By In Baseball

The Nasty Boys (and The Dodger Boys)

There’s a great scene in “Inside Out” where the “forgetters” in the girl’s mind are deciding which memories are worth keeping and which memories can be thrown out for space purposes.

“U.S. presidents?” one of the forgetters asks.

“Keep Washington, Lincoln … and the fat one,” the other answers.

Memory is fascinating, isn’t it? What we remember. What we forget. Mostly, we seem to remember small images that we convince ourselves are meaningful and tell a larger truth. Do they? Maybe. Let me ask you: What do you remember about Mike Dukakis? I’m guessing that if anything comes to mind, it’s probably the image of Dukakis sitting in that tank with that goofy looking helmet. What do you remember about Joe Namath? I’m guessing again that it’s either him running off the Super Bowl field waving his index finger or drunkenly telling Suzy Kolber that he wanted to kiss her.

My next book, I’m excited and nervous to say, will be about Harry Houdini (more on this later). What do you remember about Harry Houdini? In asking friends this, the answers usually are:

1. He died doing the Chinese Water Torture trick (not true).

2. He died after someone hit him in the stomach (partially true)

3. He was a spy during World War I (probably not true)

We share these memories, but are they accurate? More: Are they telling? Of you ask someone what they remember about the 1990 Reds, they will almost certainly say: Nasty Boys. That team became famous for its hard-throwing bullpen, featuring Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers. Those three were so electrifying in the postseason — the Nasty Boys pitched 8 2/3 innings in the World Series without giving up a run — that a kind of overpowering mythology has built up around them. Whenever people talk about the evolution of bullpens, they will include Lou Piniella’s usage of the Nasty Boys. Whenever people talk about the greatest bullpens in baseball history, they will rank the Nasty Boys high. Whenever people think about those 1990 Reds, they will think of an ordinary team turned super by the Nasty Boys bullpen.

And here’s the problem: It’s not exactly right. We remember it that way because the Nasty Boys were so good in the World Series and they had a nickname. But, in truth, the Nasty Boys, while good, were hardly revolutionary. In fact, if you consider the entire 1990 season, they weren’t even the best bullpen in the 1990 World Series.

1990 A’s bullpen: 417 innings, 315 hits, 1.054 WHIP, 2.35 ERA, 64 saves, 73-3 record when leading into the sixth inning.

1990 Reds bullpen: 472 innings, 404 hits, 1.272 WHIP, 2.93 ERA, 50 saves, 63-8 record when leading into the sixth inning.


The Reds bullpen was interesting, and it’s always good to be interesting. Dibble was thrilling to watch, he seemed to throw a billion miles an hour. Myers had a near Hall of Fame career*. Charlton was a starter who became a reliever, and that’s always an intriguing transition to watch. They all threw hard. The racked up a lot of strikeouts. They were a good show.

*Though, interestingly, it was the very next year, 1991, that the Reds tried Myers as a starter for the only time in his career. He pitched OK, not great, and the Reds went 3-7 in his starts before scrapping the experiment.

But the 1990 Reds did not win because of that bullpen. They won because they had a good offense featuring young Barry Larkin, in their prime Eric Davis, Paul O’Neill and Chris Sabo, and they got a superb season from Mariano Duncan. They had a better-than-we-remember starting rotation with Jose Rijo and Tom Browning at the top. They were pretty good defensively, they had some speed. And, let’s face it, they only won 91 games — it’s not like we’re talking about a dominant team here. The bullpen played a role, sure, but that team blew five games they were leading going into the ninth inning, and they underperformed their Pythagorean Expectation by one victory.

Now, if you want to come up with a replacement for the Nasty Boys in your pantheon of great bullpens, I have one for you, one I suspect you’ve rarely contemplated. Consider the 1988 Dodgers.

What’s the image from that Dodgers team? Probably Kirk Gibson hitting the home run and limping around the bases. It also could be Orel Hershiser having a season for the ages with that record-breaking scoreless streak and fantastic postseason.

