Relief pitching

"Reliever" redirects here. For another use, see relief airport.

A relief pitcher or reliever is a baseball or softball pitcher who enters the game after the starting pitcher is removed due to injury, ineffectiveness, fatigue, ejection, or for other strategic reasons, such as being substituted by a pinch hitter. Relief pitchers are further divided informally into closers, set-up relief pitchers, middle relief pitchers, left-handed or right-handed specialists, and long relievers. A team's staff of relievers is normally referred to as a team's bullpen, which is the area where the relievers sit during games, and in which they "warm up" prior to entering the game.



In the early days of Major League Baseball (MLB), substituting a player was not allowed except for sickness or injury. An ineffective pitcher would switch positions with another player on the field. The first relief appearance in the major leagues was in 1876 with Boston Red Caps outfielder Jack Manning switching positions with pitcher Joe Borden.[1] In 1889, the first bullpen appearance occurred after rules were changed to allow a player substitution at any time.[2] Early relief pitchers were normally starting pitchers pitching one or two innings in between starts.[3]

Early modern relievers/"firemen"

Firpo Marberry is credited with being the first prominent reliever. From 1923 to 1935, he pitched in 551 games, 364 of which were in relief. Baseball historian Bill James wrote that Marberry was "a modern reliever—a hard throwing young kid who worked strictly in relief, worked often, and was used to nail down victories."[4] Another reliever, Johnny Murphy, became known as "Fireman" for his effectiveness when inserted into difficult situations ("put out fires") in relief.[5]

Nonetheless, the full-time reliever who was entrusted with important situations was more the exception than the rule at this point. Often, a team's ace starting pitcher was used in between his starts to "close" games. Later research would reveal that Lefty Grove would have been in his league's top three in saves in four different seasons, had that stat been invented at the time.[6]

Gradually after World War II, full-time relievers became more acceptable and standard.[7] The relievers were usually pitchers that were not good enough to be starters.[8] Relievers in the 1950s started to develop oddball pitches to distinguish them from starters.[8] For example, Hoyt Wilhelm threw a knuckleball, and Elroy Face threw a forkball.[9]

In 1969, the pitcher's mound was lowered and umpires were encouraged to call fewer strikes to give batters an advantage. Relief specialists were used to counter the increase in offense.[10]

Closer era

Relievers became more respected in the 1970s, and their pay increased due to free agency. All teams began having a closer.[10] The 1980s were the first time in MLB that the number of saves outnumbered complete games. In 1995, there were nearly four saves for every complete game.[11] It is unclear whether the specialization and reliance on relief pitchers led to pitch counts and fewer complete games, or whether pitch counts led to greater use of relievers.[12]

As closers were reduced to one-inning specialists, setup men and middle relievers became more prominent.[13]

In past decades, the relief pitcher was merely an ex-starter who came into a game upon the injury, ineffectiveness, or fatigue of the starting pitcher. The bullpen was for old starters who had lost the ability to throw effectively. Many of these pitchers would be able to flourish in this diminished role. Those such as Dennis Eckersley, as with many others, actually prolonged their tapering careers and often sparked them to new life. The added rest to their arms as well as the lessened exposure of their abilities became an advantage many would learn to capitalize on. Because these pitchers only faced some batters once a season, the opposing side would have greater difficulty preparing to face relief pitchers.

Recently, being a relief pitcher has become more of a career, rather than a reduced position. Many of today's top prospects are considered mainly for their relief pitching skills.[14] In the quest for a managerial edge, managers as time goes on have carried more pitchers in the bullpen, and used them in more specialized situations. Acknowledgment of the platoon edge has prompted managers to ensure that opposing lefty hitters face as many lefty pitchers as possible, and that the same occur with respect to righty hitters and pitchers. Tony La Russa was particularly well known for making frequent pitching changes on this basis.[15]

When Mike Marshall set the all-time record with 106 games pitched in 1974, he threw 208.1 innings.[16] Currently, although some relievers still do appear in a large number of games per season, the workload for each individual pitcher has been much reduced. Since 2008, Pedro Feliciano has three of the top four seasons in games pitched, with 92, 88 and 86. However, Feliciano only averaged 58 innings pitched during those seasons.[17] The last pitcher to throw 100 or more innings in a season without starting a game was Scott Proctor in 2006.[18]

Current relief roles

Pitching staffs on MLB teams have grown from 9 or 10 to as many as 12 or 13 pitchers, due to the increased importance of relief pitching.[19] The staff generally consists of five starting pitchers, with the remaining pitchers assigned as relievers.[20] A team's relief staff usually contains a closer who generally pitches the ninth inning, a setup pitcher who generally pitches the eighth, and a left-handed specialist whose job is to retire left-handed batters. The rest of the bullpen then consists of middle relievers who are used in the remaining situations, and perhaps additional left-handed or right-handed specialists.[21]

The closer is usually the best relief pitcher, followed by the setup man.[22] Players typically get promoted into later-inning roles as they succeed.[23][24] Relievers were previously more multipurpose before becoming one-inning specialists.[24][25]

Awards voted to relievers

The MLB Delivery Man of the Year Award and The Sporting News Reliever of the Year Award are annually voted on and presented to relievers. The Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award is determined by a statistical formula.

Five pitchers are currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame chiefly for their accomplishments as relief pitchers: Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley. (Eckersley also had a significant career as a starting pitcher.)

Jim Konstanty in 1950 was the first reliever to win the MLB Most Valuable Player Award after a then-record 74 games, 16–7 record, 22 saves, and a 2.66 ERA.[26] Mike Marshall in 1974 was the first reliever to win the Cy Young Award after a record 106 games, 15–12 record, 21 saves, and 208 innings pitched.[27]

Relievers who have won the Rookie of the Year Award

Year League Player Team
1976 National Butch Metzger San Diego Padres
1980 National Steve Howe Los Angeles Dodgers
1986 National Todd Worrell St. Louis Cardinals
1989 American Gregg Olson Baltimore Orioles
1999 National Scott Williamson Cincinnati Reds
2000 American Kazuhiro Sasaki Seattle Mariners
2005 American Huston Street Oakland Athletics
2009 American Andrew Bailey Oakland Athletics
2010 American Neftalí Feliz Texas Rangers
2011 National Craig Kimbrel Atlanta Braves

Relievers who have won the Cy Young Award

Year League Player Team
1974 National Mike Marshall Los Angeles Dodgers
1977 American Sparky Lyle New York Yankees
1979 National Bruce Sutter Chicago Cubs
1981 American Rollie Fingers Milwaukee Brewers
1984 American Willie Hernández Detroit Tigers
1987 National Steve Bedrosian Philadelphia Phillies
1992 American Dennis Eckersley Oakland Athletics
2003 National Éric Gagné Los Angeles Dodgers

Relievers who have won the Major League Baseball Most Valuable Player Award

Year League Player Team
1950 National Jim Konstanty Philadelphia Phillies
1981 American Rollie Fingers Milwaukee Brewers
1984 American Willie Hernández Detroit Tigers
1992 American Dennis Eckersley Oakland Athletics

See also

Baseball portal


External links

  • Examining the Relief of Relieving, by Steve Treder; July 04, 2006 at
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