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2004, Sidebars

Dennis Eckersley, Starter or Reliever?

Dennis Eckersley PlaqueIn 2004, the first year he was eligible, Dennis Eckersley was elected to the Hall of Fame. On Friday, when we announced the 2004 results for the Hall of Miller and Eric, Eck was elected on his very first ballot. One might think this is a non-story, but that’s not the case. Eck was absolutely elected to the Coop because of his work as a reliever, specifically his work from 1988-1992 in Oakland. At the HoME, we think we have a willingness to look at a player’s entire career more so than the BBWAA does. With that said, he’s in the HoME far more because of his years as a starter. Let’s take a look.

Getting Started

Our hero reached the majors with that Cleveland Indians at age 20 as, you guessed it, a reliever. He was used sparingly, pitching in games 3, 7, 13, and 16 before getting more use. He got that use because in his career’s first five innings, he didn’t allow a run. In fact, by the middle of May he had gone 14.1 innings without allowing a run (though with ten free passes, his signature control had not yet taken hold). Ironically enough, he totaled two saves before totaling two wins. As a result of the great opening to his career, the Indians gave him a start in the first game of a May 25 double dip against the A’s and former teammate Jim Perry. Eck didn’t disappoint, shutting out the A’s on three hits.

In his first season, Eckersley put up 13 wins for mediocre Cleveland team. In fact, just he and Fritz Peterson topped seven victories. More impressively, Eck finished the year with 5.3 WAR. Surely that would make him Rookie of the Year, right? Not exactly. In the year of the Gold Dust Twins, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, Eck received nary a vote. In defense of the writers, only first place votes were handed out in 1975, and Lynn did have the better season.

Coming Into His Own

In 1976 Eck won another 13 games, and in 1977 the 22-year-old pitched what would be the signature game of his career to that point, no-hitting the Angels on May 30 while striking out a dozen. Later that summer, he made his first of two All-Star teams as a starter, setting down the NL in order in the fourth and fifth, including a strikeout of Steve Garvey. Traded to Boston in the off-season, the Oakland native broke out in 1978 with a 20-win season that makes an answer to the trivia tidbit about pitchers with a season of 20 wins and another of 50 saves. We’re looking at just Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz.

Grading Eck the Starter

I don’t know if we forget Dennis Eckersley as a starter because it was 30-40 years ago, because Eck had a second great career as a reliever, or because starters from the 1970s and 1980s who didn’t win 300 games are notoriously underrated. Actually, I think I do know. It’s the third, with a bit of the second mixed in. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Dennis Eckersley was the sixth best pitcher in all of baseball for a decade, from 1975-1984. For those years, he was better than Hall of Fame starters Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, and Fergie Jenkins. At his 1975-1979 peak, he was fifth best in the game and second to Jim Palmer in the AL. Extending things to 1982, Eck was still second to Palmer in the AL.

So is Dennis Eckersley a Hall of Fame starter? Well, I have no clue. They elect a lot of crappy pitchers to Cooperstown. But although I say that Eck is a HoMEr because of his time as a starter, he isn’t a HoME type of starter alone. I rank him around Vida Blue, Lon Warneke, and Herb Pennock. They were all fine pitchers, but we’d need about a 400-person HoME to let them in.

Shifting to the Pen

Days before the 1987 season, perhaps because of drinking troubles and perhaps because the Cubs had the makings of a fine rotation with Rick Sutcliffe, Jamie Moyer, a kid named Maddux, and Scott Sanderson, Eckersley was traded to the A’s for a trio of minor leaguers. Though the Oakland staff wasn’t as strong, with the likes of Jose Rijo and Joaquin Andujar stinking up the joint, the A’s shifted Eck to the pen. He pitched well in 115.2 innings, tying Jay Howell for the team lead with 16 saves and posting a very impressive 3.0 WAR.

By 1988, Eck was a stud. He made the first of four All-Star teams out of the pen, led the AL with 45 saves, and began a run of five consecutive years with an ERA of 2.96 or better. But before we move on…

Platoon Splits

Dennis Eckersley’s career platoon split is 159 points. That’s a bigger split than submariner Dan Quisenberry (120 points), though not quite as big as someone like Jeff Nelson (190) with his even crazier frisbee slider. Eckersley’s K/BB rate vs righties was an amazing 5.06, while versus lefties it was a normal 1.99. He also issued only 15 intentional walks to righties but 76 to lefties. He gave up 151 homers to righties but 196 to lefties. All of which is to say that like many righties who rely on a wipeout slider, Eckersley went right after righties and carefully probed lefties’ weaknesses. In relief this wasn’t as big an issue because hitters only got one look at him, but as Kirk Gibson showed, it was still a thing. Among the top-10 OPSs against him (minimum 20 PA), everyone is either a lefty or a switch hitter. In fact, you don’t see a righty hitter until the 14th entry on the list (Tom Brunansky). Oh, by the way, Kirk Gibson posted a .993 OPS against Eck. It’s to Eck’s credit that he had enough command and control to be able to work around the toughest opposite-hand batters without getting so badly creamed that he couldn’t succeed at a very high level.

