Sparky's influence on bullpens remains
In testing limits of his relievers, 'Captain Hook' found an edge
George Lee Anderson made such a mark on baseball that he's recognized by one word: Sparky. But there was another nickname that the Hall of Famer garnered during his managerial career that stuck with him forever.
The man known simply as Sparky, who died at the age of 76 on Thursday, was also known by many as Captain Hook -- especially by pitchers in some of his early rotations.
Before current Cardinals manager Tony La Russa helped usher in the era of ninth-inning closers and specialized bullpens, there was Anderson, regarded by some as the father of the modern bullpen. From the moment Anderson broke into the Major League managerial ranks in 1970, he became a leader in reliever usage. By the time he retired in 1995, the game had come around to his approach, even if his approach had come back around toward his starters.
"He could manipulate a pitching staff better than anybody around," Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman recalled. "The proof is in the pudding. After he left Cincinnati, he won in Detroit."
Anderson won his first World Series title with the Reds without having more than 15 wins out of any one pitcher, but with four relievers who topped 90 innings. That 1975 Big Red Machine finished last in the league in complete games, and next to last in shutouts and innings pitched per start, but first in almost every relief category imaginable -- not just saves and save opportunities, but games finished by relievers, relief wins, holds and multi-inning relief appearances. No starting rotation won more games with non-quality starts -- fewer than six innings pitched or more than three earned runs allowed.
It was the peak of a trend that began when Anderson took over. His Reds teams led the National League in saves in six of his nine seasons managing in Cincinnati, and they finished second two other times. They had ample opportunities, leading the league in save chances five times. His bullpen led the league in wins in five out of nine seasons.
Anderson didn't have overcrowded bullpens, but he had core relievers he leaned on to get the big outs when he wanted. As one of his confidantes put it, when Anderson faced a point in the game when he was debating whether to pull a starter or not, he would rather lament pulling a starter one batter or two early than regret leaving him in a batter too long.
It wasn't overspecialization. His Reds teams almost always finished in the bottom half of the league in relief appearances lasting fewer than three outs, and they were generally in the top half in outs per relief outing. It was a supreme trust in the handful of relievers he used.
"He wasn't afraid to make a move," current Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He had a lot of confidence in what he did."
Anderson's World Series teams made closer Rawly Eastwick into a recognizable name. Not only did Eastwick save a league-best 26 games for the 1976 World Series champions, he won 11 games that year, tying for fifth on the team.
A decade and a move north later -- managing Detroit in 1984 -- Anderson not only became the first manager to win World Series titles in both leagues, he did it with his closer earning league MVP honors. Willie Hernandez led the league that year in games and games finished, and he racked up 140 1/3 innings over 80 appearances doing it.
That bullpen shared some of the trends of Anderson's Cincinnati teams. By then, though, he had a strong enough rotation that he was moving away from his quick hook moniker and shifting his trust toward Jack Morris and company.
Under Anderson, Morris became the winningest pitcher of the 1980s, and a virtual lock for 250-plus innings a season. Dan Petry had four straight years of at least 233 innings, and Walt Terrell had double-digit complete games in back-to-back seasons.
Captain Hook had slowed his signature move.
"It was in Cincinnati that he got that nickname," Morris recalled on Thursday, "and I think when he came to Detroit, he recognized in me a change. He needed innings, he needed a horse and I was his new guy. In the early years, honestly, he left me out there to rot many times, trying to teach me how to finish off ballgames and how to pitch through adversity and all of those types of things.
"I cannot honestly say he was ever Captain Hook to me. It was just the opposite. He gave me every benefit of the doubt to teach me how to pitch, how to finish games, and once I learned that, he didn't have to come out there unless I was pathetic, and that didn't happen that often."
Anderson still had great closers and solid bullpens. He just didn't lean on them quite so much. Detroit starters finished second in the league in innings per start five times in a seven-year stretch from 1982-88. His strength went back toward bullpen use in the 1990s, but that came mainly out of necessity, the product of a rotation in flux once Morris left for Minnesota in 1991.
By then, La Russa was setting the standard for a well-managed bullpen with closer Dennis Eckersley and specialists behind him. But La Russa could never top the nickname Anderson's bullpen use earned him.