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January 31, 2011

The BP Broadside

Shirley a New Beginning

by Steven Goldman

Beginning when I was 12 years old, the Yankees had a pitcher named Bob Shirley in their pen. Shirley was a left-hander of no particular ability, and he had just gone 8-13 (albeit with a league-average ERA) for the Reds, but then as now if you have the letters “FA” before your name, the Yankees wanted to talk to you, so Shirley was signed.

There was no particular plan for Bob. Looking back at the move 28 years later, it seems as if there were just a few big free agents that year, and the Yankees were just trying to collect the set. There were Steve Kemp, Don Baylor--the Yankees got both--and Steve Garvey, at least in the sense of notoriety, though at the time he was 34 and hadn't hit much over the previous two years. The big pitcher was lefty Floyd Bannister, Brian's dad, a hard-throwing lefty who had the misfortune to spend the heart of his 20s with the expansion-era Seattle Mariners. (What came between Brian and inheriting his father's arm is a question that will torture geneticists for years.) Bannister signed with the White Sox, so as they are sometimes wont to do, the Yankees seemingly defaulted to the next guy on the list: Bob Shirley.

Shirley's Yankees career was unremarkable except for the way he was used. He was one of a vanishing breed, the swingman. Most of the time he was in the bullpen, but six or eight times a year he would step into the starting rotation and take a few turns. He wasn't so good a reliever that a manager felt bad about not having him available late, and he wasn't a good enough starter to stick in the rotation and leave him there. His real talent was his ability to pitch often and switch between a 25-pitch role and an 80-pitch role, with no apparent difficulty while doing so. In this way he would pitch 100 or so utility innings a year. This is how often the Yankees used Shirley: one day in 1985, the dugout called the bullpen and told the coach to get Shirley up. The coach could not comply, because Shirley was, at that moment, pitching in the game.

Shirley's flexibility makes for a novel contrast with today's cautious handling of pitchers. When a team has a sudden gap in available starters and reporters ask the manager if a reliever can come out of the pen to make a start, quite often you will hear him say, "No. He's not stretched out. We'd have to send him down to get his arm built up before he could throw 50 pitches in a game." Yet, Shirley was also novel in his time. Much as Mike Piazza was in the majors for 10 years before broadcasters could let his 68th-round draft selection go unmentioned, Shirley could not come into a game without some announcer mentioning that he had "a rubber arm." Every appearance was the same:

ANNOUNCER: Here's Shirley coming into the game with two men on. This is his fifth appearance in the last seven days, including a start on Tuesday against Texas. He pitched eight innings that day in 100-degree heat!
COLOR MAN: Amazing that he's back out here today, but he can do it, because he has a rubber arm.
ANNOUNCER: He sure does. Here's the pitch to Lance Parrish. Fastball hit well to left field. Griffey fading back, feeling for the wall--it's gone!
COLOR MAN: But it's okay, because he has a rubber arm.
ANNOUNCER: Trammell and Gibson score...
COLOR MAN: Rubber...
ANNOUNCER: ... and the Tigers now lead 10-2.
COLOR MAN: ... arm.
ANNOUNCER: Here comes manager Yogi Berra to see if Shirley is okay. He could come out here, but he probably won't, because even though he has now thrown 972 pitches in the previous 48 hours, if you haven't heard, his arm is made of rubber.
COLOR MAN: It really is. Just amazing.
ANNOUNCER: And Yogi is leaving him in!
COLOR MAN: As Yogi himself might have said, when you come to a rubber arm in the road, take it.

And so on, game after game. The man had become a living cliché. When the Yankees parted ways with him in June, 1987, it came as a relief, not because Shirley was bad, but because the one-note characterization had become too annoying to bear.

In retrospect, it seems likely that Bob Shirley's rubber arm had a formative impact on the baseball writer who was then lying dormant within me, waiting only for a shot of Bill James and puberty to wake him up. As a young fan, I wanted to know the why of the way this pitcher was being used.. That his arm had less of a refractory period than that of his fellow mammals, was interesting, but that's true of any physical oddity: if you are capable of roping a steer with your genitals, goody for you, but it doesn't mean that you should, any more than Shirley should have pitched every day just because he could. Surely (or Shirley) on at least some of the occasions that he appeared there must have a better option than dipping into this same well. If so, I never heard. You can't be a seeker of answers if you didn't first have a question, and this was among the first of mine.