Back to the Program

Dennis Eckersley is in the Hall of Fame, I think, because of his 1988-1992 seasons. During that time the fabulous reliever won an MVP and a Cy, made four All-Star teams, posted a 1.90 ERA, and totaled 220 saves. Even today, only 39 pitchers have that many saves in their entire careers.

Eck was great then, but was he really all that valuable? You’ll recall that he was fifth in the majors and second in the AL in WAR when he reached his peak as a starter. For his peak in the pen, he ranks at 36, behind such luminaries as Tim Belcher and Ed Whitson. Looking at just the AL, he only gets up to a ranking of 21, and relievers Steve Farr and Jeff Montgomery had more value over that half-decade.

In fairness to the Eck and to Hall writers, I think WAR underrates relief pitching some. When combining WAR with a Win Probability Added element, I actually rank Eck 14th in the game at his relief peak, and he rises all the way to 5th in the AL, behind only great pitchers and Tom Candiotti.

Before we get into our final analysis, here’s another brief interlude.

It’s a Joke

I remember a joke from years back attributed to Pirate catcher Manny Sanguillen. He quipped that in most cities they have a quiz where you guess the day’s attendance, while in Pittsburgh you have to name the people. I always think of that joke when I think of the Eck in 1989. It’s no fun to tell me how many guys he walked. Rather, you should know their names. Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, and Brook Jacoby.

Why He’s Forgotten as a Starter

Putting aside the relief pitching stuff for a moment, I want to look at a few pitchers from Eck’s era who didn’t win 300 games and deserved a lot better.

Very famously, Bert Blyleven, who debuted in 1970, didn’t reach the Hall of Fame until his 14th ballot. He won only 287 games, but at the HoME think it’s pretty clear he’s one of the 20 best pitchers ever.

Rick Reuschel pitched his first game in 1972. We’ve discussed him in the past as a guy who was completely ignored by the BBWAA. One ballot, two votes, done. That’s what a 214-191 record will do for a pitcher in the time of greats. Except that Reuschel was great too, one of the 40 best ever. He was like Juan Marichal and Don Drysdale.

Dave Stieb’s career began in 1989. He won a measly 176 games. All but the seven writers who voted for him keyed in on that, and he hasn’t been heard from since. Well, the HoME did discuss him – we elected him in 2003. His value is pretty close to that of Jim Bunning. Sure, he’s nearing the borderline, but he’s very clearly above it.

When Maddux and Clemens and Carlton and Ryan and Sutton and Niekro and Perry and Seaver and Glavine and Unit all win 300, and you don’t, you’re kind of ignored no matter how good you actually were.

Eck was great for a time, but he didn’t accumulate enough wins.

Putting It All Together

So should Eck be in the Hall as a starter or as a reliever? Yeah, I know he’s in as a pitcher, but you see my point. When making comparisons, we’re lucky because Eck was primarily a starter for half of the seasons in his career and primarily a reliever for the other half. Below is a simple WAR chart with all of my adjustments. And  I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Ranking     Starter WAR   Reliever WAR
Best            7.3           5.3
2nd best        7.3           5.1
3rd best        5.6           3.6
4th best        5.1           3.2
5th best        4.8           2.9
6th best        4.5           2.3
7th best        3.9           0.6
8th best        3.0           0.1
9th best        2.2           0.1
10th best       2.1          -0.1
11th best       0.8          -0.7
12th best       0.4          -2.0

Conclusion

Dennis Eckersley belongs in the Hall of Fame. For his career, he’s absolutely over the line. However, let’s not kid ourselves. Were it not for two great and five more very good years as a starter, he wouldn’t be close to deserving of his Hall of Fame plaque.

Miller

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Discussion

One thought on “Dennis Eckersley, Starter or Reliever?

  1. You may be right about his starts making him a Hall of Famer, but I guarantee that the writer’s looked at that relief peak and salivated. BTW how the heck to you get an ERA+ of 603 (1990 at BBREF)?
    Nice analysis as always.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | March 20, 2015, 9:31 am

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