Most modern Major League general managers will tell you that one of the keys to staying under budget while fielding a competitive team is spending wisely on relief pitching. These days, Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $62 million pact gets a lot of, deserved, flack for perhaps being too long, too expensive, or both for a reliever while young players like Greg Holland and Ernesto Frieri seemingly turn up every year or reclamation projects like Joe Nathan or Jason Grilli become success stories.
The key to rationale behind the long commitments is the idea that good, and more importantly consistently repeatable, relief pitching is incredibly difficult to find. While Holland has continued his excellence in 2014, Frieri has not, posting a 6.39 ERA at press time. And while Grilli and Nathan were great stories of value relief pick-ups for 2013, 2014 has been disastrous to say the least for either.
As you may imagine, the long held narrative of find reliable, consistent relief pitching being difficult to obtain existed even in a time when relief pitching was first becoming specialized. Tug McGraw was one of the original stewards of this expansion of roles on a baseball team. According to the SABR Baseball Biography Project, a then-swingman McGraw was told in 1969 by Mets manager Gil Hodges “Tug, I have three pieces of advice for you. One, I think you should think about staying in the bullpen permanently. You could be a great reliever and at best an average starter. Two, this team needs a late-inning stopper, and I want you to be my stopper. Three, I think you’ll make a lot more money as a reliever than as a starter. Now it’s up to you.”
McGraw took Hodges’ advice and became one of the premier relievers in baseball. From 1969 through 1974, McGraw posted a 2.79 ERA with 85 saves in pretty stellar 615.1 IP with a K/9 of 7.44 which ranked fifth among Major League pitchers with 600 or more innings pitched in that span. The wheels, seemingly, were coming off the wagon in 1974 for McGraw, however. McGraw battled through injuries in May, limiting him to just three appearances. His 41 appearances would be the lowest since he became a permanent Major Leaguer in 1969 and his 4.16 ERA the highest in the same time frame. McGraw would even earn the dubious record of giving up the most grand slams in a season, four, in 1974.
McGraw was battling shoulder issues throughout 1974 and the stretch run did no favors help McGraw heal. The Mets, rather inexplicably, choose to start McGraw in September despite hovering no closer than 10 games out of first place. McGraw would earn the only complete game shutout of his career in that time but went 6-11 with a 4.16 ERA and just three saves.
It is the belief of some, including McGraw himself per his book, Ya Gotta Believe!, that the Mets made him a starter to demonstrate that McGraw wasn’t hurt. It worked – the Philies, unaware of his medical condition, took the bait and his, comparatively-massive $90,000 per year deal in a trade with Don Hahn and Dave Schneck for Mac Scarce, John Stearns, and Del Unser on December 3, 1974.
The Phillies, breaking a yet-unestablished rule, seemingly overpaid for a broken reliever. Scarce was 25 at the time of the trade and posted a solid 3.65 ERA in 141 relief appearances with the Phillies from 1972 through 1974. Stearns was a high-profile catching prospect taken second overall in the 1973 draft by the Phillies who was just 22 at the time of the trade. Finally, Unser had become an a slightly above-average veteran outfielder for the Phillies in 1973 and 1974.
If the Philies were to “win” this trade, they were hoping to get something out of then-25-year old center fielder Don Hahn. Hahn had shown promise as a Montreal farmhand and was coming off his best season as a Major Leaguer with the Mets (.251/.328/.337, 4 HR in 366 PA). Schneck was a 26-year old outfielder that served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 and had a 1972 in the minors that put him squarely on the map (.304/.373/.595 with 24 HR and 7 steals across AA and AAA ball).
Yet, despite Hahn playing just nine games as a Phillie, Schneck, a native of Allentown, never reaching the Majors with his hometown club, Unser growing as a player in 1975, and “Bad Dude” Stearns becoming a four-time NL All-Star, the Phillies won a trade where what they received was a player labeled as an aging, injured, loose cannon, free-spirited overpaid reliever.
How many times has a team won a trade with a player fitting that description?
McGraw combined great performance with a strong element of “right place, right time”. It was also aided by the successful removal of a cyst that was causing McGraw’s pain in Spring Training 1975. As with all of the entries on the list, context is key. The Brad Lidge trade, for instance, ranked #10 on our list but was actually a pretty solid win for a rebuilding Houston Astros squad that was looking to reduce payroll and acquire assets. But would the Phillies have won the 2008 World Series had they not acquired Lidge? I will let you imagine Geoff Geary try to close out 48 out of 48 opportunities for a second.
The 1975 Phillies were a team finally recovering from several years of dismal baseball. Great scouting had gotten them Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, and Larry Christenson. Great trading had gotten them Jim Lonborg, Jay Johnstone, Dave Cash, McGraw, and, midseason, Garry Maddox. After seven consecutive seasons of sub-.500 baseball, the Phillies were poised to turn the corner. And in one fell swoop, they almost did, finishing just 6.5 games back of the division-winning Pirates.
The success of the Phillies was tied, in large part, to the arrival of McGraw. McGraw was one of four Phillies to earn a trip to the NL All-Star game in 1975 and go back to his familiar role as closer. From 1975 through 1984, in his ages 30 through 39 (!) seasons, McGraw posted a 3.10 ERA with a 1.198 WHIP in 722 IP. Among players with at least 600 IP in that span, McGraw ranked 28th in K/9 IP, 17th in ERA, and 21st out of 199 in WHIP.
Even though McGraw’s impact was seen immediately, as evident by the Phillies three consecutive division wins from 1976 through 1978 in no small part to having the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball over those three years, McGraw’s finest season would come in 1980. Posting career-lows (1.46 ERA, 0.921 WHIP) with his first 20 save season since 1973, McGraw had a 1980 for the ages, finishing fifth in the NL Cy Young voting and a 16th place finish in the NL MVP voting. McGraw would take the hill for nine postseason games in 1980, including earning the save in Game 6 of the Fall Classic in front of a racus Veteran’s Stadium crowd to clinch the World Series.
General Manager Paul Owens followed a blueprint of developing young talent and acquiring solid veterans after assuming the role of General Manager in 1973. Owens built a team that earned six playoff appearances and acquired a quirky, rowdy, overpaid, possibly burnt out reliever early in the run that became the heart and soul of the first Phillies World Series championship squad. Sometimes, ya just gotta believe.