Hall of Fame relievers are hard to come by. How many current relief pitchers in baseball are likely going to end up in Cooperstown? Craig Kimbrel seems as though he’s the only formality in the league. Even relievers with ten or more seasons under their belt that have dominated (Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman) haven’t done enough to warrant consideration. A player such as Billy Wagner matches up with dominant Hall of Fame relievers. If Billy Wagner came out of retirement today, pitched 186.1 innings of work without posting a K and working to a 5.55 ERA over that stretch, he’d still have a lower ERA and more Ks than Trevor Hoffman in the same amount of innings. Wagner has the sixth most saves in baseball history, the highest strikeout rate in baseball history and more strikeouts than Mariano Rivera. Yet, he’s been stagnant on the ballot for enshrinement. That’s how difficult the standard is for a Hall of Fame relief pitcher.
Excluding John Smoltz who made a majority of his outings as a starter, there’s only been eight relievers enshrined into Cooperstown: Hoyt Wilhelm, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith and Rich Gossage.
Gossage was only the second player in baseball to reach the 300 save plateau, the first being Fingers. Of course, this isn’t nearly as impressive now when the save is a more of a baseball common place and the club also includes the likes of Jason Isringhausen, Robb Nen and Todd Jones. All solid relievers, but not the eyepopping pitchers you’d think of alongside the likes of a Sutter or a Hoffman. The Goose’s 1,502 Ks are the second most all-time by a pitcher who was primarily a reliever. He was a nine time All-Star and entered Cooperstown on his eighth ballot in 2008 with just over 85% of the votes.
Gossage came up in 1972 as a member of the White Sox before being dealt to the Pirates for the 1977 season. That offseason, 43 years ago today, he inked a game-changing deal to go to the Bronx. He had posted 26 saves with a 1.76 ERA in his one season in the Steel City. He’s fond of his time in Pittsburgh and wanted to stay, but the Pirates were grooming Kent Tekulve to be their proverbial door-slammer long-term. Pitching in the same era as some more obscure but stellar relievers such as Dan Quisenberry and John Hiller, Gossage didn’t necessarily run away as the best relief arm in the sport at that point in time. Sparky Lyle was his biggest argument for best relief pitcher at the time of his contract and they would be teammate for the 1978 season.
Gosssage’s deal with the Yankees was record-shattering for a relief pitcher. Becoming the highest paid reliever in baseball history up to that point, he signed for six seasons at $2.75M. Yes, that little. That’s how much baseball contracts have progressed. Adjusting for inflation, that’s around $12.14M over six seasons, or just over $2M a season. Of course, using sports contracts on inflation calculators aren’t always reflective or indicative of actual modern worth, as baseball economics are far more convoluted than regular people economics. This is just to give a general idea. For comparison, Brad Boxberger was an All-Star in 2015 for the Tampa Bay Rays but hasn’t done much since. In 2019 as a member of the Royals, he posted a 5.40 ERA in less than 27 innings pitched and made $2.2M, more than the Hall of Fame Gossage made in a single season over the duration of his Yankee contract that was the highest paid relief contract ever at the time of the pen inking itself into the dotted line. So how did Gossage deliver?
He had stiff competition heading into New York. It’s the toughest market when winning was expected annually, that had seen players such as Lou Gehrig, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and others suit up to make it the most historic franchise in sports. Not only that, he was automatically the closer as the Yankees had Sparky Lyle out of their bullpen. The southpaw had been to back-to-back All-Star games (three overall) and in 1977 posted a 2.17 ERA while finishing a league-leading 60 games for the Pinstripe faithful. Lyle, however, struggled early in 1978. After struggling early, he was removed from the closer role and to middle relief. He turned it around from there and finished with a 3.47 ERA. He was out of New York the next season, which prompted the now infamous “from Cy Young to sayonara” soundbite from Graig Nettles.
Goose Gossage, however, won over the roughest audience in sports. His 27 saves led the league, while Gossage posted a 2.01 ERA in over 130 innings. He struck out 8.2 on average for every nine innings totaled. That postseason, the Yankees played the Dodgers in the World Series. he did not allow a run in three outings. In the deciding Game 6, Gossage induced a pop up to Thurmon Munson off of the bat of Ron Cey. The Yankees had won the Championship and in his first year, the goose laid the egg to the Promiseland.
For the Yankees, the contract was already worth. How did the remainder of it age, though? Pretty well, all things considering. Despite Gossage never winning another World Series, he was the Yankees best relief pitcher in franchise history until the emergence of Mariano Rivera. Over the six seasons, the Yankees got 150 saves out of Gossage, who posted a stellar 183 ERA+ (2.10 regular ERA) and had an 8.8 SO9. The ERA and SO9 were the highest for a reliever in baseball over his Yankee tenure.
The Yankees paid a record-setting contract and got the best reliever in the game. Gossage went onto play for six more franchises (Padres, Cubs, Giants, Rangers, Athletics and Mariners). He did return for a short second go with the 1989 Yankees that was rather uneventful. He posted a 3.77 ERA in fourteen innings of work. Unfortunately for Gossage, it seems that tenure he ran into some bad luck, as his FIP was a full run lower.
For a great contract, this is one of the best contracts in Yankee history in terms of surplus value. Yet, historically, it ages even finer. The Yankees in this era redefined what a closer is supposed to be. Back in the day, pitchers were predominantly expected to pitch three innings for a save. That changed with Gossage as the Yankees were the first to use a true set-up/closer combination in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, something more apropos to what we see today. If Shane Greene and Mark Melancon were on the Braves in the ’70s and not 2019 and 2020, they’d not have both been a staple in their eighth and ninth inning. During this era, the Yankees won 77 of 79 games when leading after the 6th and handing the ball over to the duo of Davis and Gossage. What seemed like a radical paradigm shift (much like the innovative “opener” the Rays introduced with Sergio Romo a few seasons back) has become a focal point in the game to this day. The everlasting effects of Gossage signing with the Yankees is profound.
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