But here’s the thing about those Dodgers: They scored 65 fewer runs than the 1990 Reds but they won three more games. How does that happen? True, it was a lower scoring season and the Dodgers had a better rotation, though not as much better as you might remember. The big difference? The bullpen. The Dodgers bullpen had a 2.35 ERA as a unit. That’s considerably better than the Reds — it’s one of the lowest ERAs ever for an entire bullpen.

And here, let’s compare the Dodgers big three of Jay Howell, Alejandro Pena and Brian Holton to the Nasty Boys.

Dodgers three: 244 innings, 188 hits, 1.074 WHIP, 1.88 ERA.

Nasty Boys: 235 1/3 innings, 169 hits, 1.118 WHIP, 2.14 ERA.

The Nasty Boys got more strikeouts and gave up slightly fewer hits per nine. The Dodger Boys walked fewer, hit fewer batters, threw fewer wild pitches and gave up about half as many home runs. Just different styles. Ballpark plays a role in it, and so does the year (1990 was a higher scoring season than 1988). But essentially the Dodgers fantastic bullpen played at least a big role, perhaps bigger, in the team’s World Series run. But: No nickname.

47 Responses to The Nasty Boys (and The Dodger Boys)

  1. Come on Joe. As a Cincinnati native born after 1976, I have so little. Don’t take away the mystique of the 1990’s Reds. One other quibble. I wouldn’t say O’Neill was in his prime. He was 27 that year, but he definitely blossomed late, especially after getting away from Piniella’s “PULL THE BALL” dictate.

    • Scott C says:

      As a Cincinnati native who started watching the Reds in 1970, I totally agree with Michael Petry! Don’t take away from the mystique of the Nasty Boys!! You forgot to mention that the Nasty Boy’s hold the record for knocking catchers out at the plate – Norm Charlton’s forearm to Mike Scioscia’s neck was dramatic. Eric Davis was blocked off the plate the night before, so Charlton went through the catcher rather than around him. The Reds won the 1990 World Series because they were HOT when it was playoff time. Billy Hatcher, Joe Oliver, Eric Davis, Chris Sabo — CLUTCH! But the Nasty Boys were the greatest, and if you ask Cincinnati fans, their memories will tell you that the Nasty Boys never lost a game!! Great memories!!

  2. Jay B says:

    Great article. Small quibble – O’Neill was basically replacement level that year and would break out the next year.

  3. jpwdadJW says:

    Note; the 90 Reds were exceptionally good in April and May–then basically a .500 club the remainder of the year. I was 14 at the time they won the Series and Nasty Boys ranked behind Davis, Rijo, Duncan, Larkin, Browning and Sabo when watching that team. I never imagined they would get by Bonds and Van Slyke in the NLCS; much less beat Stewart and the Bash Bros in the Series. Davis’ bomb on Stewart in game one; Glen Braggs breaking the bat over his back on a swinging strike and Davis lacerating his kidney still stand out as most memorable moments. God, I loved that team.

    • Ted says:

      I just went to Baseball Almanac and the Reds opened the season with a 31-12 record, then went 60-59 the rest of the way. While their final record wasn’t exceptional they started the year so hot and were not challenged until the playoffs.
      Just for comparison the 2001 Seattle Mariners started their season with a 32-11 season to get 116 wins but then lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.

      • Brent says:

        And I believe one of the reasons they started so hot and then faded is that Piniella’s chosen lead off hitter (Billy Hatcher) was hot as a fire cracker the first month or two of the season and then regressed to the mean of his usual rather average offensive production. And it probably is no coincidence that Hatcher had a 2.050 OPS (yes I typed that right) in the Red’s sweep of the A’s in the WS. Pretty simply, the Reds had a good to great offense when he was getting on and only pretty average when he wasn’t.

    • Rob says:

      @jpwdadJW Replace ’14’ with ’12’ and I could have written that comment myself. A few random notes:

      – I remember having an argument with a classmate about how the Reds would not even get past the Pirates, much less the A’s. And I very much wanted the Reds to do both, but I just didn’t think they could.

