Sutter's time is now

It's been a long time coming for Bruce Sutter, but this could be the year in which he walks through Cooperstown's doors.

Originally Published: January 9, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Since the last time a pure closer was elected to the Hall of Fame (1992), 101 different pitchers have saved 20 games in a season, 78 have saved 30 and 45 have saved 40.

Since the last time a pure closer was elected to the Hall of Fame, the all-time saves record has been held by three different men -- Rollie Fingers, Jeff Reardon and Lee Smith.

Since the last time a pure closer was elected to the Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers' Association of America has voted in four starting pitchers, three third basemen, two first basemen, two catchers, two outfielders, two middle infielders, three multiposition offensive machines and one man who began his career as a starting pitcher and then cemented his Hall of Fame credentials as a reliever (Dennis Eckersley).

But just when you thought Matt Sinatro might wind up in Cooperstown before Bruce Sutter or Goose Gossage, a remarkable thing happened Tuesday:

An actual closer got elected to the Hall of Fame. Really. Finally.

Bruce Sutter
Relief pitcher
Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
G IP SV BB SO ERA
661 1042.1 300 309 861 2.83

That man is Sutter, a guy who threw his last pitch 18 years ago (when Ronald Reagan was president, Bud Selig was just an owner and the other men on the field that day included Carmelo Martinez and Dickie Thon). So boy, was it ever about time.

Unlike all those days when Sutter's managers handed him the baseball, though, this was no sure thing. Sutter missed by 43 votes last year. And best we can tell, he hasn't recorded a single save since. So there was no logical reason for him to pick up those votes.

But who ever said logic had anything to do with a process that forced a player this great to suffer through 13 elections before finally being anointed?

As recently as 1999, only 121 writers were voting for Sutter. By this year, he was up to 400 votes -- without throwing a single pitch in between. If you can figure that out, you're a lot more brilliant than we are.

Sutter wound up getting 56 more votes this year than last year -- which just about mirrored Gossage's increase (up 51). The Goose is now 54 votes short. So clearly, he is also going to make it one of these years -- which we'll regard as an official indication that closer-mania has finally arrived.

But however long it takes, at least it's about time these voters have finally acknowledged the real-life existence of the closer species in a sport where, in case nobody noticed before these ballots went out, ninth-inning monsters have become 100 percent indispensable.

Eligible for consideration
2007
Harold Baines, Derek Bell, Dante Bichette, Bobby Bonilla, Jeff Brantley, Jay Buhner, Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, Eric Davis, Tony Fernandez, Tony Gwynn, Darryl Hamilton, Pete Harnisch, Charlie Hayes, Glenallen Hill, Ken Hill, Stan Javier, Wally Joyner, Ramon Martinez, Mark McGwire, Paul O'Neill, Gregg Olson, Cal Ripken Jr., Bret Saberhagen, Jeff Shaw, Kevin Tapani, Devon White, Bobby Witt
2008
Shawon Dunston, Travis Fryman, David Justice, Mike Morgan, Tim Raines, Randy Velarde
2009
Mark Grace, Rickey Henderson, Dean Palmer, Dan Plesac, Matt Williams
2010
Andres Galarraga, Edgar Martinez, Robin Ventura
But however this shakes out, it's about time these voters finally acknowledge the real-life existence of the closer species in a sport in which, in case nobody noticed before these ballots went out, ninth-inning monsters have become 100 percent indispensable.

Until Tuesday, the entire bullpen wing in Cooperstown consists of three men -- Hoyt Wilhelm (whose 21-year career nearly predated the modern save rule), Fingers (who could have been elected for his mustache alone) and Eckersley (voted in largely for his multitasking expertise). Wilhelm was elected in 1985, Fingers in '92 and Eckersley in 2004.

That Cooperstown relief-pitcher shortage has been inexplicable -- if not borderline embarrassing -- for many, many years now. But now that Sutter has finally gotten elected, he could be looked upon some day as the man who repaved the highway to Cooperstown for closers such as Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman, truly great pitchers who, like Sutter, also were taken for granted in their careers.

