March 20, 2017
Has the Modern Bullpen Killed Late-Inning Comebacks? (Part One)
Note: This article (and the one that will follow it later this week) is based on a presentation I made at the Society for American Baseball Research Analytics Conference in Phoenix. You can hear the audio here, and follow along with the slides here, should you desire. Fortunately, there is no video.
Part One: The Modern Bullpen
The modern bullpen is generally traced to 1988. That year the Athletics, under manager Tony La Russa, won 104 games en route to the American League pennant. Dennis Eckersley led the American League in saves with 45 and finished second in the Cy Young voting and fifth for MVP. The year before, Cincinnati’s John Franco had set a record by recording 24 saves in games in which he pitched exactly one inning. (Surprisingly, we link the modern bullpen with the American League-winning team with a Hall of Fame reliever managed by a Hall of Famer, rather than an 84-78 Reds team managed by Pete Rose.)
Prior to Franco in 1987, only five pitchers had totaled as many as 15 one-inning saves in a season: 15 by Clay Carroll in 1972; 16 by Fred Gladding in 1969, Wayne Granger in 1970, and Lee Smith in 1986; and 17 by Dave Smith in 1986.
Eckersley had joined the A’s a year earlier, after 12 seasons as a starting pitcher averaging 30 starts per year. He was a swingman in 1987, starting two games and entering as a reliever in the fourth inning (nine times), fifth inning (twice), sixth inning (seven times), seventh inning (seven times), eighth inning (12 times), ninth inning (12 times), and extra innings (four times).