Rollie Fingers. (via http://highsocksftw.tumblr.com)

The Fireman


“It’s a different game than when I played,” he says, and I imagine him on the other end of the phone call, twirling the trademark handlebar mustache.

 

Here it is in the middle of a Tuesday and I’m talking with Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers.

“We’d break spring training with maybe nine pitchers.  Nowadays, you break camp with 12, 13 pitchers.”

I’ve asked him a question I’m sure he’s faced numerous times before – what’s the deal with specialized bullpens?  Looking at his career stats and you see a reliever who surpassed 100 innings of work 11 times in 16-plus seasons in the big leagues.  In 1976, Fingers threw 134.2 innings in 70 appearances.  Not one of those was a start.  He saved 20 games, finished 62 and won 13.

He’s among a crop of pitchers from the 1970′s who earned the term “Fireman”.  When the game heated up, the pressure increased, and the game was on the line, Fingers was one of a handful of pitchers who was called on to put out the fire.  Unlike present-day baseball, he’d come in regardless of the inning.

“After the fifth inning it was all me if the game was on the line,” he says.  I’d get up and warm up in the sixth inning.  If the guy gets out of trouble, I sit down.  If he gets in trouble in the seventh inning, I get up and warm up again.”

This is a situation you don’t see in today’s game, especially when closers are the the usually the highest paid pitchers in the bullpen.  It’s been an evolution from stoppers like Fingers became specialists, then Tony LaRussa turned it up and added righty and lefty specialists.  Now, in Fingers view, “it’s more or less a one inning game from the sixth inning on.”

“Nowadays the setup guy will go out and do his thing in the eighth inning and here comes your closer.  That’s the way the game has evolved.”

There are many who lament the way the game has changed.  Often, you see managers leave their best reliever on the bench while someone else comes in during a key moment in the game.  Larger bullpens mean starters don’t have to stick it out.

“You hope your starter can go five innings or six innings and then you hand the ball over to the bullpen.  Whoever came up with the 100 pitch rule…I don’t know.  [Starting pitchers] are strong enough to go nine innings, but I think that’s just the way the game has evolved.”

Now, has that been a detriment to baseball in its current form?

“It seems to be working.”

The use of an ace reliever is one area where sabermetrics and old-school baseball minds seem to agree.  Rollie Fingers was a seven time All-Star, an MVP, a Cy Young Award winner and a Hall of Famer.  He started a mere 37 games and none after 1973.  Despite that, the A’s, Padres and Brewers did everything they could to get him into the game.  It worked for Fingers, who regularly worked more than one inning at a time, and often two or three.

Theoretically, if your closer is your best reliever, the only way to get maximum value from them is to get them into the game.  If Joakim Soria only gets into 50 games, he’s likely to see 55 innings or so, but only if it’s in the ninth inning or after a couple of outs in the eighth.  If the game’s on the line in the seventh, Soria’s nowhere to be found.  Managers want to limit their closers innings, but they’re also missing out on utilizing their best pitcher in key situations.  It’s missing out on value.  An All-Star closer should be above replacement level and should be in as many innings as he can muster.

It melds the “finish what you started” mentality of the old-school and the “maximize value” approach of stat-junkies.

In Fingers case, he’s not sure he could have the same success in today’s bullpen.

“I don’t think I could pitch the way they do today,” he says.  “I needed a lot of work to stay sharp.  If I got 125, 130 innings, I could pitch that many and get 20 saves.”

“Nowadays, they pitch 60-65 innings and get 40 saves.  But I loved going out and pitching three or four innings sometimes.”

Jeff Parker at Royally Speaking has a glimpse at some of those kinds of outings in Royals history.  It’s fitting that Everett Teaford recorded the Royals first three inning save since 2007 on Saturday.  Like Fingers, Dan Quisenberry was a multi-inning superstar.

Now Fingers is in Phoenix, where he’s seen some players from his heyday.  He played in the old-timers softball game and ran into Fred Lynn and Ozzie Smith and others, and you’ve probably seen him in the PepsiMax commercials that mimic the cornfields from Field of Dreams and he passed along a promotion being done by Pepsi to select a team of current and former players and play a game against them.  It’s at MLB.com/PepsiMax for those who are interested in voting and entering to win.

“You get to play against some of the greats in the game.”

If given the chance, Fingers would like to play.  He mentioned he’d look forward to the “chance to put the uniform back on and get out there and throw the ball.”

After a career where he amassed 1700 innings and a 2.90 ERA, Fingers can definitely throw the ball.  At 64 years old, though, it’s obviously not the same as the early ’70s.

“I throw just as hard,” he says.  “It just doesn’t get there as fast all the time.

I’d like to thank the PepsiMax people for helping set up this interview opportunity.  Stay current on all the Kings of Kauffman content and news by following us on Google+,TwitterFacebook, or by way of our RSS feed.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Dan Quisenberry Kansas City Royals KC MLB Pepsimax Rollie Fingers Royals

  • eric.akers

    “The use of an ace reliever is one area where sabermetrics and old-school baseball minds seem to agree.”

    What stats show that the “fireman” would be better than the closer? I have only seen discussions about bringing in the best guy in the pen in high leverage situations, but I have not seen any real stats showing one is better than the other.

    I think the main difference between the times of the fireman and the closer is that so many pitchers now throw 95-100 and are strikeout pitchers; so if you need one, you do not necessarily have to rely on a single guy.

    The biggest problem with pitchers now is that they have a brain, and that brain only functions well in certain situations. I can’t tell you how many times I have read about pitchers in the pen saying they have all found their roles and how it helps them all. Personally, I only believe in one roll for a pitcher, “Do not allow any runs”, no matter the inning or situation. But my brain functions typically better than that of the average pitcher.

    While I think having a smaller pen and a fireman to rely on would be great, I don’t think it has a prayer of working for more than a few clubs. You need pitchers whose brains works well in any situation, you need a starting rotation that typically goes into the 7th inning, and you need a couple of guys who do not care about “saves” and other stats. Look at K-Rod, if he doesn’t come in as the closer, all hell breaks loose. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Brew Crew.