      – One of my favorite random memories from that season was watching a channel 5 (NBC) highlight of a game with my sister. They’d just showed the other team going ahead then segued to an ED home run. The sportscaster’s voice over: “And Eric Davis says I’ll have none of that.” Absolutely slayed us and became a catch phrase the rest of the season.

      – I didn’t find this one out until waaaay later because we were an Enquirer household, but the Post headline after Game 1: “Davis Stuns Goliath”. That goes in the pantheon of great headlines.

      – Jose Rijo in game 4: In soccer we talk about goal keepers standing on their heads. Rijo stood on his head in that game. I hate to think what could have happened had the Reds not scratched out two runs in the eighth. We’d already lost Davis and Hatcher to injuries. The game became must-win in a hurry.

      – The championship was on the heals of an absolutely devastating 1989 for Cincinnati sports. First the Bengals lost the Super Bowl in excruciating fashion, then the Pete Rose stuff. This was such a catharsis, and preemptively put to bed any future “Curse Of Pete Rose” BS.

      So as you said, God, I loved that team. I still do.

  4. Steve Bedell says:

    ERA is useful but by the time you give up an earned run you’ve failed as a 1 inning guy. Inherited runners scored is the metric to look at.

    • John Autin says:

      I disagree with that statement. Both those bullpens faced over 1,700 batters, but inherited less than 200 runners. The majority of their outings had no inherited runners — 64% for the ’88 Dodgers, 66% for the ’90 Reds. Their overall performance might well be more important than inherited runners scored.

      I do think the ’90 Reds bullpen was more valuable than the ’88 Dodgers, both overall and in big three. My stat is Win Probability Added, from Baseball-Reference:

      — 1990 Reds bullpen: 5.9 WPA total, 12.6 WPA per 1,000 IP
      — 1988 Dodgers bullpen: 4.4 WPA total, 10.2 WPA per 1,000 IP

      — 1990 Reds big three:* 5.6 WPA total, 23.6 WPA per 1,000 IP
      — 1988 Dodgers big three: 3.9 WPA total, 16.1 WPA per 1,000 IP

      * Counting Charlton’s relief work only.

      P.S. If you think a stat is most key, why not give us the comparative numbers to advance this discussion? Per Baseball-Reference, the Reds had a better strand rate, 76% to 68%. But the Dodgers inherited more runners (192-181) in fewer relief innings (433-473), so their average inherited runner was probably closer to home when inherited. How are you going to untangle all that to get strand rate as the key stat for bullpens?

  5. The 1988 Dodgers will always be, for me, the worst team to ever win a World Series, though the 1959 Dodgers can contend for that, too. Their starting lineup had no less than three players whose OBP was under .300; their 1-2 hitters had OBPs of .325 and .288. Kirk Gibson hit two big HRs but also hit .154 for the NLCS and of course batted exactly once in the Series. How this team won the NL West has always been a mystery to me.

    And the mystique that surrounds Hershiser in the NLCS is strange. He was unable to hold two-run leads in the first and third games, both of which the Dodgers lost, got all of one out in the fourth game for the save, and then, credit where it’s due, pitched a shutout in game 7. He was dominating in the Series, so nobody remembers this.

    Next to them, the 1990 Reds look like the 1927 Yankees.

    • Gesge says:

      The 1987 Twins were the worst team to win the World Series and it isn’t close. They were outscored for the season. They went 29-52 on the road. They went 0-6 on the road in the playoffs.

    • Orel History says:

      And the mystique that surrounds Hershiser in the NLCS is strange. He was unable to hold two-run leads in the first and third games, both of which the Dodgers lost, got all of one out in the fourth game for the save, and then, credit where it’s due, pitched a shutout in game 7. He was dominating in the Series, so nobody remembers this.

      Yes, it is so strange. The other reason nobody but you remembers this is that you’re out of your mind. Hershiser pitched 8 shutout innings in Game One, and left with the lead. In Game Three, the Dodgers made two sixth-inning errors before the Mets tied the game; again, for the second time in three games, Hershiser left with the lead.

