February 7, 2013
Pop Quiz: Throwback Bullpen Guys
Quick, find the Hall of Famer here. This is obviously very easy, since one reached 75 percent of the vote and the other scored 3.8 percent on his first ballot and was never seen again.
If you said "Reliever A," you are correct. You have found the Hall of Famer, and it is Bruce Sutter, who was elected by the writers in 1996—his 13th year of eligibility.
If you said "neither," you make a very strong case, as neither pitcher provided a ton of value compared to even borderline everyday players. If you said "both," there's still more logic in that than in the actual result, but don't wait by the newspaper for the other to get in.
And if you guessed "Reliever B," you have guessed Dan Quisenberry, who would have been 60 years old today and whose fascinating career is not and likely will never be memorialized on a plaque in Cooperstown.
Quisenberry died at age 45 of a brain tumor in 1998. He was lost eight years after ending a career with a short but outstanding peak for the Royals and an epilogue with the Cardinals and Giants. He was a submarining sinkerballer, and if that didn't narrow down the ballplaying population enough, he is remembered for his great one-liners.
As a child of the 1990s who doesn't remember Quisenberry on the mound, I find it fascinating to view his underappreciated career in retrospect for just how far things have come and in how short a time. This isn't the black-and-white TV game. Quisenberry's career ended in a year beginning with a "199-," and his style is still barely recognizable today.
In Quisenberry's six-year peak as a closer from 1980-85, in which he was a top-five finisher in Cy Young voting every year except the 1981 strike year, he averaged 5.3 outs per appearance.
Not only do no closers do anything like that today, no relievers do. Only eight relievers this millennium (min. 40 games) have averaged that number for even one full season, and the last was Brian Bass in 2009. The last with any saves at all was Scot Shields with the 2004 Angels.
If you're looking for the most throwback relievers in the game today—those whose usage patterns come closest to looking like those from Quisenberry's day, as his career ended just as modern specialization was taking shape—you won’t find a stellar list.
Of the six pure relievers who even averaged four outs per appearance last year, Craig Stammen of the Nationals and Cristhian Martinez of the Braves were among the best of them, and not surprisingly two were on the starter-limiting Rockies.
The longest of 2012's long relievers, such as that term is today:
Again, Quisenberry in his prime averaged 5.3 outs per appearance as a closer. Sutter was almost the same, but the difference is in how they got those outs. Sutter's strikeout numbers (7.4 per 9 innings), look decidedly ordinary for 2012, but they were actually very good in his day. The major-league average in his Cy Young year of 1979 was 4.8 strikeouts per 9. Quisenberry, meanwhile, struck out 3.3 per 9 for his career, historically low.
Among pitchers with 1,000 innings who started their careers since his date of birth in 1953, Quisenberry has the fourth-lowest strikeout rate, higher than only Larry Sorensen, Jim Barr, and Al Fitzmorris.
There is no pitcher today who’s able to have all that success with so few strikeouts. Jeff Gray had the fewest of 2012 with 4.5 per 9 innings, and he was followed by Alex Burnett, Chad Qualls, Latroy Hawkins and Jim Johnson in a rather undistinguished group (at least until the end if you're a Johnson believer).
For careers since 1990, when Quisenberry retired, the list is what you'd expect. Aaron Cook at 3.7 K/9, Kirk Reuter at 3.8, Ricky Bones and Carlos Silva at 4.0. Yet of those, only Cook had an ERA+ better than league average, and nobody's doing this as a reliever.
It's hardly news that pitching and especially relief pitching and especially especially late-inning relief pitching have become strikeout oriented. But it’s still striking on this occasion to look back at Quisenberry's career in the not-so-distant past and remember a skill set that won't be duplicated any time in the near future.