Or “Fireman! Save My Game!”
By John B Holway
The Washington Nats last week gave up single runs in the sixth, eighth, and 12th innings and lost three straight games to the Mets. Two of baseball’s best relievers sat on the bullpen bench and watched the disaster. They didn’t even warm up.
They could not be used until the Nats were ahead. Washington’s three-game lead was gone.
The Old Firemen
Suppose your house is on fire and you call the fire department. “Yes, sir,” the dispatcher says, “our fourth best crew is on the way!”
“Yes, sir. Our other three are right here in case the flames break out again.”
They were called “firemen.”
Today relief aces are epitomized by Mariano Rivera, who sat on the bullpen bench, listening to tapes, while lesser talents dashed in to answer the emergency calls.
Only if they put out the fires in the sixth inning did Yankee skippers Joe Torre or Joe Girardi call Rivera in to “save” the game, which was no longer in danger from anyone except Rivera himself.
If I were them, I’d hand him the ball and growl, “The other ten guys have won this game. Don’t you muck it up.”
If he didn’t, they said he “saved” it.
He almost always came in with the bases empty. His job was to get three outs before giving up one, two, or three runs. It’s like giving a starter a Win if he gives up three runs or less in the first inning.
Marianao (left) “saved” a record 652 games. But he also lost 60 and blew 80 more, including two crucial ones to the Red Sox in the 2004 post-season tournament. And for about 70 games a year – about 1,400 for his career – he sat in the bullpen doing nothing. That’s because the Yankees didn’t have a lead, – they’d lost it back in the 6th or 7th innings.
(Skipper John Farrell of the Red Sox had another idea. I’ve seen him bring in closer Koji Uehara in the eighth inning with Boston losing by a run. The Sox had their big guns coming up in the ninth, and if Uehara could hold the bad guys, the Boston artillery might just pull the game out. It breaks every rule in the modern game. But that’s creative management!)
But otherwise for the last few decades, baseball has gotten it all backwards.
Back in 1995 Baltimore’s Mike Mussina led the league with 19 victories. But he actually walked off the mound with 24 wins, only to watch helplessly while the bullpen blew five of them. A year earlier Jimmy Key of the Yanks had a similar fate. Officially, he won a league-high 17 games – until his relievers also blew five of them. I wrote about these and others in the Baseball Weekly (now Sports Weekly).
Of course, it can also work the other way. A reliever can trudge into the dugout with his head down, a losing game on the scoreboard, until his bullpen and hitters turn his defeat into victory.
Gabriel Schechter has done a magisterial study of this subject and will have a report later.
Look Out for the IRS
If you squint very carefully at the end of the box scores, you’ll see “Inherited Runners” and “Inherited Runners Scored.” They are probably the keys to find the best relievers in baseball.
But nobody ever does.
In 1995 I did. I found an obscure Montreal hurler, who had the best record in the game. His name was Tim Scott, and, according to my count using Washington Post AP boxes, he had a perfect 0-for-14 record. I wrote about it in the old “Baseball Weekly,” now “Sports Weekly.” His agent asked if he could use it in Scott’s coming arbitration hearing. Tim won a $325,000 raise. He sent me a $200 tip.
Since then, Gabriel Schechter, using new data from Retrosheet, has found that the 1995 box scores were shockingly incomplete. Tim’s real numbers were 7-for-56. Either way, I think, he earned his raise. And, by golly, I’m going to keep the tip!
Gabriel did another magnificent multi-year study of the subject. Keep tuned to this station.
Glavine and Maddux
In ’96 the two Atlanta stars were almost twins.
W – L ERA
Maddux 15-11 2.7
Glavine 15-10 2.98
I noticed that when Tom (on the left) exited games early, he left about twice as many runners on base as Gregg. I assumed that it indicated that Maddux was just a bit better than Glavine.
Then it hit me. Manager Bobby Cox was pulling Maddux as soon as he got into trouble, but was leaving Glavine in until a second man got on. I estimated that it added about half a run to Tom’s ERA, and probably cost him two more wins (and two more losses) per year.
I don’t know if Bobby realized what he was doing. But if he didn’t, he was doing it subconsciously anyway.
The First Relief
I think we’ve gotten relief pitching bass ackwards. We should be starting with our best reliever and ending with our weakest, not the other way round. You may occasionally lose a game in the 9th, but doing it today’s way, you would probably have lost in the 6th anyway. Overall, I think you’ll win many more total.
The First Relief is the starter’s best friend. The two should split the earned runs for any inherited runners who score. They should also split credit or blame for the win or loss. Thus a hypothetical starter might have a season total of 19½ wins, 8½ defeats.
At the very least, he should give his first relief a box of cigars after the season.
Goofy and Grandma
One of the best pitchers in Yankee history was a man named Gomez-Murphy. What Lefty (“Goofy”) started, Johnny (“Grandma”) finished.
Murphy went on to become the Mets’ GM. Gomez went to the Hall of Fame, thanks to a string of 20 victory years.
“Murphy was tired that year,” he explained.
From one of our readers:
From: Kent Henderson <hendersonkent5@*****.com>
Thanks for the interesting story [on Josh and Satch]! I have been reading a book about All Star competitions between Negro league players and Major League players. This article fit in quite nicely to the whole genre.