Monday, January 5, 2015

Sutter and Quis: A Hall of Fame riddle

Dan Quisenberry appeared just
once on the BBWAA ballot, in
1996. He drew just 18 votes.
Here's a question that occurred to me over the weekend while playing Strat-O-Matic with the 1987 Royals:

Why is Bruce Sutter in the Hall of Fame and Dan Quisenberry not?

Pitcher A: 68-71, 300 saves, 2.83 ERA in 1,042 innings pitched. Led his league in saves five times, six-time All-Star, won a Cy Young, was the closer on a World Series champion, compiled 24.5 career WAR (by Baseball Reference).

Pitcher B: 56-46, 244 saves, 2.76 ERA in 1,043 innings. Led his league in saves five times, three-time All-Star, was second twice in Cy Young voting, was the closer on a World Series champion, compiled 24.9 career WAR (by Baseball Reference).

Pretty darn close, I'd say.

Pitcher A is Sutter. Pitcher B is Quis.

I think there are two reasons Sutter's in and Quisenberry isn't.

First: Sutter was the more influential figure. He played a major role in popularizing the split-finger fastball, "the pitch of the '80s." Sutter and Roger Craig, really, Craig a pitching coach and manager who taught the pitch to dozens of hurlers over the years and was really an evangelist for it. It's not entirely clear to me that Sutter's split-finger and Craig's were precisely the same pitch, but for about a decade it was one of the big topics in the game.

Sutter also marked a milestone in the evolution of the closer. He was the first relief ace who was actively held back for save situations. Before him, ace relievers were used in the late innings of close games. Ties, slightly behind, slightly ahead.

You can see this in the stats. Consider the Twins relief aces in the Gene Mauch years:

  • 1976: Bill Campbell was 17-5 with 20 saves in 167 innings
  • 1977: Tom Johnson, 16-7 with 15 saves in 146 innings
  • 1978: Mike Marshall, 10-12 with 21 saves in 99 innings
  • 1979: Marshall, 10-15 with 32 saves in 142 innings
  • 1980: Doug Corbett 8-6 with 23 saves in 123 innings
Sutter never had a 20-decision season in his career, and his career high in innings -- 122 -- essentially was the last good season of his career.

Bruce Sutter was inducted into
the Hall of Fame in 2006.
Sutter's workload was restricted by reserving him for save situations. Not, mind you, the ninth inning -- he still entered games in the eighth or even seventh innings at times. (The ninth inning refinement came with Dennis Eckersley in Oakland later in the '80s.) Sutter was really the first reliever whose workload was defined by the save rule.

Second, one of the major story lines in the 1985 postseason was how Kansas City manager Dick Howser hid Quisenberry, particularly in the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Quis had what was a typical season for him to that point. He led the league with 37 saves and threw 129 innings with a 2.37 ERA. But he started struggling more against left-handed hitters that season, and the Jays lineup featured a lot of platoons. Toronto's left-handed hitters -- particularly Al Oliver -- feasted on Quis in the first few games of the series. Howser worked around the problem in the final two games of the series by starting a righthander (thus getting the Jays lefties into the lineup), switching early to one of his left-handed starters (forcing the Jays to pinch hit for the lefties), which left the righties to face Quisenberry at the end.

In short, in one of the biggest moments of his career, Quisenberry was defined by a flaw. That memory had staying power, especially since his struggles with left-handed hitters only worsened from 1985 on.

I'm not entirely sold on Sutter's Hall of Fame worthiness, so I'm not exactly upset that Quisenberry isn't in. It just seems odd that Sutter was seen as markedly better than Quis. He wasn't.

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