Year Inducted: 2004 (BBWAA, ballot #1, 421/506)
John Smoltz wasn’t the only one who went from great starter to dominant closer. Sometimes a pitcher can have some great seasons, but an odd delivery can lead to arm and back issues and slow them down. Typically, this means the end for a pitcher’s career. However, that wasn’t the case in Oakland in 1986. Manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan noticed that, when he became a reliever, this pitcher’s arm issues were gone and he became absolutely dominant out of the pen if held to a couple of innings at a time. That was how Dennis Eckersley became one of the best closers of all-time.
Eck had two careers, really. From his debut in 1975 until 1986, he was a full time starting pitcher. In that career, he went 151-128 in a little less than 2500 innings and posted an ERA of 3.67. While good, those numbers were far from dominant, and a long battle with arm issues and alcoholism led to a sharp and sudden decline in the mid-80’s. However, upon being dealt to the A’s, Eckersley became a great reliever and from 1987-1998 he went 46-43 with 387 saves and an ERA of 2.96 in roughly 790 innings. In total, Eckersley was a great pitcher, and as a reliever he boosted his strikeout rate to nearly one every inning and dropped his walk rate down to about 1 every 9 innings.
When only throwing one or two innings a game, it’s hard for most relievers to rack up a lot of value (at least according to stats like RA9-WAR and fWAR). Further complicating things for Eckersley was his age when he switched to a reliever. At age 32, most players are just coming out of their primes and are starting a (hopefully) gradual decline. Eckersley managed to subvert some of that, but age caught up to him eventually during his age-38 season. At that point Eck was still very good, but no longer the dominant closer that he had displayed just a few years prior. As such, it is difficult to truly judge his numbers as a reliever to those of Gossage and Fingers and Sutter. However, none of them had the ability to start as much as Eckersley did, and had he converted sooner it isn’t hyperbole to suggest that he would have blown by their numbers in a heartbeat (as he did have nearly 400 saves and over 300 shutdowns in only 12 seasons).
Eckersley was one of a kind, and a pioneer for the new one-inning brand of closer that is being deployed currently. Eckersely’s dominance changed the game probably forever. That alone makes him worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Stay tuned for the next updates.
On deck 11/10/16:
#81- The Professor
#80- Other than Cy Young, he was probably the best pitcher of the pre-1900’s