And it couldn't be more fitting if Sutter does become a pioneer on that front -- because he wasn't just a game-changer when he held the baseball in his hands. He was a sport-changer.

Maybe he didn't quite invent the split-fingered fastball. But there's no doubt he's the No. 1 reason that pitch now turns up on almost as many mounds as the resin bag.

First-time HOF candidates
Albert Belle: People will try to compare Belle with Jim Rice. But good old Albert is, essentially, the Dick Allen of his generation, minus the MVP and rookie-of-the-year awards. Belle did drive in 100 runs for nine straight years. And from 1991 through 2000, he led the sport in RBI and extra-base hits. But when you're considering a guy whose career skidded off a cliff at age 34, it's even tougher than usual to overlook eight suspensions, that bat-corking brouhaha, the debacle that was Hannah Storm and Sir Albert's defining off-the-field disaster -- trying to run over trick-or-treaters in his car one Halloween. Sorry, Albert. No Cooperstown for you.

Orel Hershiser: Hershiser sure had that Hall of Fame aura in October of 1988, when he pulled off the rarified LCS-and-World Series MVP daily double (duplicated only by the unlikely group of Livan Hernandez, Darrell Porter and Willie Stargell). And after Sept. 1 that year, Hershiser threw a pitch in at least a portion of 99 innings -- and was scored on in four of them. (That computes to a 0.46 ERA if you're wondering.) But after '88, he was just 121-101, with a 3.93 ERA, and topped 15 wins only once. So as mesmerizing as he was for a brief magical time, even 204 career wins won't transport this man into the Hall.

Will Clark: Speaking of magic, Will the Thrill kicked off his pro career with a home run on his first swing, and then launched his big-league career the same way -- with a first-at-bat homer off Nolan Ryan. Pretty cool. Clark's career credentials actually are better than you might think -- a .303 lifetime average, an .881 OPS, 10 .300 seasons, six All-Star teams, one Gold Glove. But by age 28, he was already skidding downhill -- with just one 100-RBI season and two 20-homer seasons over the rest of his career. Hey, at least his last chapter will look better than that college teammate of his -- Rafael Palmeiro.

Dwight Gooden: While we're on the subject of career flameouts, let's shed a quick tear for Gooden, whose self-destruction remains one of the saddest baseball stories of our time. Too bad we can't just vote on the Gooden of 1984-88, an electrifying supernova who won 91 games before his 24th birthday. In the entire live-ball era, the only pitcher that young who won more was Bob Feller. But Feller now gets to visit the big museum in Cooperstown every year. Gooden, on the other hand, would have to buy a ticket. He went just 103-77 after turning 24, with a 4.15 ERA. And it's still hard to believe Gooden never won a postseason game, even though he appeared in 12 of them. Well, if there was a Too Bad He Couldn't Freeze Time Hall of Fame, he'd make that one.
-- Jayson Stark

The splitter is the single most devastating pitching invention of the last quarter-century. And that development traces directly to all the head-shaking that erupted from hitters everywhere after they'd finished flailing futilely at the prime-time Bruce Sutter.

Sutter was also the first reliever we can ever recall who caused terrified humans in the other dugout to use the now-universal term: "shortening the game."

These days, of course, that's a concept applied to having to face entire bullpen tag teams -- e.g., Brendan Donnelly in the seventh, Scot Shields in the eighth and Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth.

But Sutter was his own Donnelly and Shields. Whitey Herzog even announced to the world that Sutter Time consisted of any game that was in doubt from two outs in the seventh inning on. So you had to beat those Cardinals in the first 20 outs. Or else.

Nowadays, you understand, closers would file a grievance if any manager routinely waved for them in the seventh inning. But back then, there were just about no guidelines on how pitchers like this were used.

