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The Paintmaster
Steve Wulf
August 24, 1992
With uncanny control and a peerless talent for painting the edges of the plate, Oakland relief ace Dennis Eckersley has become virtually unbeatable
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August 24, 1992

The Paintmaster

With uncanny control and a peerless talent for painting the edges of the plate, Oakland relief ace Dennis Eckersley has become virtually unbeatable

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AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME
Measured against relievers past and present, the Eck ranks first in several vital statistics.

EARNED RUN AVERAGE IN RELIEF

DENNIS ECKERSLEY Athletics

2.03

Rob Dibble Reds

2.36

Gregg Olson Orioles

2.46

John Franco Reds, Mets

2.48

Bryan Harvey Angels

2.49

WALKS PER 9 INNINGS IN RELIEF

DENNIS ECKERSLEY Athletics

1.21

Dan Quisenberry* 3 teams

1.40

Dick Hall* 5 teams

1.51

Steve Howe* 4 teams

1.98

Doug Jones 3 teams

2.01

ON-BASE PERCENTAGE ALLOWED IN RELIEF

DENNIS ECKERSLEY Athletics

.238

Rob Dibble Reds

.272

Bryan Harvey Angels

.277

Luis DeLeon* 4 team

.279

Tom Henke Rangers, Blue Jays

.280

Source: The Elias Sports Bureau

*No longer active

Minimum 200 games pitched as a reliever (through Aug. 15).

Paint the black.

That's what a pitcher does when he throws the ball over the outside or inside part of home plate. The pentagonal plate is 17 inches wide and 17 inches deep, and there is a one-inch strip of black rubber that surrounds it. Hence a pitch that travels over the border is painting the black.

There's no telling where the expression originated; it's one of those mysteries of the game that has been obscured by time, like who invented baseball. But if there were an Abner Doubleday of painting the black, he should be Dennis Eckersley, who does it with such astounding consistency that he has redefined not only the phrase but the entire concept of relief pitching as well. Moreover, the Eck, as he is known far and wide, has come up with a few expressions of his own over the years, including such variations on the theme as "paintball," which is what he throws, and "paintmaster," which is what he is.

Baltimore Oriole manager Johnny Oates, who was the bullpen coach with the Chicago Cubs when Eckersley pitched for them, oh, a lifetime ago, says, "His control is so good, I would be willing to put on the gear and catch any pitch he throws with my eyes closed, because I know he's going to hit some part of the glove with every pitch."

From 1988, his first full season as the curtain closer for the Oakland Athletics, through last Sunday, Eckersley had walked 34 batters (eight intentionally) in 337 innings, or 0.91 batters every nine innings. (In two seasons, 1989 and 1990, he walked a total of seven batters. From August 1989 until June 1990, he went 52 innings, or 186 batters, without giving up a walk.) And it's not as if he's serving up "salad"—another Eckspression. In those 337 innings he had an ERA of 1.90, with 350 strikeouts and only 230 hits allowed. (In 1963, when he won the Cy Young and MVP awards, Sandy Koufax had remarkably similar statistics: 311 IP, 1.88 ERA, 306 strikeouts, 58 walks and 214 hits.)

Says Milwaukee Brewer reliever Jesse Orosco, "Eck's numbers are unbelievable. I don't know how, but he doesn't walk anybody. And a great reliever will have a few blown saves. The man doesn't even have that."

Indeed, the 37-year-old Eckersley has 37 saves in 38 save opportunities so far this year. During a five-month stretch over the past two seasons, he had 40 consecutive saves, a major league record. Since 1988 his save percentage of .892 (206 of 231) easily surpasses that of the second-best reliever over that span, Tom Henke of the Toronto Blue Jays (.867). What those numbers mean is that while the A's get nine innings in a game, their opponents have only eight chances to win.

Says Doug Rader, the A's batting coach, who managed the California Angels from 1989 to 1991, "I loved to manage against Dennis. It meant I didn't have to manage as long." In other words, it ain't over till...the Paintmaster slings.

Take the Eck's 31st save this year as an example. On July 22 he was called upon to protect an 8-5 lead in the ninth against the visiting New York Yankees. He struck out Charlie Hayes and Matt Nokes on three pitches apiece, then got to 0 and 2 on Pat Kelly before he fouled one off. Kelly fought off two more pitches and drew a ball before he finally struck out. Thirteen pitches, 12 strikes, three strikeouts. Eckersley might have gotten the Yankees on nine pitches if he hadn't been a little rusty; his most recent appearance had been eight days before, in the All-Star Game.

Eckersley is having such a sensational season that he should be treated like a blockbuster summer movie.

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