Monday, October 17, 2016

Mauch's Minnesota firemen

Between the time I decided on the topic of the Monday print column and its actual composition, the great Joe Posnanski posted this essay on roughly the same theme, using John Hiller's brilliant 1973 to examine the issue of "leveraging" relief ace use.

Posnanski's piece suggests the one-inning closer was actually Pete Rose's invention, not Tony LaRussa's. I think LaRussa's use of Dennis Eckersley was more influential than Rose's use of John Franco. The timeline is pretty much the same; Pos says 1987 with Rose/Franco, and LaRussa made Eckersley a full-time closer the next year.

Either way, in both cases, I think the managerial rationale for one-inning was to hide the pitcher's vulnerabilities. Franco was left-handed; Rose had in previous seasons split the late-inning work with an eye to keeping Franco from facing right-handed hitters in crucial situations. (I lived in the Cincinnati fan base in 1985, and I know Ted Power was Rose's preferred late-inning guy that year over Franco). Eckersley threw from a low angle, and left-handed hitters were forcing him out of the starting rotation when he came to Oakland.

Limited exposure worked for those two, in part because they weren't being asked to work out of other pitchers' jams. They had long runs as one-inning closers, and Eck, of course, wound up in the Hall of Fame.

Pos also lists a number of "firemen" of the 1970s and early to mid '80s, pitchers who would enter early or late as the situation warranted. And I was struck by the number of them connected to Gene Mauch, who managed the Twins 1976-1980.

  • 1976: Bill Campbell went 17-5 with 20 saves in 167 relief innings for the Twins. 
  • 1977: Tom Johnson went 16-7 with 15 saves in 146.2 innings.
  • 1978: Mike Marshall, 10-12 with 21 saves in 99 innings, (Only 99 innings because he didn't appear in a game until May 15.)
  • 1979: Marshall again: 10-15 with 32 saves, 142.2 innings, 90 games (still the American League record for appearances)
  • 1980: Doug Corbett, 8-6, 23 saves, 136.1 innings

It was Mauch, in Montreal, who made Marshall a workhorse relief pitcher. He worked for Mauch 111, 116 and 179 innings in 1971-73. Then he was traded to the Dodgers, where he had his famous 106 games, 208 relief innings season in 1974.

My recollection had been that those big years were followed by a sudden implosion, But in truth, Campbell had almost as good a season in 1977, this time with the Red Sox, and lasted in hte majors 10 years beyond that, with two 100-inning seasons in his 30s. Corbett was very good again in 1981, then declined; he had an eight year career. Marshall's career was something of a yo-yo, but he lasted into his late 30s.

Johnson is the real implosion of Mauch's Minnesota firemen. He had the one big year, had a poor season in 1978, and was done as a major league pitcher.

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