Goose Gossage and the Good Ol’ Days

By | October 20, 2007

Goose Gossage is outspoken. He firmly believes that he belongs in the Hall of Fame, and he isn’t afraid to tell people about it. And let’s be honest: if we’re letting relief pitchers into the Hall, Goose should be there. (And even if Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, and Bruce Sutter all got in based only on facial hair, Goose should be there.) I read an interview with Gossage a few weeks ago, but I was too distracted by my upcoming trip to Hawaii to do any research. Now I’m back on the mainland, and I’m ready to talk about Goose’s stroll down Memory Lane.

When I read this interview, one quote jumped out at me:

I think they (Hall of Fame voters) have forgotten about how much the role of the relief pitcher has changed. We pitched a lot more innings in that role. I used to come in in the seventh inning with the bases loaded, have to get out of that jam and then pitch the eighth and the ninth.

I have a confession to make. When I read that, I knew I would be writing about it here, and I expected to learn on thing in my research: that Goose Gossage rarely (or never) came in with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, got out of the jam, and then pitched the eighth and the ninth for the save. I just knew he was full of hot air, exaggerating his own greatness like so many of these old-timers do. So I looked at every game Goose ever pitched.

Guess what? He was good. And not only that, but he actually DID do what he said he did. No, it wasn’t as regular as he may have made it sound, but it happened several times. Four times he came in in the seventh inning of a close game with the bases loaded and finished the game for the save — including three times in two months in the summer of 1980. Another time, back in 1975, he came in in the SIXTH inning with the bases loaded — with his team nursing a 2-1 lead — got out of the jam, and finished the game for the save. And there was actually one more save that technically fits his description, although his team was up 7-1 when he came in with the bases loaded, and he actually allowed two of the runners to score before finishing the game for the save.

If that was all I had found, I may have been a jerk and made the point that six saves out of 310 hardly qualifies as what he “used to” do. But I found a lot more. Did you know that of Goose Gossage’s 310 career saves, 125 of them were at least two innings? Or that he only had 117 saves of one inning or less? Heck, 52 of his saves were MORE than two innings, including 24 of at least three innings.

Gossage said:

I take exception to hearing that Mariano (Rivera) is the greatest reliever of all time. I think he’s the greatest modern-day closer, but I would challenge him to do what we did. We’ll compare apples to apples instead of apples to oranges.

I think he’s right about his apples and Mariano’s oranges. In Rivera’s career, he has exactly 11 saves of two innings or more (actually, just two innings — he’s never had a save of more than two innings). He’s never had more than two such saves in any season (Gossage had 16 in 1977 alone). Simply put, Goose Gossage and Mariano Rivera are two vastly different fruit, despite both being “closers.”

Here’s the thing, though. Gossage says he wants to compare apples to apples instead of apples to oranges. But it is clear from everything he has said that he believes his apples are better than Rivera’s oranges. Is a three-inning save inherently more valuable than a one-inning save? I can see arguments both ways. For one thing, Rivera is fresh and ready for service almost every time the Yankees have a save situation; Gossage surely couldn’t pitch three innings every night, or even 55 times a year.

Really, I think Gossage is hanging his hat on the wrong thing. The save statistic isn’t meaningless, but it certainly doesn’t mean much all by itself. You can’t look at a guy’s save total and know how effective he actually was; say all you want about whatever intangibles you want to discuss, but guys like Joe Borowski and Bob Wickman owe their teams a debt of gratitude for letting them rack up the saves despite being, you know, kind of lousy.

The reason Goose Gossage is not in the Hall of Fame is the save statistic. His 310 saves are only good for 17th place all time, behind some real pieces of crap like Tom Henke, Roberto Hernandez, and Jose Mesa. Hall of Fame voters get stuck on some meaningless stats, and I think some of them think if they vote for Gossage, they will someday have to vote for John Franco or Randy Myers. But Goose was not like those guys. Goose also pitched in 692 games where he DIDN’T get the save — and he went at least two innings in 285 of those! In the ten years of his prime (1975, 1976-85), he made the All-Star team eight times, and he got Cy Young and MVP votes in five of those seasons. His ERA for those ten seasons was 2.06, while the league ERA for that era ranged from 3.55 to 4.06. Simply put, Goose Gossage was one of the best pitchers of his era, and that’s the case he should be making for himself.

Let me end with one thought-provoking discussion topic: back in the good ol’ days, pitchers were tougher. I know because lots of old-timers have told me so. The evidence? Starters finished more games, and relievers pitched more innings. What?!?

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