How Do You Spell Success? RELIEF

Late-inning stoppers, like Minnesota's Jeff Reardon and Boston's Lee Smith, loom larger than ever in the strategy of the game
April 03, 1988

The road trip was a disaster for Jeff Reardon. In the first game, he gave up a ninth-inning, game-winning grand slam to the New York Yankees' Mike Pagliarulo. Then, four days later, he blew another game, to the Baltimore Orioles, by surrendering a grand slam to Fred Lynn and a three-run homer to Larry Sheets. "I stink," Reardon said after the second loss, and it was hard to argue with him. Here it was May 12, and he had only one save out of three chances, and his earned run average was 10.67. On Feb. 3, 1987, the Minnesota Twins had traded four players to the Montreal Expos for Reardon (and catcher Tom Nieto) because the Twins had been plagued for years by late-inning collapses. "Now I'm doing it to them again," said Reardon.

Across the clubhouse Gary Gaetti seemed unconcerned about Reardon's failures. "In years past, we'd all be saying, 'Here we go again,' " he said. "But Jeff is proven. We became a better team the day he arrived. We're a better team right now by his mere presence. We know this won't continue."

Gaetti was right. When last season was over, Reardon had won or saved 39 of Minnesota's 85 victories. He was on the mound in every game when the Twins won five straight in mid-September to pull away from the Oakland Athletics in the AL West race, and he was there when they clinched the division, the American League pennant and the World Series. After Game 7 of the Series, Gaetti was asked to explain how Minnesota had been able to win. "We've had the talent for years," he answered. ' "We just didn't have Jeff Reardon."

Atlanta Braves G.M. Bobby Cox knows precisely what Gaetti meant. In 1984, as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, he had watched his team blow lead after lead and fall out of contention after having been within 3½ games of first in June. "When you don't have a bullpen, it infects the entire team," Cox said then. "It infects the starters, who try too hard. It infects the regular players, who start to believe that somehow they'll find a way to lose. And it infects the manager, who starts managing out of fear."

After the 1984 season, the Blue Jays traded for veteran relievers Bill Caudill and Gary Lavelle. "The next spring the atmosphere on the team was completely different," Cox says. "Caudill and Lavelle created a positive feeling that carried on through the season. They didn't do well, as it turned out, but the mindframe they established remained in place until Tom Henke came up from the minors in late July and became the closer that we so desperately needed." Toronto won its first divisional title that year.

"A manager is as smart as his bullpen," says St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "When I managed Kansas City, I wasn't too smart because I didn't have a closer. I got smarter in St. Louis because I've had Bruce Sutter, Todd Worrell and Ken Dayley. Today, managers start with their bullpens, then work forward."

With good reason. Only one team, if you don't count the strike-shortened 1981 season, has made it to the World Series in this decade without a 19-save reliever—the 1986 Boston Red Sox, and they lost Games 6 and 7 largely because of their weak bullpen. Since 1980 three relievers have won the Cy Young Award: the Milwaukee Brewers' Rollie Fingers in '81, the Detroit Tigers' Willie Hernandez in '84 and the Philadelphia Phillies' Steve Bedrosian last year. And two of them—Fingers and Hernandez—were also named the year's Most Valuable Player. "The evolution of relief pitching may be the biggest change in the game over the years," says Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose. "If Ty Cobb had had to hit off these guys, he might have batted .315."

Ten years ago, when Rose was still chasing Cobb's record for hits in a career, there were only a handful of star relievers in the game, most notably Sutter, Fingers, Sparky Lyle and Rich Gossage. Now there are seven who measure up to the best of any era—Reardon, Henke, Bedrosian, Worrell, the Yankees' Dave Righetti, the Reds' John Franco and the Red Sox' Lee Smith. And below them, you can find at least half a dozen others, led by the San Diego Padres' Lance McCullers and the Brewers' Dan Plesac, who could move to the head of the class at any time.

