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.
Year Inducted: 1985 (BBWAA, ballot #8, 331/395)
The bullpen, historically, was a place to put pitchers that could still get hitters out, but not at a high enough rate to be a starter. Some would view it as an insult, others would view it as a demotion, but some would do whatever it took to make it in the Major Leagues. Most of the time, especially in more recent years, when a pitcher comes out of the bullpen he looks like he is throwing with more velocity than if he were to start. This makes some intuitive sense since the pitcher doesn’t need to worry about pacing himself and can just “let it fly” as the kids say. But, the first successful reliever was not a hard thrower at all. No the first successful reliever relied upon a knuckleball that he would perfect and throw until he was nearly 50. That man was Hoyt Wilhelm.
Year Inducted: 2008 (BBWAA, ballot #9, 466/543)
There are some positions that are incredibly underrepresented in the Hall of Fame. The BBWAA has been loathe to vote in many DH’s (Frank Thomas making it primarily due to his time at first base, and Paul Molitor due to his time at third base), but has also failed to elect many third basemen and relief pitchers. Until 2004, there were two relief pitchers inducted in Cooperstown: Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm. Then, in 2004, there was a breakthrough. A truly great reliever was inducted easily on the first ballot, having been recognized as a game changing player and a dominant force at the back of the bullpen for years. That man was Dennis Eckersley. The selection of Eck itself didn’t cause any controversy-he belongs in the Hall of Fame. However, the fact that the BBWAA passed over other relievers that were multi-inning pitchers, like Sutter, did. And one of the loudest critics of the election was one of the best firemen ever, Goose Gossage.
Year Inducted: 1992 (BBWAA, ballot #2, 349/430)
Andrew Miller is making a lot of news lately, as is his manager Terry Francona. Not just because he is an awesome pitcher, but because Francona is deploying his best arm in the biggest situations and not saving him for the 9th inning. There have been several times in the last few seasons, especially in the postseason, where managers have either stuck with starters too long or gone to less effective relievers because they want to save their best arm for the ninth to get the save. Believe it or not, like was mentioned in the Bruce Sutter entry, this wasn’t always the case. Great bullpen arms were brought in as early as the 6th inning at times to preserve the victory. There have been many of these arms throughout history, but the first greatly effective one was Rollie Fingers.
Year Inducted: 2006 (BBWAA, ballot #13, 400/520)
The usage of bullpens have changed over the years. For many years, the bullpen was only there for mop up work if the starter just couldn’t go any further. Now, it’s not starters throwing the most high leverage innings but relievers. Initially, pitchers like Roy Face were dubbed “firemen” as they came out of the pen in stressful situations no matter the inning and pitched till the end of the game. One of the best firemen of all-time was Bruce Sutter.