The page you are reading is the first in a new series of columns at Baseball Prospectus. In the coming weeks, you will be seeing many new names here, some who carry great reputations with them, others rookies and tyros in every sense of the word. I'm one of the familiar types, having been part of the BP family since 2003, although I'm also new in a sense, this being the first time I can address you as the site's Editor-in-Chief. I have selected the name "broadside" for this feature because it has a double meaning, serving as a reminder of old-school SHOUT IT OUT LOUD newspaper headlines, as well as wooden ships bringing all of their cannon to bear on an opponent. That's what we do here; we bring the power of ratiocination to bear on a problem and then blaze away at it. With the newcomers in hand, consider that cannonade not only reloaded but leveled up. Not even a rubber arm can bounce these shells of pure reason, and throughout the season I'll be looking at the news of the day with the skeptical eye and ear of a fellow who has heard "rubber arm" in place of wisdom too many times. As long as the intellectually lazy thrive, there will be a need for Baseball Prospectus.

Ironically, if we were writing about Shirley today, I think we would have had positive things to say about him. Sure, he was a pitch-to-contact fly-ball pitcher with a mid-80s fastball and control problems, and someone who rarely let an inherited runner linger on the bases, but he was tough on left-handed hitters, threw 70 innings a year in relief, and took another 35 innings away from the starting rotation. Sure, he wasn't particularly good at any of it, but it was flexible 25th men like Shirley who helped make the smaller pitching staffs of yesteryear possible, and in turn those smaller staffs meant bigger benches and therefore more exciting games. Putting that purely political (and hopeless) point aside, if it is true that a space-saving supersub can serve his team merely by being a bit above replacement level at each of the positions that he plays, then the same must also be true of the utility pitcher. But no, instead of pinch-hitters and pinch-runners, we get Pedro Feliciano.

Parenthetically, Pedro has pitched in 344 games over the last four years. Folks probably believe that he has a rubber arm. Here's this column's proposition #1 for you: just when you believe it's safe to call someone a rubber arm is when you should book them a ticket to retirement. After pitching 436 2/3 innings in four years, Shirley's arm was actually kind of brittle. He vanished into the minors at 33 and hung 'em up for good after a weird stint at Syracuse in which he somehow threw 90 innings in just 36 games (including five starts and two complete games). When you let a label do your thinking for you, you've already lost the battle, for we live in a universe dominated by entropy, and nothing stays the same for long.

I don't know what question first awoke you to the many unexplored possibilities of baseball. Perhaps it was Joe Carter, the great RBI man with the .300 OBP, or Derek Jeter's defense, or the way that no one seemed to notice just how good Edgar Martinez was. Maybe it was the dainty way closers are used now, or conversely, perhaps you questioned the merciless way they were used before. It could be unsubstantiated claims against Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell. Whatever that first question was, you've come to the right place. When you hear the bellow of the blast, don't duck, just grab yourself a set of cannon and fire off a broadside of your own. There is plenty here for everyone.

And if you get fatigued from pulling, don't worry; I'll take over for you. It's not a problem for me. You see, I don't get tired--I have a rubber arm.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Arm,  Rookies Of The Year

36 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Lou Doench

" if you are capable of roping a steer with your genitals, goody for you, but it doesn't mean that you should,"
One monitor cleaning bill winging its way to you sir.

Jan 31, 2011 05:04 AM
rating: 5
 
Matt Kory

What do you mean "if"?

Jan 31, 2011 12:19 PM
rating: 2
 
CRP13

"Here's this column's proposition #1 for you: just when you believe it's safe to call someone a rubber arm is when you should book them a ticket to retirement."
...
"And if you get fatigued from pulling, don't worry; I'll take over for you. It's not a problem for me. You see, I don't get tired--I have a rubber arm."

Should we read between the lines? Are you trying to tell us something about your career?

Jan 31, 2011 06:47 AM
rating: 6
 
ScottyB

Just wanted to say I enjoyed SABR day at Foley's over the weekend. Will there be some sort of recap article/blog post about it?

Jan 31, 2011 06:55 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Joe Hamrahi
BP staff

Hi Scott...yes, I plan to recap Saturday's event. I'm waiting for some photos first since I think they will tell a big part of the story. Thanks for attending. It turned out to be a great day.

Jan 31, 2011 08:41 AM
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

So how often could we do these things before y'all would get bored of coming?

Jan 31, 2011 17:55 PM
 
dianagram

I suggest Spring Training (though that's the book tour), ASB, and Hot Stove ... at a minimum

Jan 31, 2011 17:58 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Well, a couple of us will be in Phoenix in March, I think at least one somebody may be heading to catch some Grapefruit League action, and I know that I'll be at the All-Star Game (and SABR) in July.

Feb 01, 2011 00:52 AM
 
Matt Kory

I don't see why BP couldn't fill a moderately sized room in a big eastern city twice a year at minimum.

Jan 31, 2011 18:26 PM
rating: 0
 
jrmayne

Looking forward to the reload. Luck to all.

--JRM

Jan 31, 2011 07:02 AM
rating: 0
 
Tommy Bennett

A sincere congratulations on the new gig, Steven.

