Superduperswingmen (Part 4:  1970-2008)

This series has tipped the THT cap in honor of the Swingman, the pitcher who pivots from the starting rotation to the bullpen and back. This pitching role eschews the comfort zone of specialization, yet emerges as something of a specialist itself, simply because not every pitcher has the flexibility demanded by this double-duty assignment. The Swingman is too often an unsung hero, making a greater contribution to team success than his individual stats might suggest, due to his capacity to handle tasks that would otherwise require two or more pitchers to fulfill.

The term Swingman traditionally has been applied to any pitcher who frequently works as both a starter and a reliever, but here we’re recognizing the most prolific of these practitioners. We define a Superswingman as:

{exp:list_maker}A pitcher who appears in 40 or more games in a season
Among those 40 games, at least 15 must be starts and at least 15 must be relief appearances {/exp:list_maker}A pitcher who presents more than one such seasons in his career earns the exalted title of Superduperswingman.

Previously we’ve examined the periods of 1900-1930, 1930-1950, and 1950-1970. Now we conclude the journey with profiles of every Superduperswingman from the 1970s until the present day. Certainly, this era—particularly the last decade or two—as seen far greater specialization of starter versus reliever roles than ever before, and thus the Swingman pattern has become far less common than at any time in the past 100 years. Yet its practical necessity and value remains, and the Superduperswingman, while a rarer specimen than in the past, is by no means extinct.

Rudy May

He was never quite a star, exactly, but May was a real fine performer, versatile and durable and darn effective for a long time. Maybe I was misperceiving, but it seemed to me that May wasn’t properly appreciated for how good he was. His personality was bland; May was a solid, quiet, hard worker, the sort who’s happy to remain in the background, but his talent deserved some foreground.

With his Superswingman seasons occurring at ages 24 and 35, bracketing the extensive heart of his career, the arc of May’s lifetime usage pattern vividly stands as an example of the manner in which good-but-not-great pitchers were deployed in that era. As he entered the majors, May worked quite a bit of long relief, and as he developed was given starts more frequently, until in his peak seasons was a full-time starter. Then in his decline phase, May was redeployed back into the Swingman role, and toward the end was more and more a full-time reliever.

Nowdays one frequently hears Earl Weaver credited with the concept of breaking in highly valued pitching talent in the long relief role, and gradually working them into the regular starting rotation. While this is something Weaver has advocated, it’s hardly a practice original or unique to him. Many, many good pitchers all around the majors were brought along in this manner in the 1960s and 1970s and earlier, and the practice of easing a starter back into the bullpen past the age of 30 was common in this period as it had been for many decades.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1969   CAL      24   43   25    4    0   18    7    2   10   13  180  142   20   66  133 3.44   100
1980   NYY      35   41   17    3    1   24   13    3   15    5  175  144   14   39  133 2.46   159

The Rudy May usage-mode arc perfectly applies to the two following careers as well.

Jim Barr

Barr was a big, strong guy, yet he didn’t throw especially hard. Still, looking strictly at Barr’s exceedingly low K/IP rates, one who never saw him pitch might easily be deceived into thinking that Barr was an extreme soft tosser, but that wouldn’t be accurate either.

Instead, Barr combined a nothing-special fastball with extraordinarily good control of a hard slider and curve, and an exceptionally aggressive pitching mindset: He was going to throw strike one, and then he was going to throw strike two. There was no point in attempting to work the count against Barr and wait for him to come in; he was coming in right away. Barr was relentlessly focused on resolving the at-bat, win or lose, with an economy of pitches.

A pitcher has to really trust his stuff (and the defense behind him) to be successful with that approach, and for several years Barr certainly was. Beginning at the age of 29, Barr’s velocity would decline enough that his hits-allowed rates got rather scary. But even when he was less than effective, Barr was a pitcher presenting a singularly confident approach, and win or lose, his outings were a lot of fun to watch.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1972   SFG      24   44   18    8    2   26   13    2    8   10  179  166   16   41   86 2.87   123
1974   SFG      26   44   27   11    5   17    5    2   13    9  240  223   17   47   84 2.74   139

Marty Pattin

Sort of a right-handed version of Rudy May, Pattin was another who quietly delivered strong results in any role he was asked to fulfill, a much better pitcher than his near-absence of fame would suggest. And just like May’s, Pattin’s K/BB ratio was consistently solid.