Before Sutter (and, to some degree, Gossage), it wasn't so weird to see a team's best reliever stomp out there in the fifth or sixth inning, settle things down for a while and then let someone else pitch the ninth.

So we know Bruce Sutter left his mark on his line of work even before we start considering what happened after he arrived at the mound. But that's when the domination really began.

Sutter won a Cy Young award in 1979. He led his league in saves outright five times in six years -- something no other reliever has ever done. He finished among the top four in his league in saves for eight straight years -- something no closer except Fingers has ever done. (Nope, not even the great Mariano Rivera.)

Sutter did all that while chewing up massive innings, too. Our colleague, Alan Schwarz, calculated that he averaged 42 percent more outs in every save than Eckersley. (Yeah, you read that right -- 42 percent.) And Sutter ripped off six seasons in which he saved at least 20 games and worked at least 99 innings. Only Fingers beat that.

All of those innings and all of those trips to the mound built Sutter's legend. But for years, they actually cost him Hall of Fame votes -- because the only real negative on his Hall of Fame résumé is the shortness of his career.

But the true testament to the aura he projected for nearly a decade is that he finished in the top seven in the MVP voting five times in eight years -- a claim no other relief pitcher who ever lived can make.

So it's inhumane to have made him suffer through 13 elections just to reach this point. Nobody has had to wait this many years to be elected -- without having to be rescued by the Veterans Committee -- since Ralph Kiner, more than three decades ago.

Triviality
Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage both joined the 300-Save Club before saves turned cheaper than candy bars. Still, only five active pitchers are in that club. Can you name them? (Note: We're definining "active" as "under contract for 2006.") Click here for the answer.
That wait tells you everything you need to know, however, about the skepticism closers have inspired since they started showing up on the ballot back in the '80s.

Reardon, once the all-time save leader, didn't even survive to see a second ballot. Smith, the current leader, still needs to pick up almost 200 votes to get elected.

Gossage, once voted the most dominating closer of his time, had to slog through six elections before he even collected a vote from half the folks casting ballots. And six elections into Sutter's candidacy, he was still getting a ridiculous 24 percent of the vote.

But then a miracle happened: More and more voters began concluding that closers do, in fact, exist. So Tuesday, we could have a monumental Hall of Fame breakthrough:

A true, modern closer in the Hall of Fame. What a concept.

Now here's a look at the other six candidates I voted for:

Goose Gossage

You know that look on Naomi Watts' face when she first caught a glimpse of King Kong? You once could have seen that same look on the faces of hitters everywhere when they first caught a glimpse of Gossage's Fu Manchu from 60 feet, 6 inches away.

Rich Gossage
Relief pitcher
Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
G IP SV BB SO ERA
1002 1809.1 310 732 1502 3.00

If these voters had any idea what to make of the closer population, Gossage would have been every bit as easy a first-ballot lock as Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn. But amazingly, this is his seventh election. And he would need a 102-vote bungee leap to get the plaque-carvers working. Alas, no player in history has missed by that big a margin one year, then gotten elected the next.

But if there's anybody who deserved to transcend that precedent, it's Gossage -- the most criminally undersupported Hall of Fame candidate of my lifetime.

You want domination? How's this for domination: In Goose's first 10 seasons as a closer, he had an ERA of 2.27 or lower eight times. Retrosheet tells us that the right-handed hitting portion of the population batted under .200 against this man over a period spanning nearly two decades.

He worked more than 130 innings in relief three times. And the only closer in history with more seasons of 20-plus saves and sub-2.00 ERAs than Gossage (four) is Rivera (six).

So why did it take this guy so long just to get 50 percent of the vote? You've got us. As recently as 2001, Gossage and Sutter were attracting roughly the same number of votes. So it sure doesn't make much sense that one of them got elected this year -- while the other got 64 fewer votes.

But at least it's clear that Gossage is viewed as a more serious candidate than Smith, who got 102 fewer votes than the Goose (336-234).

