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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

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