"What has changed in the last 10 years is that now everyone is concentrating on putting together a full 10-man staff made up of players who complement one another," says Pittsburgh Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "The age of specialization has come full force to pitching staffs."

One indication of that is the high value managers now place on finding good setup men. When Boston acquired Smith from the Chicago Cubs this winter for pitchers Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper, cheers rang out all over New England. But Red Sox manager John McNamara warned, "He's still not going to mean as much as he should, if our middle relief doesn't improve. Last year our middle men took us out of countless games that the greatest closer in the world couldn't have done anything about."

Until recent years, managers used middle relievers primarily to keep the opponent from scoring while their team tried to make a comeback. But now, says Herzog, setup men often come in "to hold on to the lead for as many as two or three innings [because] we don't have the depth of starters to get us into the eighth inning the way we once did."

The trend toward specialization was started in the early 1970s by managers Dick Williams of the Oakland A's and Sparky Anderson of the Reds. Williams relied on three setup pitchers to prepare the way for his ace, Fingers, while Anderson became known as Captain Hook as he maneuvered three or four relievers around a mediocre rotation. "What we were doing was reducing each game to six or seven innings," says Anderson. "If I have the bullpen and you don't, you have six or seven innings to beat me."

When a team didn't have reliable setup men, the stopper often paid a heavy price. "What happened so many times was that managers would get a hot hand with a reliever and use and abuse him until he blew out," says Bedrosian. "It happened to me in Atlanta. I finally broke down and had to go on the disabled list." In Bedrosian's case, the damage wasn't permanent, but many other talented relievers weren't so lucky. Several Orioles are still bitter about the misuse of Tippy Martinez, who pitched in seven straight games in 1983—including both ends of two double-headers—and hasn't been the same since.

When Dick Howser took over the Yankees in 1980, he set the pattern for deploying relievers that many managers follow today. He brought in his stopper, Gossage, only when New York was ahead and almost never for more than six outs. In addition, he only had Gossage warm up five times that year without putting him in.

"Whitey always says that a relief pitcher makes a manager," says Worrell of Herzog, "but a manager makes a relief pitcher, too. The managers who understand pitching know how many times a pitcher warms up and how many pitches he's thrown in the bullpen."

Many teams chart every pitch, including warmup tosses, and have guidelines for each pitcher. The Phillies, for instance, rarely use Bedrosian for more than an inning, and Smith's limit is generally five outs. No matter how sophisticated managers get, though, their use of pitchers doesn't always work out as planned. Toronto's Jimy Williams monitored his bullpen as closely as any other manager last year, but he still ended up overusing his relievers. In June, for example, he yanked starter John Cerutti in the sixth inning against New York, when Cerutti gave up a hit and a walk. Cerutti led 7-0 at the time and had allowed only three hits. By the end of the game, Williams had gone through three relievers to close a 7-2 blowout.

Some managers, of course, don't have starting pitchers of that quality to pull. The Yankees' rotation was so unreliable last season that the New York bullpen pitched more innings one month than the starters did. "No one can survive that," says Lou Piniella, then the Yankees' manager, who watched his team drop out of first place in August and finish fourth.

Montreal skipper Buck Rodgers had a different problem: He lost his stopper, Reardon, in the aforementioned trade to Minnesota. To replace him, Rodgers had to put together what's called a bullpen by committee. He moved former setup man Tim Burke into the closing role and then protected him so he was always sharp. Burke was 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA and 18 saves, and the Expos won the Rolaids award for having the best bullpen in either league.

Good relievers are always hard to find. "They usually just happen," says Cardinals pitching coach Mike Roarke. "They get moved to the bullpen on the Triple A or big league level for a number of reasons. But I'm against taking a kid who's just signed and immediately making him a reliever. He needs to throw a few hundred innings and develop two or three pitches."

When Roarke was the pitching coach for the Cubs, he talked to Smith, who was playing Double A at the time, about moving to the bullpen full-time. He got a cool reaction. "I thought the big man always started," recalls Smith, a 6'6", 245-pound righty who pitched for fun in high school in Castor, La., and had never even heard of the Cubs before he was drafted. "My heart had been more in basketball, so I told him I might just quit and play hoops."

