Detroit Tigers shopping for Closer? Call me a Fireman instead!


Oct 24, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers pitcher

Jose Valverde

(46) walks back to the dugout after being relieved by manager

Jim Leyland

(middle) in the seventh inning during game one of the 2012 World Series against the San Francisco Giants at AT

“What seems to be the trouble here, Skip?”Kevin Saucier, to Sparky Anderson, upon arriving at the mound in the 9th inning, with bases loaded and nobody out.

Previously, we examined the Detroit Tigers bullpen situation as it currently stands. That introspective takes into account our feelings as fans on how the end game will play out, and also assumes Jim Leyland’s approach to managing a bullpen. An in-depth walk down memory lane (why not, we have six weeks before the first exhibition game, for Pete’s sake!) is in order to chronicle one of the game’s remarkable cycles of evolution – from Fireman to Closer.

First, the Major League Baseball definition of a “SAVE”. A pitcher earns a save if: He finishes a win, AND; pitches one inning after entering with a lead of 3 runs or fewer; OR, records at least one out after entering the game with the potential tying run at least on-deck; OR, pitches 3 full innings.

Let’s examine the terms in the parlance of our day: A “Fireman” is blue-collar, stalwart, honorable,  on call 24/7 to protect the community, saving lives and property.  A “Closer” makes a grand entrance after most of the deal is done. He only gets coffee if he foists overpriced property on old people.

The Closer has it easy…usually he gets the ball with a clean inning, and a lead of perhaps three runs. Get three outs, do a little dance, shake hands and hit the showers…and cash a fat paycheck in the morning.

I remember John Hiller, coming on for a tiring Joe Coleman or Vern Ruhle in the 7th, with runners on the corners. He’d get a double-play ball, then finish up what was becoming a rare Tiger win. He was the high-leverage guy, the LOOGY, setup man, and closer, all rolled into one. The Sporting News called him and the rest of his ilk “Firemen”, beginning in 1960, and named a “Fireman of the Year” in each league through the 2000 season, when sadly, the name really didn’t fit anymore. (Todd Jones was the 2000 AL winner, which inspired TSN to change the name of the award to “Firestarter of the Year”.  Just kidding).

Hiller and his NL counterpart, Mike Marshall, compiled some astonishing numbers: in 1973, Hiller appeared in 65 games, finished 60, pitched 125 innings, won 10 and saved 38 games. He followed that up in ’74 with 59 G, 52 GF, 150 IP, 17 W and 13 Sv. Meanwhile Marshall was the bright spot for a mediocre Expos team in ’73: 92 appearances, 73 GF, 179 IP, 14 W and 31 Sv…the Dodgers took notice and traded Willie Davis for him, then rode Marshall’s rubber arm all the way to the World Series. Take a moment to absorb his 1974 line – 106 G, 83 GF, 208 IP, 15 W and 21 Sv. (Interestingly, Marshall made his MLB debut with the Tigers, but ended up going to the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft. Imagine he and Hiller in the Tigers pen as a L-R tandem!)

Throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s the Firemen are easy to remember – Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Dan Quisenberry. While their workload wasn’t Marshall-esque, all pitched over 100 innings per year and averaged close to 2 innings per appearance. Willie (pre-Guillermo) Hernandez notched a sturdy 140 IP in 80 G in 1984, winning 9 and saving 32. Mariano Rivera, on the other hand, has pitched over 100 innings once (107 in 1996) and the last time he threw 80 was 2001.

From 1960-1985, each league-save-leader  averaged 1.92 innings per appearance; since 1985 that number has receded to 1 (Craig Kimbrel netted 62.2 IP in 63 G last season, Jim Johnson threw 69 in 71 G; Rivera for his career is at 1.16). Another fascinating look at the evolution of the Closer era is by average number of saves the MLB leader recorded, broken down into 10-year increments: 1960-69: 29; 1970-79: 33; 1980-89: 40; 1990-99: 47; 2000-2012: 54. The correlation is simple: fewer outs to get+no inherited runners=better stats.

So who was the first Closer? While the overall workload of Firemen was decreasing throughout the 80’s, the extinguisher seems to be in the hands of Tony LaRussa. His pupil – Dennis Eckersley; in 1987: 54 G, 33 GF, 116 IP, 6 W, 16 Sv. Eck in ’88: 60 G, 53 GF, 72 IP, 4 W, 45 Sv. From 1988 until he retired in 1998, Eckersley appeared in 641 games, and threw 674 innings. So by evil genius or brilliant accident, LaRussa discovered it wasn’t that hard to pitch one inning 65 times a year. Since 1988, the Closer leaderboard has featured the consistently excellent (Rivera, Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez), but more often is represented by pedestrian arms like Jeff Shaw, Randy Myers, Robb Nen, Keith Foulke, and Brian Fuentes.

So here we are in 2013, with the back-end of the Tigers bullpen perceived as Achilles’ heel. Could re-defining roles, and proactive management, turn a potential weakness into strength? Is the next baseball evolution at hand? Check back this weekend and we will look at today’s managers’ love affair with the Closer, and if the Fireman has a chance at returning..