Jan 31, 2011 07:23 AM
rating: 0
 
Adam B.

But talk about burying the lede, sheesh! Third sentence in a paragraph way down the page.

Best wishes. All hail the new king.

Jan 31, 2011 09:00 AM
rating: 5
 
clete6
(577)

My first real baseball question was why the Yankees fired Yogi Berra and hired Johnny Keane after the 1964 World Series. I was not quite 8 years old. Evan at that age, it was obvious that 7 games can't tell you who the better manager is.

Jan 31, 2011 09:18 AM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

I don't actually remember the first time I questioned things, baseball-wise. I do remember my most recent though, something I looked into in my new blog project - what is the effect on having an offense that fails miserably in stocking either patience, power or speed in its line-up?
I'd name the blog here, but don't want to be accused of spam.
And, of course, a hearty congratulations to Steven! A wonderful choice.

Jan 31, 2011 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

"...and stop calling me Shirley."

Jan 31, 2011 10:24 AM
rating: 2
 
Matt Kory

Also, I should've said before, congratulations, Steven. This is good news.

Jan 31, 2011 11:56 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

According to Jim Bouton (either Ball Four or his 'managers' book), Houk decided to fire Berra for mismanaging the ballclub when things looked bleak. When the Yankees rallied to win the pennant, Houk just went ahead with his plan anyway.

Perhaps (politically) in part because Keane was available. Reportedly Keane was available because the Cardinals' had planned the exact same. Then tried to backtrack after winning it all. Knowing he'd been thisclose to the chopping block, Keane gave them a Christian version of 'screw you', and went off to manage the Yankees instead. Very much to his regret.

Jan 31, 2011 10:41 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

If we're going to see "many new names" here, does that mean some of the old ones are now gone??

Jan 31, 2011 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

You can probably answer your own question by looking to see if anyone hasn't contributed in a while. But I can't think of any since Will Carroll's departure.

Jan 31, 2011 10:48 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

No, and patience! You should hear more from us on this tomorrow.

Jan 31, 2011 13:05 PM
 
devine

It's tomorrow...

Feb 01, 2011 15:00 PM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

OK .... is Neyer joining BP? Huh ... huh ... is he? :-)

http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/6904/bo-knows-amazing

Jan 31, 2011 11:55 AM
rating: 5
 
R.A.Wagman

Wow. That would be quite the something!

Jan 31, 2011 11:58 AM
rating: 0
 
kddean

You took my question!

It's Neyer isn't it? That'd be great.

Jan 31, 2011 12:12 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

Interesting... You're quite the slooth, Diana.

Jan 31, 2011 12:19 PM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

Stop the presses .... Neyer is joining ... SB Nation

Feb 01, 2011 07:22 AM
rating: 0
 
Dave Holgado

Right on!

Feb 01, 2011 05:45 AM
rating: -1
 
BarryR

The Angels announcers were fond of referring to Scot Shields as rubber-armed. Unfortunately, those known as rubber-armed usually end up referred to as dead-armed.

Jan 31, 2011 12:16 PM
rating: 0
 
Asinwreck

I for one welcome our new pinstriped overlord.

Steven, congratulations. Will this affect your duties editing the 2012 book, or is it too early to know what's going to happen on that front?

Jan 31, 2011 12:35 PM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

Wow, a BP 2012 question. You want to see a grown man cry, don't you? The answer is, it's too soon to talk about that, but whatever happens I'll never totally abandon the Precious.

Jan 31, 2011 13:07 PM
 
awayish

love you steven

Jan 31, 2011 15:23 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

Aw, shucks.

Jan 31, 2011 17:54 PM
 
matuszek

I don't remember the question but I remember the asker. It was Rob Neyer.

I'd only become interested in baseball a couple years earlier when the Phillies went worst-to-first, and everything I knew was from reading the newspaper beat writers and columnists... the ones Rob proceeded to tear apart like Fire Joe Morgan ten years before Fire Joe Morgan. People forget that. I mean it, he straight up named names back in the day. When he says in today's column that he was lucky not to get fired, he's not being modest.

Jan 31, 2011 17:30 PM
rating: 2
 
bossfan101

Neyer at BP?? That would be fantastic.

Jan 31, 2011 18:49 PM
rating: 1
 
gklarsen

Mr. Goldman, this piece was downright inspiring. Through the years I've always expected not only good analysis at BP but good prose to go with it. Statistical analysis is one thing (and a very valuable thing to be sure), but really good writing is incredibly rare. Looks like BP will continue to impress in that department.

Feb 01, 2011 02:16 AM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

Congratulations Steven, love your stuff and I'm excited to see how BP evolves under your Editor-In-Chiefing.

Feb 02, 2011 10:06 AM
rating: 0
 
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