Roarke, who had been an outstanding football player at Boston College, stared at Smith and said, "Your fastball's a helluva lot better than your jump shot. So get your butt out to the bullpen."

The rest is history. As a starter, Smith had struggled through his first five years in the minor leagues, amassing a 34-32 record with 421 walks and 286 strikeouts. "He was so big and so inexperienced that he had a lot of problems with his delivery," says Roarke. "The more he tightened his delivery, the harder he threw."

Smith, whose fastball was once clocked at 101 mph, has been the most overpowering reliever in the National League for the last five years. In 1983 he got 29 saves for the Cubs, and he added 33, 33, 31 and 36 in the following four seasons. He has been troubled by back and knee injuries for years, though, and the Cubs were concerned that, at age 30, he might soon lose his edge. Still, dealing him to Boston was a perplexing move. "I'll never understand that trade," says the New York Mets' Keith Hernandez. "Anyone who thinks Lee Smith is over the hill isn't a hitter."

Worrell, a 6'5", 215-pound righthander, had a much easier time than Smith moving from starter to bullpen ace. The Cardinals' No. 1 pick (21st overall) in the 1982 draft, Worrell was still languishing in the minors three years later. "I'd throw great for three or four innings every start," he says, "then something would happen." Eventually, Jim Fregosi, Worrell's manager at Triple A Louisville in 1985, lost patience and moved him to the bullpen.

"There was no transition at all," says Worrell. "When I started, I gave it my all from the first pitch until the end. To me, being a starter was a helpless position. I would spend four days on the bench waiting for my next start, wondering what to do."

Worrell spent 40 days relieving for Louisville, striking out 43 in 30‚Öì innings. Then he was called up to St. Louis on Aug. 27 for the stretch run; he responded with three wins and five saves and helped the Cardinals win the National League pennant.

He was still technically a rookie in 1986, when he led the league in saves with 36. He had another 33 last year, making him the first pitcher to get 30 or more saves in each of his first two seasons. Now that Ken Dayley is fully recovered from elbow injuries, St. Louis may have the finest right-left combination in baseball this season.

Unlike Worrell, Bedrosian, a 6'3", 205-pound righthander, crept up on stardom. A starter in the minors, he began working full time as a reliever in 1982, when Atlanta Braves manager Joe Torre turned him into a setup man for Gene Garber and Al Hrabosky. "That was one of the best things that ever happened to me," says Bedrosian. "Those guys taught me a ton, on and off the field."

The Braves won the NL West title in 1982, and Bedrosian did both long and short relief, winning eight games and saving 11. The next two seasons he played the role of closer more frequently, but Torre gave him so much work his arm broke down in August 1984. The following year the Braves obtained Sutter and made Bedrosian a starter again. His record was 7-15 that season, partly because he only had a fastball and slider in his repertoire.

"Coming to the Phillies was the ideal move," says Bedrosian. "I know exactly what my role is. I seldom get up without going into the game and I can pitch three, four or five days in a row without getting tired." Bedrosian had 29 saves in 1986 and led the majors last year with 40, including a record 13 saves in consecutive appearances.

Reardon had an equally spectacular season. Not only did he save Game 7 of the Series, the 6'1", 190-pound righthander also had two saves in the Championship Series and 31 in the regular season, making him the only reliever to have 20 or more saves in each of the past six years. Reardon has earned more saves (107) in the last three seasons than any other pitcher; the 41 he had in 1985 put him second on the National League single-season list after Sutter, who had had 45 the year before.

Yet, from the beginning, respect has come hard for Reardon. After being drafted in high school, he was passed over in college despite a brilliant career at the University of Massachusetts. The Mets finally signed him after graduation, and in 1978, his first full minor league season, he was 17-4 as a starter in Double A. But he ended up in the bullpen, anyway.

