Former Cincinnati Red bullpen stalwart Pedro Borbon died this week at the age of 65. Borbon earned a strange form of baseball immortality because his name popped up, for no apparent reason, in this scene in Airplane!, a popular and well remembered comedy from 1980. On the field, Borbon was a useful, and often very good left-handed reliever throughout much of the 1970s.
Borbon established himself in 1972 with the Reds and remained with that team until 1978, before spending the last two years of his career, 1979-1980, with the San Francisco Giants. Those Big Red Machine teams on which Borbon played were very good. They won the NL West in 1972, 1973, 1975 and 1976. The 1975 and 1976 teams rank among the greatest teams of all time. The Reds’ worst year during this period was 1977 when they won only 88 games.
During the years he pitched for the Reds, Borbon was part of one of modern baseball’s longest and most successful experiments with the closer by committee approach to bullpen management. Sparky Anderson, who managed the Reds during those years, demonstrated that closer by committee never works, except of course when it does. In each of the seven years during which Borbon was a major part of the Red bullpen, the Reds had at least three players who finished at least ten games. In five of those years they had four players finish at least ten games. In 1973, they also had two players with more than ten saves and nobody with more than 14. Two years later they had a similar situation, but their save leader had 22. This was during a period when good firemen, as they were known then, regularly saved 30 or more games.
Between 1972 and 1977, a period when the Reds were four time division winners, four Reds pitchers saved at least ten games. Will McEnany did it once, Clay Carroll twice, Rawley Eastwick three times, and Borbon four times. This occurred not because the Reds were changing closers every year, or could not settle on a closer but because this was the strategy which Anderson thought best served his team. The evidence suggests he was right.
The 1970s were a time when the modern structure of the bullpen had not yet been formalized, but there were still several relievers — Rollie Fingers, Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage, despite his one year as a starter — who were consistently used in what might be called a proto-closer role during this period. The Reds’ bullpens of which Borbon was a part were different. Several relievers were good at getting the final outs, which often included more than just the 9th inning, but none was the closer. Presumably this allowed Anderson to go with the pitcher who had been the most successful recently, was best suited for the specific game at hand or who had the right amount of rest.
It is plausible that in the 1970s, the closer mentality had not yet taken shape because the narrative of the closer had not yet emerged, making it possible for several Reds to simultaneously have this elusive mentality; or that the Reds were fortunate to have an embarrassment of bullpen riches during those years. It is also, however, possible that Anderson, a Hall of Fame manager, built a better team by thinking and managing creatively.
There is a logic to the current bullpen construction. This logic is apparent when a trusted closer comes in to get the last three outs of a big game, but it falls apart when the team’s top reliever does not enter a game because the most critical moment occurred in the 7th inning, allowing the game to be lost by a setup man. These arguments are not new; and the current approach to most big league bullpens is not written in stone and may seem silly thirty-five years from now. Nonetheless, as we remember the late Pedro Borbon, a colorful and very good right-handed reliever, with a strange and special place in popular culture, it is worth remembering the bullpen in which he pitched during his best years and