When Mariano Rivera saved his 602nd game earlier this month, he solidified his position, although there should not have been any remaining doubt, as the greatest closer ever. One of the many interesting things about Rivera’s career is how he transitioned from a 25 year old with a 5.51 ERA in 19 games, including ten starts with 51 strikeouts and 30 walks over 67 innings in 1995, to becoming the best setup man in the game in 1996 and the best closer ever from 1997 to the present. Whoever decided to put Rivera in the bullpen full time made a very wise decision leading to one more Yankee Hall of Famer and contributing to five more Yankee championships. Interestingly, roughly a decade earlier, a similar decision was made with another Yankee pitcher which dramatically affected that pitcher’s career trajectory and contributed to the Yankees failing to make the post-season in the mid 1980s.
At the end of the 1983 season, Dave Righetti was one of the more valuable properties in baseball, positioned to help the Yankees transition from their late 1970s-early 1980s mini-dynasty into another period of success. Righetti, who turned 25 during that off-season had pitched just over 500 innings with an ERA+ of 117. He was a hard throwing lefty who had already struck out 434 batters, walking only 223. He had struggled a bit in 1982, but finished with a respectable, for a 23 year old, ERA+ 105, but in 1981 he had been Rookie of the Year, and had pitched well in 1983, including a Fourth of July no hitter against the Red Sox.
The relief ace on those early 1980s Yankee teams was Goose Gossage, a future Hall of Famer, who was very much on top of his game and is on the short list of the greatest relievers ever. After that season, Gossage, who was a great pitcher and had earned the respect and affection of most Yankee fans, was a free agent. The Goose signed with the San Diego Padres leaving a big hole in the bullpen, infuriating Yankee fans and embarrassing George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner, who was at the height of his meddling and self destructive behavior during those years.
During spring training of 1984, Righetti was moved to the bullpen to replace Gossage. Although, at the time the reason given was that the Yankees had too many starters, fans understood it was done so that the sting of losing Gossage would not be as strong. Between 1984-1990, Righetti saved 233 games for the Yankees, but never started another game in pinstripes. During those years, he was one of baseball’s best relievers posting an ERA of 137 in 614 innings. Righetti also brought far less value to the Yankees, a team that suffered from poor starting pitching for the remainder of the 1980s than he would have as a starting pitcher. As a starter, he might have pitched twice as many innings, with a slightly higher ERA; and replacing a very good, but not dominant closer was, and is, a lot easier than finding a potential ace.
Since 2000, Righetti has become one of baseball’s best pitching coaches and will probably be remembered for his work in helping pitchers like Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and other San Francisco Giants become major league stars. However, Righetti had an interesting career trajectory that reveals something about how thinking about starters and relievers was evolving in the 1980s. Righetti is different from John Smoltz or Dennis Eckersley who were converted to the bullpen after winding down successful careers as starters, or from Rivera who was a failed starter who became a closer. Righetti is one of the very few pitchers who were converted to the bullpen at a young age after establishing themselves as top starting pitchers.
It is possible, that this was done simply because the Yankees were angry about losing Gossage and trying to minimize the public relations damage that would cause, but there may be another side to the story as well. Righetti’s switch was made shortly after pitchers like Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle and others had demonstrated the value of a good fireman, as they were known then. The Yankees may have legitimately thought that a good fireman, and Righetti certainly was one, was more valuable than a starting pitcher who could have become one of the best in the league. We now know that if that is what the Yankees thought, they were wrong, but it was less obvious at the time.
Rivera is a different kind of pitcher than Righetti was. Rivera at 25 had been an unimpressive big league starter and after several years as a promising but erratic minor leaguer, while Righetti had already established himself as one of the best young starting pitchers in the game. Rivera’s reliance on one pitch also made him better suited for the bullpen, so it is inaccurate to think Rivera could have sustained his ERA, strikeout numbers or control over 30 or so starts a year. Clearly moving Rivera to the bullpen was a brilliant move which made him a Hall of Famer, but before Rivera there was Righetti for whom a similar decision meant that a potential Hall of Fame career was left in the Yankee bullpen.