Neyer: La Russa and the reluctant reliever Dennis Eckersley

From SABR member Rob Neyer at The National Pastime Museum on May 12, 2017:

Before we get to the “meat” of this essay that you’re so eager to taste, here’s something you might not have heard before: Before Dennis Eckersley’s miraculous transmogrification into a devastatingly effective relief pitcher, he was NOT an old broken-down pitcher on the verge of forced retirement. At least not obviously.

In 1985, Eckersley turned 31 at the very end of the season. He had just gone 11–7 with a 3.08 ERA for a sub-.500 Cubs team. He had also led the National League with a tremendous 6–1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. An outstanding rookie pitcher at age 20 with the Indians, Eckersley now had 145 career wins and actually seemed like a decent bet for the Hall of Fame; granted, he would need to stay healthy and put together two or three big seasons, then hang around for a while. But a Don Sutton–like career hardly seemed impossible.

Then 1986 arrived. Superficially, Eckersley’s 1986 season was a disaster. He started 32 games for the Cubs and totaled 201 innings, but somehow he managed only six victories (against 11 losses), thanks to a 4.57 ERA and poor run support from his mates.

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Originally published: May 12, 2017. Last Updated: May 12, 2017.