If you weren't lucky enough to have been around when Dennis Eckersley ruled the bullpen, you have my condolences. He was truly magical to watch, and even though his name is so frequently linked to Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series, that situation is the very epitome of the phrase "the exception proves the rule." Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Eck was flat out unhittable.
He is also the Godfather of the Modern Closer Era, the prototypical ninth inning specialist.
From 1977 to 1987, the top ten leaders in saves averaged one-and-a-half innings pitched per game, and threw about 2,000 more innings than the top ten leaders in saves from 1988 to 1998. That latter group of relievers only averaged 1.1 innings pitched per game. What do those numbers mean? They point to a revolution that started in 1988, with Dennis Eckersley.
From 1975 until 1986, Eckersley had been a starting pitcher, and a halfway decent one at that. He was in the Cy Young Award conversation in 1978 and 1979, and he went to the All Star Game in 1977 and 1982. He even had a no-hitter to his name.
After struggling in 1986, he was moved to the bullpen in 1987, where he did the bulk of his work in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. The next year, Tony La Russa had an idea that, at the time, was fairly unconventional: Eckersley would pitch the ninth inning, and (whenever possible) the ninth inning alone. Eckersley responded by racking up a league-leading 45 saves to go along with his 2.35 ERA (2.23 FIP), a ridiculous WHIP of 0.867, and a K/9 of 8.7 -- oh yeah, and he also was in contention for both the Cy Young and the MVP awards that year.
That was the tipping point, so the historians say. La Russa's think-outside-the-box strategy paid off in spades (Eckersley finally took home the Cy Young and MVP in 1992), and soon all of the managers in MLB wanted a True Closer for their bullpen, an ace whom they could keep on the bench until a save was needed in the ninth inning. (La Russa used Eckersley in 60 games in 1988, only six of which were non-save situations.)
But La Russa wasn't so much rolling the dice as he was making a fairly sure move by taking a pitcher with "starter's stuff" and saving him for one explosive ninth inning. In his prime as a starter, Eckersley posted decent WHIP and K/9 numbers, and when he moved to the bullpen in 1987, his WHIP dropped from 1.338 to 1.003, while his K/9 shot up to 8.8 from 6.1 the year before. It only made sense to see what would happen if he was assigned permanent ninth-inning duty.
And therein, I think, lies the key. Some of the best relief aces -- the legends of the bullpen -- were either already MLB starters prior to becoming relievers, or were at least on their way to becoming starters. Goose Gossage started 29 games in 1976 before moving exclusively to the bullpen, where he promptly doubled his K/9 rate. Dave Righetti won the Rookie of the Year Award as a starter in 1981, racked up 58 more starts over the next two years, and then moved to the bullpen where he became an All Star reliever.
Mariano Rivera? He made 10 starts in his rookie year in 1995, and posted a WHIP of 1.507 with a K/9 of 6.9. He moved to the bullpen the next year, dropped his WHIP to 0.994 and upped his K/9 to 10.9, and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting. Today, of course, he has been dubbed by many as "the greatest reliever of all time."
And of course, we can't forget Joe Nathan, who made 29 starts for the San Francisco Giants in his first two years, posting an average WHIP of 1.535 with an average K/9 of only 5.6. In his first full year as a reliever, his WHIP dropped to 0.982 and his K/9 rose to 11.1, numbers which he maintained for the most part until 2014.
I'm not sure how many instances it takes to draw up a firm hypothesis in this case, but the pattern is at least worth considering. Fair-to-middling starters seem to be the raw material from which relief aces are developed.
As far as the Tigers are concerned, perhaps this would be a better approach to bullpen construction in the future. Rather than budgeting for expensive closers and looking to buy relievers as relievers, it may be more to their advantage to start raiding the middle-to-back-end of other teams' starting rotations, and converting a few of their top prospects who had been ear-marked as starters.
If this theory is true, then it also may bode well for the recent signing of Tom Gorzelanny. He has made 121 starts in his 10-year career, posting an average WHIP of 1.426 and an average K/9 of 7.2. Not too shabby, really, but I can't help but wonder if those numbers might improve, even drastically, when he comes to Detroit to fill an exclusively relief-pitching role. (Assuming that's how he'll be used.) Who knows? He might emerge as a dominant relief ace in 2015 and post Eckersley-like numbers.
I'm sure none of us would complain.