 games. Of his 60 appearances, only 23 lasted longer than one inning.
Eckersley went on to set a new record for relievers with a 0.61 ERA in 1990, and he was the American League Cy Young and MVP when he saved 51 games in 1992.
By then, there were others like him, and many more would come.
And Now: What Closers Have Become
Once the Dennis Eckersley model caught on, the concept of a multi-inning closer died a quick death.
When Bobby Thigpen set a new record for saves in a season with 57 in 1990, he did it while logging only 88.2 innings in 77 appearances. Eventual all-time saves leader Lee Smith didn't pitch more than 75 innings in a season in the '90s.
In fact, the only guy to save 30 games and pitch over 100 innings in a season during the decade was Doug Jones in 1992. In the context of the times, he was a weirdo.
Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, who sit atop the all-time saves leaderboard, would come along and stick to the mold. Hoffman never pitched more than 90 innings after becoming a full-time closer in 1994. Rivera has topped out at 80.2 innings (in 2001) ever since he became the Yankees' full-time closer in 1997.
You won't hear me arguing that Rivera isn't the greatest relief pitcher ever, but that argument has been heard from Goose Gossage. He downplayed the "greatest of all time" talk earlier this year on the basis that Mo couldn't have done what he and his contemporaries used to do.
"I believe had Mo been used like us, he might have 350 saves," Gossage said, via Newsday. "You just wouldn't have had the numbers. The workload was amazing."
Is Gossage right? Yeah, probably. But this is a "deal with it" situation, as the workloads for closers were changed for good by La Russa and Eckersley and are only becoming more constricted.
The year Francisco Rodriguez reset the single-season saves record with 62 in 2008, he didn't have one appearance that lasted longer than an inning. 2012 saves leader Jim Johnson lasted longer than one inning only twice. Craig Kimbrel stayed in longer than one inning only once.
We've all heard the gripes. Closers are making more money and—thanks to things like entry songs, nicknames and good old-fashioned showmanship—are bigger stars now than ever before, yet they're also less essential than ever before. More than their teams, closers serve the save statistic itself.
Baseball has obviously enabled this to happen. What's more, we've reached a point where the closer role is so obsessed over that closers are being groomed rather than just, you know, found.
It's not uncommon to see scouting reports that herald prospects as future closers. Kimbrel, for example, was perceived by Baseball America (subscription required) in 2008 to have the "ingredients to become a major league closer." That same year, Jason Motte was characterized as a guy who was a "viable contender for the long-term closer role."
Presently, there are fans in Detroit and pretty much everywhere else who are dying to see Bruce Rondon make good on his potential to be a great closer. When Rivera hangs up his spikes, maybe it will be time for Yankees closer prospect Mark Montgomery to take up the job.
The idea of a closer was once a novelty. Then it was a good idea. Then closers were essential. Now they're mass-produced and might as well come shrink-wrapped.
Behold the evolutionary process. Next step: Cyborgs.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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