You know who invented the relief pitching? Napoleon. No Joke. Napoleon believed tat every battle tended, for reasons of its own, to resolve itself into immobile, equal positions...So on the day of the battle he would take two or three regiments of crack troops, and sequester them a distance from the shooting...Finally, at a key moment in the battle, with everyone else in the field barely able to stand, he would release into the fray a few hundred fresh and alert troops, riding fresh horses and with every piece of their equipment in good repair, attacking the enemy a his most vulnerable spot. He did this many times and with devastating effect-and if that's not relief pitching, I don't know what is.
-Bill James, The Historical Baseball Abstract
The other day I read an AP article by Hal Bock regarding the Hall-of-Fame credentials of three eligible relief pitchers: Lee Smith, Goose Gossage, and Bruce Sutter. Bock starts with a brief history of repeats all the old saws regarding the development of the bullpen:
In the beginning, there were no relief pitchers. There were high-quality starters, and there were broken-down starters. The poor souls no longer capable of throwing nine innings became relievers.
Then one day baseball figured out that the bullpen might be more than just a place that provided shade on sunny, hot summer afternoons. In the right spot, the right relief pitcher could make a difference.
And that was when relievers began to get respect. That respect is at its peak now, with three relievers on the current Hall of Fame ballot, candidates for Cooperstown. Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter and Rich (Goose) Gossage will be among the baseball figures hoping to hear their names called when the 2003 Hall of Fame class is announced Jan. 7.
Credit for relievers came grudgingly. There were no official saves registered until 1969. The save rule then was changed several times, clouding the significance of the statistic.
But saves have soared in importance since, and nobody saved more often than Smith. In 18 years, he saved 478 games, more than any reliever in history -- 137 more than Rollie Fingers and 251 more than Hoyt Wilhelm, the only bullpen occupants in the Hall of Fame.
Where to start? Decisions. Decisions. I mean no disrespect to Bock, but this is the sort of pap that the media have been promulgating regarding relief pitchers for years. It just taint so.
First, here's another quote from The Bill James Historical Abstract and then I will have a detailed history of the development of relief pitching that may differ slightly from Bock's facile explanation:
Who was the first modern relief pitcher? That question has a dozen correct answers...No question in baseball history is more impossible to answer than the question of when the role of the modern relief pitcher developed. From 1880 to the present , the role of the relief pitcher has never reached an equilibrium; it has been in constant flux...The differences, though the may become subtle if you get far enough away from them, were perceived as significant in each generation, so that every generation of managers since 1920, if asked how the game had changed in the last fifteen or twenty years, has been inclined to say that one of the largest changes was the development of modern relief pitching. I still hear people say that whereas ten or twenty years ago relief pitchers tended to be old, broken down starters, now the bullpen is one of the keys to a team-and in a sense this statement is still true. But people also said exactly the same thing twenty years ago and thirty years ago and forty years ago-and it was just as true then as it is now.
Thank you, Bill. Indeed, relief pitching has changed significantly in the 14 years since James wrote this. We have larger staffs and more pitching changes now. With James' approach to relief pitching as an evolving art form in mind, I would now like to look at relief pitching through the ages and then I will try to identify those relievers who are Hall-worthy.
The manager who first used a relief pitcher regularly, at least in major-league ball, was also the first regular relief pitcher. Who would that be? Well, none other than Hall-of-Fame innovator Harry Wright. Wright inserted himself in almost a third of the 1871 Boston Red Stockings games in key situations, all in relief of star pitcher A.G. Spalding. Wright, regularly the team's center fielder, registered-posthumously-three saves in nine appearances to "lead" the majors. He also won one game, but his 6.27 ERA was more than 2 runs higher than the adjusted league average.
Wright continued to use himself as a reliever over the next four years. He would tie his 1871 total of three saves in 1874, the last year that this "record" stood. Wright retired and first baseman-catcher-center fielder Cal McVey became Wright's next position player cum relief pitcher in 1875. McVey was a primordial Bert Campaneris. He did so well that he briefly became a starting pitcher.
Wright also picked up a young pitcher to give Al Spalding a day off once in a while-he pitched 616.1 in 1874. That pitcher was named Jack Manning and there'll be more on him later. Spalding would obliterate the old saves "record" with 8 in 1875, coming to the aid of the still-developing Manning on nine occasions. He was also 55-5 with a 1.52 ERA with nine strikeouts in 575 innings. Manning would also relieve Spalding on occasion registering 7 saves himself in 10 appearances. This was the first real use of a starting pitcher in a dual role as the bullpen ace. And both pitchers were far from broken-down: Spalding was 24 and Manning, 21.
This was at a time in which substitutes were only allowed after an injury and then only at the allowance of the opponent. As substitutions became more common, opponents denied their use even when players were obviously injured. The rule was changed in the 1880s to allow one replacement with the opponent's approval, called an "unchallenged" substitution. Finally, in 1891 the current substitution rule was introduced. That is that a team was allowed unlimited substitution with the replaced player being ineligible to re-enter the game.
When the National League came into being in 1876, many teams still had only one pitcher. The best teams, however, followed Wright's lead and employed relief pitchers in key situations. The worst teams also had more than one pitcher, but that was mainly due to their lack of confidence in the number-one starter.
Manning led the league with 5 saves in 14 appearances. This was the major-league "record" until 1905. Cal McVey was tied for second with two, having brought relief pitching to the Chicago White Stockings that year.
McVey led the league in 1877 with only two saves. Only four saves were recorded that year and only three pitchers recorded even one (McVey and Manning, now on Cincinnati, and Chicago's A.G. Spalding with one each). Harry Wright and Boston used no relief pitchers that year.
In 1878, only one save was recorded all year, that by Tom Healey of Indianapolis in his one relief appearance. Apparently, opponents were no longer allowing the stronger teams to bring in "fresh troops".
In 1879, George Wright, now the Providence manager, took a page from his brother's book and used starters Monte Ward (10 appearances) and Bobby Mathews (2) as relievers, each registering a save. Those were the only two saves in the league.
Here are the numbers on the 1870s First by relief appearances and then by saves (from 1876 on only):
FirstName LastName Relief Apps GP
JACK MANNING 22 6 47
CAL MCVEY 14 4 31
JOHN WARD 10 1 107
AMOS BOOTH 6 0 15
GEORGE BRADLEY 6 0 168
JOE BORDEN 5 1 29
BLONDIE PURCELL 5 0 24
JOE BLONG 5 0 26
CURRY FOLEY 5 0 21
AL SPALDING 4 1 65
MIKE GOLDEN 4 0 22
CHEROKEE FISHER 4 0 29
TRICKY NICHOLS 4 0 54
FirstName LastName Relief Apps Saves
JACK MANNING 22 6
CAL MCVEY 14 4
GEORGE ZETTLEIN 3 2
JOE BORDEN 5 1
JOHN PETERS 1 1
FOGHORN BRADLEY 1 1
AL SPALDING 4 1
BOBBY MATHEWS 2 1
JOHN WARD 10 1
DEACON WHITE 1 1
TOM HEALEY 1 1