The modern closer’s role can be traced directly back to Oakland, circa 1987. Then-A’s pitching coach Dave Duncan would love to say he had some grand plan for its creation, opening the door for 50-save seasons.
But he can’t.
“It just sort of evolved,” the Cardinals’ pitching coach said.
Duncan, who also was the pitching coach under Tony La Russa with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland and now St. Louis, oversaw Dennis Eckersley’s conversion from starting pitcher to closer. Eckersley had logged more than 2,300 innings as a starter before he became a bullpen fixture with the A’s in 1987.
Duncan was an old-school catcher who was behind the plate when Rollie Fingers emerged in Oakland. Fingers was a classic “fireman” who would come in whenever he was needed. He even entered a game of the 1972 World Series in the fifth inning.
Through trial and error, Duncan realized that model was not a good fit for Eckersley.
“The limited usage allowed him to go 100 percent for one inning,” Duncan said. “I think it really helped his stuff a lot.
“The reason he was successful? He did all the things he needed to as a closer. First of all, he threw strikes. He controlled the count. He had two pitches he could throw for a strike any time, no matter what the count was. Even though I didn’t consider his delivery real unorthodox, it was a little unorthodox in comparison with other pitchers. I think that helped when a hitter only saw him once.”
Eckersley was spectacular once he made the transition from the rotation. Though 32 when he first tried the bullpen, he logged 390 saves before retiring after the 1998 season. He helped the A’s to three consecutive World Series (1988-90). Once established as a closer, Eckersley never pitched more than 80 innings in a season.
His high-water mark of 80 innings in 1992 became the standard for modern closers. Eckersley went 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves in 69 appearances that year. He issued only 11 walks and struck out 93 to earn American League MVP and Cy Young honors.
With Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco leading the way, the A’s provided plenty of save opportunities. And they had experienced setup men such as Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt to cover the seventh and eighth innings.
That season also marked the last time the A’s finished in first place. It wasn’t that the A’s won because of Eckersley. Rather, there was a synergy that allowed team and closer to flourish.
“We had a good team, and we had a lot of save situations,” Duncan said. “We had a good bullpen, and they were all throwing well. The combination of all those things allowed us to restrict the number of innings Dennis threw. It was the other pitchers who allowed us to hold Dennis back until the ninth inning.
“If you look at how we’re using Dave Veres now (in St. Louis), we’re probably calling on him in the eighth inning as much as the ninth. We’ve needed him to go an inning-and-a-third, an inning-and-two-thirds.”
But his bloodline still goes back to Eck.
Published in USA Today Baseball Weekly on June 28, 2000.