What the Eck?

When I started writing that last sprawling piece about John Hiller and the modern reliever, I fully expected Dennis Eckersley to play a major role in it. The story has long been told that it was Tony La Russa’s managing — and an aging Eckersley’s remarkable ability to pitch one clean inning at the end of games — that sparked the whole revolution of one-inning closers.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons Eckersley sailed into the Hall of Fame first ballot despite having a borderline case. I think the idea was that Eck, in addition to being a fine pitcher, was a transformational figure in the game.

But after looking at it a bit more closely … I don’t think that’s exactly right.

I’m going to throw a shocker at you : I think if any pitcher represents the shift from old-fashioned to modern closer it is the overwhelming presence of Lee Arthur Smith. And maybe the Lee Smith-for-the-Hall of folks should have played up that part of his career.

First: Eckersley. So you probably know the basics of Eck. He came up when he was just 20 years old, and he was a good rookie starting pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. He would have won the Rookie of the Year award in many years, but he had the misfortune of coming up in the same year as Fred Lynn (who won Rookie of the Year AND MVP) and Jim Rice. So nobody really noticed Eckersley’s 13–7, 2.60 ERA year.

Eck pitched well in Cleveland but he did not really get noticed at all until he won 20 with Boston in 1978 and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. He was a good starter until he turned 30, comparable to a Rick Wise or Larry Dierker or someone like that, and then at 31 the roof caved in. The Cubs dumped him on Oakland for three minor leaguers right at the start of the 1987 season. La Russa at first used Eck as a catch-all, starting him twice, using him in long relief, letting him finish some games. Toward the end of the season, La Russa decided to use him a lot more at the end of games. Eck proved to be pretty good at it.

In 1988, Eckersley led the American League in saves with 45. The general thought is that this is when the one-inning closer was born — but it isn’t exactly true. Only 21 of Eck’s 45 saves that year are what we could call a modern save (start the ninth with a lead of three runs or less). Those 21 modern saves did lead baseball, but only barely. He was just one ahead of John Franco and Jeff Reardon. Point is: Eckersley was not being used in a fundamentally different way from other top relievers.

In fact, as mentioned in the original piece, it was probably Franco who began the revolution. In 1987, Pete Rose managed the reds and 25 of Franco’s 32 saves were modern. That was the most one-inning saves in baseball history up to that point.

In 1989, Eckersley saved 33 games, but only 17 of them were one-inning saves. Dave Smith (22) and Franco again (21) had more modern saves.

Then, 1990 was sort of the breakthrough for the modern closer. Eckersley did have 26 modern saves But that was the year Bobby Thigpen had 41 one-inning saves — beating the old record by 16.

Then comes 1991, and Lee Smith enters the picture. Up to then, Lee Smith was a pretty typical fireman, not a closer. He was a guy who would pitch multiple innings, a guy who would get you out of jams, a guy a manager went to whenever the game seemed to be on the line. Only 87 of Smith’s 265 saves up to that point were the one-nning kind. You can see how that compares with some of the great fireman of the age.

Percentage of modern saves:

— Sparky Lyle, 18.9%

— Dan Quisenberry, 21.3%

— Goose Gossage, 22.6%

— Rollie Fingers, 23.8%

— Bruce Sutter, 27.3%

And Lee Smith was at 32.8%. It’s a little higher percentage than the rest but it is in the ballpark.

But in 1991, while playing for St. Louis and manager Joe Torre — yep, here’s Joe Torre — it all changed. Smith set a career high of 47 saves. And 34 of those saves were modern.

It was a stark shift. Smith had never had more than 16 modern saves in a season. Now he had more than double, and he he led the league. Torre obviously figured that for various reasons (perhaps thinking Smith was a big guy who wasn’t great at holding on runners) Smith would be a force starting the ninth with no one on and pitching just the one inning.

In 1992, Dennis Eckersley had his pinnacle year. He had 51 saves. He won the Cy Young Award. He won the MVP. That is supposedly the year that Eckersley and La Russa cemented the idea of the modern closer forever.

And 31 of Eck’s 51 saves were one-inning saves, a career high.

But Lee Smith had more. He had 36 modern saves that year — 36 of 43.

And by 1993, well, by then baseball was completely enamored with the one-inning save. Mitch Williams (40 of 43), Randy Myers (40 of 53), Duane Ward (37 of 45), Rod Beck (35 of 49) and Smith (36 of 46) were all essentially one-inning closers. Then would come Jose Mesa and John Wetteland and others.

Of Eckersley’s 390 saves, 231 were one-inning saves. That’s 59%, which is probably lower than you would have predicted. Yes, perception can be reality. The perception of Eckersley as a one-inning closer — even if it wasn’t exactly so — might have been powerful enough to inspire other managers to start using their closers just to get the last three outs.

But, really, it was Lee Smith and Joe Torre who created the first modern-day closer. Before 1990, as mentioned, only 33% of Smith’s saves were modern.

After 1990: About 71% of Smith’s saves were modern ones.

* * *

By the way, here are your leaders for modern saves in a career:

1. Trevor Hoffman, 498 (83% of career total)

2. Mariano Rivera, 491 (75.3% of career total)

3. Billy Wagner, 369 (87.4% of career total)

4. Francisco Rodriguez, 359 (83.5% of career total)

5. Joe Nathan, 345 (92% of career total!)

6. Jonathan Papelbon, 315 (86% of career total)

7. Troy Percival, 300 (84% of career total)

8. John Franco, 291 (69% of career total)

9. Jose Mesa, 283 (88% of career total)

10. Huston Street, 282 (87% of career total)

Among active players, Craig Kimbrel is the ultra-essence of the modern closer. More than 93% of his career saves have been one inning saves. It’s kind of sad think of how often the awesomeness of Kimbrel has been wasted just getting three outs with a three-run lead.

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