Jim Rice

For an entire decade, Rice was my own personal Hall of Fame nightmare. He wasn't just a source of annual torment. He was also a source of 1.8 billion e-mails every December, from Rice supporters so possessed they deserve to be on his payroll.

Jim Rice
Outfielder/DH
Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
AB R H HR RBI AVG
8225 1249 2452 382 1451 .298

But it's amazing how few e-mails I've gotten since last year, when I finally voted for the guy. I've always claimed I was open-minded about this stuff. So I never stopped mulling this man and his career. I read hundreds of those e-mails. I also spoke to lots of people who covered Rice, watched him close-up or played against him.

I finally concluded he wasn't as one-dimensional as I'd originally thought. So even though he drove in fewer runs after turning 34 than Otis Nixon, Rice preceded that with such an amazing 11-year period of dominance, it was still enough to earn this vote.

From 1975 through 1985, Rice was No. 1 in his league in homers, RBI, runs scored, slugging and extra-base hits. And the only player even close to him in most of those categories was the great George Brett.

Still, this was a huge election for Rice, who has just three shots left. He's still 53 votes away. And he hasn't gotten a hit in 17 years. If he has to convince another 10 percent of these voters after all these years, he might be in real danger of never making it.

Andre Dawson

The Hawk, surprisingly, actually had a bigger surge in this vote than Rice did. He picked up 47 more votes than last year, to 30 for Rice. And he keeps edging upward, from 50 percent two years ago to 52 percent last year to 61 this year.

On the other hand, he's still 83 votes short. So we don't expect him to have to write any speeches any time soon. But anyone who wants to revisit history will find that Dawson, Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy clearly represented the National League pantheon in the 1980s.

Andre Dawson
Dawson

Dawson won one MVP award and finished second twice. He was a rookie of the year. He won eight Gold Gloves. And now that the steroid mess has devalued the stats of the generation that came after him, you would think these voters might realize it actually means something that only two other players have as many hits (2,774), home runs (438) and stolen bases (314) as he does -- two guys named Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.

But the proof is in the votes. And now that the Hawk has busted out of the 50-52 percent box he seemed stuck in, he might just have a chance some day.

Dale Murphy

Here's another guy whose candidacy, in theory, ought to be reexamined in the wake of steroid-mania. There was, after all, no one cleaner than Dale Murphy. So shouldn't it carry some weight that back in the ancient '80s, Murphy led all National Leaguers in runs and hits, tied Mike Schmidt for most RBI and was second only to Schmidt in home runs?

Dale Murphy
Murphy

Oh, and did we mention those back-to-back MVP awards? Or five Gold Gloves? Or that the Murph Man was a 30-30 clubber, a leading vote-getter in the All-Star balloting and a guy so classy that any congressman would be proud to interview him? But at this point, the only Hall of Fame drama involving this man is whether he can just stay on the ballot. As recently as 2000, Murphy was getting more votes than Bert Blyleven. This year, Blyleven outpolled him, 277-56. We get the message. But we can't stop voting for him.

Jack Morris

Morris is another guy who apparently is never going to make it. But we never tire of stating his case: Yes, we know his 3.90 ERA would be the highest of any Hall of Famer. But we still say that Morris' relentless acehood -- for nearly every team he ever pitched for -- makes his ERA semi-irrelevant.

Jack Morris
Morris

In his 14 peak seasons (1979-92), Morris won 41 more games than any other starting pitcher around. He pitched a no-hitter. He started three All-Star Games. He was a No. 1 starter on three World Series teams. And if there's ever any debate about whether he was a real ace, he can cue up the videotape of Game 7, 1991. We'll think of that game for the next eight years -- every time we cast another fruitless vote for the best pitcher that nearly 60 percent of these voters manage to ignore every year.

Bert Blyleven

I finally voted for Blyleven for the first time this year, after eight straight years on my Can't Quite Find A Way To Convince Myself list. Want to know why? Click here.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com