Reardon excelled as a reliever the next year in both Triple A and the majors. So Torre, who was the Mets manager at the time, made him the No. 2 closer behind Neil Allen. But Reardon was traded to Montreal in 1981 for Ellis Valentine, a deal that ranks with the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade as one of the worst in Mets history.

Even though he averaged 29 saves a year for the Expos, Reardon found out how treacherous the job can be. Not only was he booed on occasion, but once at a pregame charity function, his wife, Phebe, got the raspberry, too. "I was upset at the time, because booing a wife is inexcusable," says Reardon. "But it comes with the territory. When a reliever messes up, that's it. Game's over. You're the goat. If you're the type to let things bother you for long periods of time, this is the wrong job. That bad month I had last year? Considering the Twins' expectations, if I hadn't already been through it all before, I might have considered jumping off a bridge."

Reardon isn't the only reliever who has felt that way. "I really think the toughest part is living with a job where it's always on the line," says Smith. "If a cleanup hitter pops up with the bases loaded, it's a pop-up. If a reliever fails to hold a lead, it's a blown save opportunity."

"A reliever is always in the eye of the tiger, so he'd better be tough," says Oakland manager Tony La Russa. Also, as Ray Miller puts it, a reliever "has to be a little goofy or have no feeling for pressure." Sparky Lyle sat on cakes, Tug McGraw sat atop flagpoles, and Moe Drabowsky once used the bullpen phone to order takeout from a Hong Kong restaurant. Fingers was the epitome of a reliever who showed little or no emotion under stress. Sometimes, according to former Brewers catcher Charlie Moore, he didn't even know which batters he was facing. "The only thing that mattered to Rollie," Moore said, "was whether the beer was cold."

Not all managers and pitching coaches, however, believe in the macho mystique. "Poise and confidence are bred by success more than by personality," says Roarke, noting that Worrell was labeled "timid" in the minors but now "is one of the most aggressive pitchers in the National League."

Whatever the right psychological makeup may be, the right stuff is even more important. To be an effective reliever, says Boston pitching coach Bill Fischer, a pitcher "usually has to have one great pitch. A Lee Smith fastball. A Dan Quisenberry sinker. A Bruce Sutter split-fingered fastball. Or a Sparky Lyle slider. And he's got to be able to bounce back and throw every day or couple of days."

The element of surprise doesn't hurt, either. "Relievers with outstanding stuff have a great advantage over hitters," says veteran Detroit slugger Darrell Evans. "We may only get three or four at bats against each one a year. We get that in one game against a starter. When a pitcher comes in with an unusual forkball or a fastball that rises out of the strike zone, it can take a season or two until you know how to hit him. Don't get me wrong; Reardon is a terrific pitcher, but few hitters could adjust to his fastball the first year in the league. The same thing should happen with Smith. And, because you see them so seldom, they can lose some of their stuff, but you're so geared up to what used to be that they still get you out."

Baseball may never become as specialized as football, but the bullpen by committee is definitely here to stay. Just as it's easier to find a third-down specialist than an all-purpose running back, it's easier to find someone who can go through a batting order once than it is to find a Roger Clemens or a Ted Higuera who can complete a lot of games.

No matter how specialized the use of relief pitching gets, though, it will always be more of an art than a science. And a maddeningly inexact one at that. As Cox puts it, "You can't live without a bullpen, but there's no greater death than losing with one."

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONWORRELL, WHO SAYS HE FELT HELPLESS AS A MINOR LEAGUE STARTER, BECAME AN INSTANT SUCCESS IN THE CARDS' BULLPEN

CALL IN THE FIREMEN

YEAR

PERCENTAGE

1876

8.2%

1986

1%

1906

15%

1926

50%

1946

60%

1966

78%

1986

85%

1987

86.2%

THE PERCENTAGE OF GAMES IN WHICH RELIEVERS HAVE APPEARED HAS RISEN AS SHARPLY AS A JEFF REARDON FASTBALL

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)