Neyer: The pioneers of modern relief pitching

From SABR member Rob Neyer at The National Pastime Museum on January 2, 2014:

With the inevitable (but still regrettable) retirement of Mariano Rivera, we can look forward to his Hall of Fame induction in six years. Trevor Hoffman, who’s got more career saves than anyone but Rivera, might be elected even before Rivera. If both make it, that will be seven Hall of Famers inducted largely on the strength of their relief work (with the qualifier added mostly because of Dennis Eckersley, who was a fine starting pitcher for some years).

How much has baseball changed, though? While there are starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame who spent their entire careers in the 19th Century, the oldest relief pitcher in the Hall of Fame didn’t retire until 1972. Granted, knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm was nearly 50 when he finally hung up the spikes and put the oversized catcher’s mitt in the attic. But Wilhelm didn’t debut in the majors until 1952, more than 75 years after the National League sprouted into existence.

But the history of relief pitching, the history of great and important relief pitchers hardly begins with Hoyt Wilhelm and his baffling butterfly ball.

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Originally published: January 2, 2014. Last Updated: January 2, 2014.