The Goose was a rare breed of durable relief pitcher
On a warm, breezy day at Yankee Stadium back in May of 1980, with the first-place Yankees up by two runs in the seventh inning and facing the bottom of the lineup of a poor Detroit team, New York manager Dick Howser did something that would would imperil a manager's job security if he tried it today. He brought in his closer for a three-inning save.
Two days later, Howser did something that today seems even more of a fireable offense than that: He brought in his closer to pitch the ninth inning with his team losing by three runs.
Of course, the designation "closer" didn't exist back then. Rich (Goose) Gossage, Howser's troubleshooter out of the bullpen, was a "fireman." Such relievers were ready for the rescue call as early as the sixth inning. Today's closers might be napping in the clubhouse in the sixth inning. They have become the specialists' specialists, the last layer in the stratification of the modern bullpen, reduced most often to starting the ninth inning with a lead of one, two or three runs. They don't put out fires any more. Charged often with just getting three outs before giving up a third run, they help little old ladies across the street.
It took much longer than the honor deserved, but Gossage was finally elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday. He was tougher to hit and more durable than Bruce Sutter and more fearsome than Rollie Fingers, the only other true firemen enshrined in the Hall. No one did it better.
The manner in which Gossage was used seems archaic today, downright barbaric when measured against the "saving bullets" protective philosophy of treating pitchers now. Four times Gossage saved at least 25 games while throwing more than 100 innings. It has been done 70 times in baseball history --- but not once by an active pitcher. No one in baseball has done it since Danny Graves for the 1999 Reds. Why not?
Gossage's enshrinement presents the perfect opportunity for baseball to re-think how the closer is used. Why shouldn't the modern closer be more like Gossage and less like Trevor Hoffman, who has compiled the most saves in history largely within the confines of the ninth inning? Why should the seventh and eighth innings be off-limits to a closer? Of course, managers are hedging their bets. They want their closer available today and tomorrow -- even if no one knows how tomorrow's game will play out -- and the way to ensure that is to limit the closer to one inning today.
Does anyone else find it odd that all 30 teams have accepted this philosophy? It would be like every team in the NFL agreeing that the 3-4 defense is the right way to go. Where is the maverick thinker willing to walk a different path? Where is the young, loose-limbed pitcher, the way Gossage was, who can throw 100 innings? It's counter-intuitive to think that with nutritional, training and medical advances over three decades that today's pitcher is less durable.
Managers such as Howser, Dick Williams and Billy Martin pushed the envelope in reliever usage. No one today should advocate that the ninth inning, down by three, is the kind of high-leverage appearance that makes sense for the best arm in your bullpen. We're not talking about being foolish with workloads. But what Gossage was able to do should be an inspiration to use that best arm occasionally in high-leverage spots in the seventh and eighth innings, or even in the ninth inning of tie games on the road.
Is the one-size-fits-all modern bullpen system all that perfect anyway? Teams do preserve ninth-inning leads at a greater rate today than ever before. Great. But by saving their best reliever for the ninth, teams now blow more leads by putting games in the hands of set-up relievers. The modern bullpen is worse at winning games with a lead into the seventh inning (86 percent) than bullpens were in 1967 (87 percent), when the save statistic had yet to be invented.
The heavy lifting by Gossage stands as even more impressive today than it was when he was pitching. Gossage, in fact, is right to claim that he and closers such as Mariano Rivera and Hoffman have very different jobs and cannot be directly compared. They don't play the same "position."
To appreciate what Gossage did, I decided to look at the degree of difficulty to his saves by judging them on the number of outs. I looked at all saves by Gossage, Sutter, Rivera and Hoffman that required more than three outs. Here is how they break down:
Look at the separation when these pitchers needed to cover two innings or more. Sutter and Gossage nailed such tough saves 10 times more often than today's premier closers.
Here's another way to look at how the job has changed: Look at not just the saves, but this time the save opportunities when these closers were asked to get at least six outs:
Gossage's enshrinement has no bearing on the future candidacy of closers such as Billy Wagner, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon because the job is so different now. In fact, it might be the ultimate compliment to Gossage to say that we'll never see anything like him again, that he's the last of a breed, the Chuck Bednarik of his sport.
I'd like to think that won't be the case. The game evolves. Some day some team, by way of happenstance or a maverick manager, will use a closer for more than 100 innings again -- the reverse scenario from what Tony La Russa did with Dennis Eckersley in Oakland -- and the copycats will follow. And that's when Gossage, the newest Hall of Famer, will be honored again: when after all these years we finally see the next Goose Gossage.