Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sutter gets in; Gossage should be, too

Bruce Sutter today became the fourth player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the strength of his work as a relief pitcher. He's a deserving choice, because he helped to redefine the role in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sutter was different than the closers of today. After reading that he was elected, I looked up his stats on baseball-reference.com, and the saves, ERAs and hits-per-innings pitched ratios are outstanding. But one other stat struck me even more: the number of innings that Sutter pitched each season.

Between 1976 and 1985, Sutter's lowest total of innings pitched was 82 1/3, and that was in the strike-shortened 1981. The guy could give you two innings if you needed it, and his managers never hesitated to put him in during tie games (which is why he had so many decisions for a closer - he went 65-67 during that period) because he was their best hope to stop the opposition.

Just for comparison I looked at the numbers for Mariano Rivera and Eric Gagne, two great closers of today.

In 2002 through 2004, when he had 152 saves total, Gagne pitched 82 1/3 innings in each season (which is an amazing coincidence in its own right) or the same amount that Sutter had in his lowest year during the 10-year period described.

Then I looked at Rivera, and besides 1996 when he threw 107 2/3 innings as a setup guy for John Wetteland, his highest IP total was 80 2/3.

Rivera is the gold standard for closers in my lifetime, and far be it for innings pitched to be a measure of Hall-worthiness, but Sutter's dominance as an "old school" closer (i.e. if it was a close, winnable game, he was in there) demonstrates him to be one of those players who changes the game.

And there was another guy in the American League who was doing the same thing while Sutter was dominating the National League. He was Rich "Goose" Gossage.

In 1978, Gossage threw 134 1/3 innings for the World Champion Yankees, going 10-11 with 27 saves. In every close, meaningful game, Gossage was on the mound. When the Yankees beat Boston 5-4 in the classic one-game playoff to win the AL East, Gossage pitched the final 2 1/3 innings (relieving Ron Guidry, who was having one of the greatest seasons ever by a pitcher). New York was going to win or lose with Gossage, the most intimidating pitcher of his time.

From 1977-1985, Gossage threw at least 79 innings per season all but twice - the strike year of 1981 and 1979, when he was hurt - and saved between 18 and 33 games each year. Again, many of his appearances came in non-save situations where the game was tied.

Sutter and Gossage have to rank among the top 10 closers of all-time, which alone makes them worthy of the Hall of Fame. Beyond that, they were the first of the shutdown closers who forced managers on the opposing team to try to win the game in the first seven innings. That's a trend that continues today, through the redefinement of the closer role and the emergence of quality set-up men. Essentially, what Rivera and Wetteland were doing for the Yankees in 1996, Sutter and Gossage were doing by themselves.

Congratulations to Sutter for making the Hall, and here's hoping Gossage gets in, too.


Regarding the other candidates, I have the strongest sentiments for Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice. Blyleven has impressive career numbers, mostly playing for weaker teams. When he did play for contenders, he was a key contributor with a strong postseason record that produced two World Series wins.

Rice was the most feared hitter in the American League for more than a decade. His numbers look particularly strong in light of the steroid scandals and wild inconsistency of many of today's hitters (Bonds and Pujols excepted).

But I haven't the strong feelings about either of these that I do about Sutter and Gossage. While Blyleven has strong career numbers in strikeouts and shutouts, he isn't going to be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time great starters. Nor is Rice in the first rank of hitters all-time. Sutter and Gossage belong with only Rivera, Eckersley, Fingers and Wilhelm in the discussion of the game's greatest relief pitchers.



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