LADY AT THE BAT: Lockdown Bullpen 2016: Remembering When The Yankees Tried It Before

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lockdown Bullpen 2016: Remembering When The Yankees Tried It Before

George Steinbrenner thought of it first: put together a lockdown bullpen and shorten the game. Well, at least that seems to be what he was thinking. 

In the off season following the 1977 championship run, the year that Yankee reliever and closer, Sparky Lyle, won the Cy Young award (which struck a blow for relief pitchers everywhere), Steinbrenner wasn't satisfied. Already armed with Lyle in the bullpen, Steinbrenner added free agents Rich "Goose" Gossage and Rawley Eastwick.  Gossage, a former starter had become a heavy duty closer with Pittsburgh. Eastwick had been the closer for the Big Red Machine in their championship years of 1975 and 1976, before being dealt to St Louis mid season 1977. The plan was to use all three in late inning situations. 

As we head into the 2016 season the same plan reverberates loudly through the Yankees previews of the upcoming season. You might have forgotten this big three bullpen was tried in 1978. You probably recalled that the Yankees repeated as champions in 1978, So the plan of using three closer types in 1978 must have panned out, given the Yankees championship success, right?

Wrong.

Not to say that 2016, overall, will work out like 1978. We can only hope. But the reality is, while the 2016 bullpen is a large part of the desire to win championship #28, the bullpen plan of 1978 ran off the tracks rather quickly. Gossage was dominant, Lyle, in the words of Graig Nettles, went "from Cy Young to sayonara," and Eastwick was gone after just eight appearances, going to Philadelphia in a trade in June, Lyle appeared in 58 games to Gossage's 63, but the similarity ends there.

Of the 63 appearances for Gossage, he won 10 and saved 27, either winning or saving 59% of the times he took the mound. Lyle, meanwhile won 9 and saved nine for 18 in 59 appearances on the mound, or 31%. In games in which Gossage pitched, the Yankees went 43-20, a .683 winning percentage. Lyle pitched in games where the Yankees went 30-29, a .508 winning percentage. Yes, they did pitch in the same game a few times, but at this point that overlap really doesn't seem to matter.

The point is that it is very clear Gossage was the go to guy, the high leverage guy, in '78. Gossage lost ten times that year, more evidence of getting the high leverage games, win or lose. With an average of over two innings per outing for Goose it is very clear Lyle that wasn't the eighth inning guy and Goose the 9th inning guy, as would happen today,

In 2016, high leverage guys will be used in the 7th 8th and 9th inning. It wasn't the case in 1978, but isn't it fascinating that the Yankees tried the bullpen trio of closer types way back then? The difference today is that the plan today could work, because relievers rarely pitch more than an inning at a time (Modern day exceptions include Mariano Rivera in 1996 and Dellin Betances in 2014) Lyle, Gossage and probably Eastwick wouldn't go for the methods of today, which explained Eastwick';s early departure and Lyle's subsequent trade to Texas following the '78 season. Gossage was top dog, and he wasn't going to share any innings with another closer type. At least not until April '79 when Goose landed on the disabled list with a thumb injury, When Gossage returned, he remained top dog in the bullpen until he left the Yankees for San Diego.

So for today's closer types, Aroldis Chapman. Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, there will be a share of those high leverage innings in 2016. It is a plan that will, most likely be very successful,

Not that you will get agreement from Sparky and the Goose.

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