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BULLPEN BURNOUT : Relief Pitcher's Star Can Make Rapid Rise, but Then Many Flame Out Just as Quickly

March 26, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

During a ceremony to honor Whitey Ford for winning 25 games for the New York Yankees in 1961, a truck rolled out of center field at Yankee Stadium carrying a giant roll of Lifesavers.

As it neared home plate, out popped relief pitcher Luis Arroyo.

It was an appropriate mode of transportation for Arroyo, who established American League highs for a relief pitcher that season of 15 wins and 29 saves.

But like so many relievers on so many teams before and since, when Arroyo faltered the next season, winning only one game and saving just seven as his earned-run average more than doubled, he left a hole in the Yankee bullpen.

It's not unusual for relievers, as Graig Nettles said of Yankee teammate Sparky Lyle in 1978, to go "from Cy Young to sayonara. "

With some exceptions--among them Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich (Goose) Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, ElRoy Face, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Mike Marshall--few relief pitchers have managed to avoid flaming out quickly.

Very few are effective for as long as a decade.

Most rise and fall like Arroyo, whose nickname, appropriately enough, was Yo-Yo.

Even those who endure seem to experience more peaks and valleys than other players.

Theories abound as to why:

--It's the mental strain of the position. Not unlike field goal kickers, the best relievers are seldom involved until a game is on the line.

"A relief pitcher is like a safecracker," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said. "Not everybody can go in and crack safes. Most people would be scared to death. You get into enough of those situations and it begins to take its toll."

Said former Milwaukee Manager George Bamberger: "How many times does a player walk out there and say, 'Hey, it's up to me whether we win or lose.' The relief pitcher does that almost every day."

--It's the physical strain of the position. It was the theory of former Dodger Manager Walt Alston that effective relievers, because of their success, are overworked, which leads to adhesions forming in their arms.

Alston believed that the following spring, the reliever would be unable to break down the adhesions, which hardened over the winter. He would start slowly, his manager would lose confidence in him and he would be buried in the bullpen the rest of the season.

Traded in the off-season, he would respond with a big year for his new team, the adhesions having broken down because of his infrequent use the previous season.

Two of the Dodgers' best relievers of the 1960s, Ron Perranoski and Phil (The Vulture) Regan, had great seasons after the Dodgers traded them.

--Relievers are at the mercy of their managers, who tend to overwork whomever is hot and ignore whomever is not.

Mark Clear, who has been traded twice in an up-and-down career that was up last season, when he had a career-high 16 saves for the Brewers, said banishment to the far end of the bullpen does nothing for a reliever's peace of mind.

"You try to do too much," he said. "You try to strike everybody out and you end up doing worse and then you're on the bench for 10 more days.

"Sometimes, you lose confidence, especially if you're a younger player. I know I did. You have three or four bad games in a row and you press instead of relaxing."

Some relievers have arms that need almost to be abused.

Billy Martin, who managed Perranoski in Minnesota, said of the left-hander: "You've got to warm him up every day until his arm falls off and then you can pitch him. His sinker isn't effective until his arm is about dead."

--Relievers, more often than starters, rely on trick pitches or are strictly one-pitch pitchers. The more they are used, the less effective they become.

This theory is advanced by John Thorn, author of "The Relief Pitcher: Baseball's New Hero."

"You can get used to a one-pitch pitcher and you can time his pitches," Thorn said. "If a batter gets a second shot at him, he's usually in trouble."

And if he gets in trouble too often, of course, he'll be out of a job.

"There's no player in baseball who bears on his shoulders the responsibility for victory or defeat as much as the relief pitcher," Thorn said. "When a relief pitcher screws up, it's very memorable.

"It's just that baseball games kind of drift along through the early innings and everyone's perception gets foreshortened and heightened in the last two or three innings, which is when the relief pitcher enters the fray."

This phenomenon of relievers as flameouts--or one-season wonders--is nothing new.

It goes back almost to the turn of the century, when relievers were known as rescue pitchers and one part-time reliever, Otis Crandall of the New York Giants, was nicknamed Doc because he brought first aid to sick games.

It certainly predates saves, which didn't come into being until 1960, when they were introduced by the Sporting News, and didn't become an official statistic until 1969, when all who had relieved before then suddenly had new numbers to add to their resumes.

Some examples:

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