One of my favorite bits in Ball Four is when Jim Bouton notes several times that Pattin could do a terrific Donald Duck voice (the funniest reference: “his great routine is where he has Donald reaching orgasm”). The world needs more people who can do a terrific Donald Duck voice.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1975   KCR      32   44   15    5    1   29   16    5   10   10  177  173   13   45   89 3.25   119
1976   KCR      33   44   15    4    1   29   19    5    8   14  141  114    9   38   65 2.49   142

Eric Rasmussen

Rasmussen never figured to be destined for stardom, but it appeared as though he was on the way to a more successful career than the one that transpired. Ted Simmons, his catcher in St. Louis, figured it this way:

Rasmussen came with a fastball and a pretty good slider, and there for a while he had some success with just those two pitches. He didn’t have a third pitch, though. He didn’t have a change-up, and after a while the hitters will figure you out if you’re just throwing hard and hard, unless your fastball’s 97 and your slider’s 91 or something.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1976   STL      24   43   17    2    1   26    9    0    6   12  150  139   10   54   76 3.53   100
1979   SDP      27   45   20    5    3   25   11    3    6    9  157  142    9   42   54 3.27   107

Bob Shirley

Here we see Shirley and Rasmussen both turning in Superswingman seasons with the 1979 Padres. Manager Roger Craig, in his brief two-season stint as the San Diego skipper, was obviously a believer in the value of the role; in ’79 he also deployed Bob Owchinko in 20 starts and 22 relief appearances.

In Craig’s later very successful run as manager of the Giants, he readily rotated several of his pitchers from starting assignments to the bullpen and back again, including Scott Garrelts, Don Robinson, Atlee Hammaker, Mike LaCoss and Kelly Downs.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1978   SDP      24   50   20    2    0   30   10    5    8   11  166  164   10   61  102 3.69    89
1979   SDP      25   49   25    4    1   24   13    0    8   16  205  196   15   59  117 3.38   104
1982   CIN      28   41   20    1    0   21    6    0    8   13  153  138   17   73   89 3.60   102

Rick Camp

The sinker-slider purveyor Camp had put together back-to-back outstanding seasons as the Braves’ ace reliever in 1980-81, under manager Bobby Cox. But when Joe Torre took over as Atlanta manager in ’82, he switched Camp to Superswingman mode, and got solid, though not spectacular, results.

All of which, of course, is completely secondary to the towering achievement in Camp’s career.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1982   ATL      29   51   21    3    0   30   20    5   11   13  177  199   18   52   68 3.65   103
1983   ATL      30   40   16    1    0   24    4    0   10    9  140  146   16   38   61 3.79   103

Larry McWilliams

He was six-foot-five and 180 pounds, and McWilliams did his best to take advantage of his angular elbows and knees with a “dips and doodles” herky-jerky motion. He was also an extraordinarily fast worker.

His career was rather quintessentially journeyman, but he did put together back-to-back first-rate seasons as a full-time starter with the Pirates in 1983-84. McWilliams’ total of four Superswingman seasons was the most by any pitcher since Murry Dickson achieved five in the 1940s/’50s.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1982 ATL-PIT    28   46   20    2    2   26    6    1    8    8  159  158   12   44  118 3.84    98
1986   PIT      32   49   15    0    0   34   11    0    3   11  122  129   16   49   80 5.15    75
1988   STL      34   42   17    2    1   25   12    1    6    9  136  130   10   45   70 3.90    89
1989 PHI-KCR    35   48   21    3    1   27    6    0    4   13  153  154    5   57   78 4.11    88

Zane Smith

A solid, unspectacular sinker-slider southpaw who was best known for—how shall I put this—let’s just say he wasn’t about to land any modeling contracts.

Smith’s 1985 Superswingman deployment, taking place in his rookie year, was the typical Swingman dynamic, in that he was in and out of the starting rotation over the course of the season. But the 1989 experience was something else again, and not just for the weirdness of going 1-13 with an ERA+ of 103. Over the first half of that year, Smith was strictly a starter with the Braves, and with a weak-hitting last place team he was getting pounded to the tune of 1-12 in 17 starts with a 4.45 ERA. Then he was traded to the Expos, who used him strictly in relief (in middle relief, not as a LOOGY or a closer), and Smith was extremely effective, putting up a 1.50 ERA (236 ERA+) in 48 innings, but with a won-lost record of just 0-1.

Outside of these two seasons, Smith was used almost entirely as a starter, making just four other relief appearances in 11 years.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1985   ATL      24   42   18    2    2   24    3    0    9   10  147  135    4   80   85 3.80   100
1989 ATL-MON    28   48   17    0    0   31   10    2    1   13  147  141    7   52   93 3.49   103

Greg Harris

So, just to make this clear, this wasn’t the Greg Harris who was a right-handed pitcher in the 1980s and 1990s; this was the Greg Harris who was a right-handed pitcher in the—no, wait.

Um, this was the Greg Harris who was mostly a reliever, but also made about 100 starts in his career … no, that doesn’t help either. All right, this wasn’t the Greg Harris whose career won-lost record was well below .500, despite the fact that his career ERA+ was over 100—aw, crap.

The heck with it. Maybe Bobby Jones and Bobby Jones, Bob Sadowski and Bob Sadowski, and Hal Smith and Hal Smith can help figure it out.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1987   TEX      31   42   19    0    0   23   14    0    5   10  141  157   18   56  106 4.86    93
1991   BOS      35   53   21    1    0   32   15    2   11   12  173  157   13   69  127 3.85   112

Danny Darwin

“Dr. Death” was a good pitcher for an amazingly long time, and among the most flexible performers in history: Of his 21 seasons in the major leagues, Darwin had just four in which he was deployed only as a starter (1981, 1991, 1993, and 1994), and only one in which he was strictly a reliever (1989).

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1988   HOU      32   44   20    3    0   24    9    3    8   13  192  189   20   48  129 3.84    86
1990   HOU      34   48   17    3    0   31   14    2   11    4  163  136   11   31  109 2.21   168
1992   BOS      36   51   15    2    0   36   21    3    9    9  161  159   11   53  124 3.96   107

Tom Gordon

Speaking of good, versatile pitchers who lasted forever …

image

“Flash” was a terrific, durable Swingman in several different seasons, including the two we see here and a few others in between. Gordon also had some good years as a full-time starter, and then over the long second half of his career he’s been effective as a closer and as a setup man. His lifetime major league totals include 203 games started and 346 games finished, 18 complete games and 158 saves.

Gordon’s fastball was never great, but his curve was, in hard/sharp and slow/soft varieties. He’s been a minor star, but a singular talent, and one of the more memorable players of his era.

Being invoked in the title and as part of the plot of a popular novel—a popular horror novel, no less—is hardly something you can say about many ballplayers; I’m quite sure it’s a status unique to Gordon. My take on Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is pretty much the one I have of most of the Stephen King books I’ve read (and I’ve by no means read even most of them): I just loved the writing and the development of the characters and plot through the first half or so of the narrative. But once the supernatural mumbo-jumbo starts to crop up, King kind of loses me. I guess I’m just not a horror genre kind of guy.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1989   KCR      21   49   16    1    1   33   16    1   17    9  163  122   10   86  153 3.64   107
1997   BOS      29   42   25    2    1   17   16   11    6   10  183  155   10   78  159 3.74   125

Willie Blair

The sort of pitcher who isn’t really good, but who’s nevertheless useful as a reliable innings-eater, Blair offset his very low strikeout rate with an even lower walk rate.

Blair is notable for being one of the rare white Willies. African-American major leaguers with this first name include Aikens, Banks, Crawford, Davis, Greene, Harris, Horton, Kirkland, Mays, McCovey, McGee, Norwood, Randolph, Smith, Stargell, Tasby, Upshaw and Wilson. Since 1947, their white American counterparts have been limited to the likes of Blair, Bloomquist, Eyre, Fraser, Jones, Mueller and Ramsdell. It’s no contest.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1993   COL      27   46   18    1    0   28    5    0    6   10  146  184   20   42   84 4.75   101
2000   DET      34   47   17    0    0   30    8    0   10    6  157  185   20   35   74 4.88    96

Scott Sanders

A big, strong guy who threw very hard and racked up lots of strikeouts, Sanders never developed an effective off-speed pitch, and was unable to break through as a consistently successful pitcher. He was pretty much the 1990s, right-handed version of Dick Stigman.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1996   SDP      27   46   16    0    0   30    6    0    9    5  144  117   10   48  157 3.38   119
1997 SEA-DET    28   47   20    1    1   27   15    2    6   14  140  152   30   62  120 5.86    77

Terry Mulholland

Mulholland, your more-or-less generic soft-tossing lefty with fine control, was extraordinary in two ways beyond his pitching: He had a phenomenal pickoff move that strangled the running game, but was also a lousy fielder, committing 51 errors and compiling a career fielding percentage of .907, compared to a league average of .954.

He strung together a few solid years as a full-time starter, then significantly lost effectiveness as he passed the age of 30. It was Mulholland’s re-invention of himself in the Swingman role that gave his career a second wind, and he would just go on and on, not throwing his final pitch until he was 43. He wound up with 20 years in the majors, just three in which he was strictly a starter and two strictly as a reliever; of his 685 appearances 48.5 percent were in the starting role and 51.5 percent out of the bullpen.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1999 CHC-ATL    36   42   24    0    0   18    7    1   10    8  170  201   21   45   83 4.39   102
2000   ATL      37   54   20    1    0   34   14    1    9    9  157  198   24   41   78 5.11    90

Tim Wakefield

One of the better knuckleballers in history, Wakefield is compiling one of the most interesting careers of all time. Into his 40s he’s still going strong and shows little sign of slowing down.

image

In an era in which specialization of pitching roles has increasingly become the norm, Wakefield has had not one but two extended phases in which he’s been deployed as a full-time starter, almost never appearing in relief. But smack in the middle of his career, coming off a year in which he was 17-8 in the starter role, Wakefield in 1999 was suddenly shifted by Red Sox manager Jimy Williams into an old-fashioned Superswingman mode. He continued to be deployed in this manner for four straight years, even as Joe Kerrigan and then Grady Little took over as his manager, before Little moved him back into the full-season rotation in 2003.

Wakefield matched Larry McWilliams with four Superswingman seasons, the most in the modern era.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1999   BOS      32   49   17    0    0   32   28   15    6   11  140  146   19   72  104 5.08    99
2000   BOS      33   51   17    0    0   34   13    0    6   10  159  170   31   65  102 5.48    93
2001   BOS      34   45   17    0    0   28    5    3    9   12  169  156   13   73  148 3.90   116
2002   BOS      35   45   15    0    0   30   10    3   11    5  163  121   15   51  134 2.81   162

Kelvim Escobar

Another who has defied the modern preference for strict specialization. Escobar has done a little bit of everything, working as a regular starter, a closer, a middle reliever and of course a Swingman.

Perhaps befitting a pitcher who’s done everything, Escobar has featured every sort of fastball there is (four-seamer, two-seamer, split-finger, and cut), plus the curve, plus the change.

Escobar’s performance in the ALCS against the White Sox in 2005 was quite unusual: He appeared in two games in relief and recorded five strikeouts each time, yet took the loss in both games.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
2000   TOR      24   43   24    3    1   19    8    2   10   15  180  186   26   85  142 5.35    95
2003   TOR      27   41   26    1    1   15   12    4   13    9  180  189   15   78  159 4.29   110

Terry Adams

Adams’s status as a Swingman is rather peculiar. As of June 2001, he’d appeared in 363 major league games—every single one of them in relief. But facing some injury issues in his starting staff, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy placed Adams in the starting rotation, and left him there for the entire season; Adams didn’t make another bullpen appearance in 2001.

Adams then signed with the Phillies as a free agent, and there manager Larry Bowa deployed him strictly as a starter through the season’s first half. But in late July, after 19 starts, Adams was 4-7 with a 5.00 ERA, and Bowa shifted him to the bullpen—exclusively. Adams wouldn’t start again that season, nor in any other; his final 170 major league games were all as a reliever.

The mid-career change in role, and then back again, was the sort of thing that had been seen for decades. But the absolutism of Adams’s deployment each way was something that was never seen until the modern day.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
2001   LAD      28   43   22    0    0   21   10    0   12    8  166  172    9   54  141 4.33    92
2002   PHI      29   46   19    0    0   27   10    0    7    9  137  132    9   58   96 4.35    89

Brett Tomko

A consistently mediocre innings-eater for years as a starter, Tomko found himself deployed in 2006 along the lines of Terry Adams: He was a regular starter who was yanked from the rotation in midseason, never to return. But in 2007, both with the Dodgers and Padres, Tomko was used in true traditional Swingman mode, actually “swinging” back and forth over the season. Alas in 2007 Tomko was decidedly ineffective in both roles.

Year   Team    Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
2006   LAD      33   44   15    0    0   29    2    0    8    7  112  123   17   29   76 4.73    95
2007 LAD-SDP    34   40   19    0    0   21    9    0    4   12  131  149   18   48  105 5.55    80

Miguel Batista

Batista never has been a star, but a solid, durable, consistent performer in any role he’s been asked to fulfill over the past decade. However, his disastrous performance this year at the age of 37 suggests that the end may be nigh.

Batista’s exceptional versatility could hardly be better illustrated than by this factoid: Through the 2008 season, he’s appeared in 474 major league games, exactly one-half (237) as a starter and one-half in relief. He’s been a rotation starter, a spot starter, a long reliever and a closer. One imagines that if asked to grill the hot dogs, operate the scoreboard and sing the national anthem, Batista would have calmly and competently gone about that as well.

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO   ERA ERA+
2001 ARI     30   48   18    0    0   30    6    0   11    8  139  113   13   60   90  3.36  139
2008 SEA     37   44   20    0    0   24    9    1    4   14  115  135   19   79   73  6.26   67
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