      The next night, on zero days’ rest, Hershiser “got all of one out” by coming into a bases-loaded, bottom-of-the-12th situation after the Dodgers had already cycled through five of their relievers and completely emptied their bullpen except for the next night’s starting pitcher, and except for the closer with the 27.00 ERA who’d blown both of Hershiser’s wins and who would not be used again in the series. If the Mets had scored exactly one run but no more, they go to the 13th inning and Hershiser is in the game for the duration.

      But finally, even you see something of merit in Hershiser’s third start, the shutout that made his overall series stat line look so much mystique-ier and overhyped than the unimpressive 1.72 ERA, 1.02 WHIP he’d accumulated in Games 1, 3 and 4. How ever did the lie that Hershiser was the man who beat the Mets ever get started?

      • Bill Caffrey says:

        The specific situation Hershiser came into in Game 4, 2 outs bases loaded up by 1, bottom 12, made it highly likely that the game would end right there. Either an out would win it for the Dodgers, or a hit would win it for the Mets. Obviously there were scenarios in which the Mets would only score one, but the odds were high that Kevin McReynolds would be the last batter of the game, one way or the other.

        We’ll never know, of course, but I highly doubt Lasorda would’ve let Hershiser pitch the 13th or beyond having just thrown 7 innings the day before.

  6. dlf9 says:

    Joe Poz writing about my distant cousin Erich Weisz? Wow!

  7. invitro says:

    The first thing I think of about the 1990 Reds is Billy Hatcher in the playoffs.

  8. If you are going to use ERA, please at least use ERA+. When someone who knows as much about advanced statistics as Joe does uses ERA, it makes me think he is purposely obscuring the facts to make a point with statistics that won’t hold up under closer scrutiny.

    But even if you don’t I’ll still read every column 😉

  9. sidecar6 says:

    The 1988 Dodgers were a much better team than people remember. They dominated their division, won 94 games, and beat in the post-season the only two teams that won more (NYM, OAK). The World Series wasn’t even close. Joe’s right about the bullpen, of course, but check out Tim Leary and Tim Belcher behind Hershiser in that rotation.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Well, the Dodgers seem to have fattened up on the dregs of the league, not that that’s unusual for teams that win. They were 40-14 against the four worst teams in the league (Atlanta,Philadelphia, St. Louis (!), and Chicago, and 54-53 against the rest of the league, all of whom were .500 or better. The Mets, by contrast, won over 60% of their games against .500 or better teams (and were slightly worse than the Dodgers against under .500 teams) and they crushed the Dodgers during the regular season, winning 10 of 11. Yes, they beat two teams in the playoffs that won more games and that’s the nature of the baseball playoffs.

    • Bill Caffrey says:

      Hershiser’s 1988 postseason would perhaps be barely remembered if Davey Johnson hadn’t left Dwight Gooden in for the top of the 9th in Game 4. Or if he’d at least brought in future Nasty Boy Randy Myers to pitch to Scioscia. Sigh.

    • Clearly the Dodgers rode their starting pitchers and their solid, even spectacular bullpen. The point, I think, is that the Dodgers every day lineup was rather terrible. They had two semi regular players in Mike Davis and Alfredo Griffin that hit below the Mendoza line. Davis was a starter until his stinktitude became too much to ignore. Ironically he eeked out a walk against Eckersley proceeding the famous Gibson HR. The BIG mistake of the game, was that walk. Even more than that flat, middle of the plate, back-door slider he ended up throwing to Gibson. Griffin and the perennial backup Dave Anderson shared SS. Jeff Hamilton, Franklin Stubbs rounded out a forgettable infield that included slightly above average play from pre-yips Steve Sax. Mike Scioscia was the solid defensive catcher who hit a little and then, of course, they had Gibson who hit .299/.377/.483, which is good, but not awesome by any stretch of the imagination.
      So, I wouldn’t say that the Dodgers were the worst “team”, but I’d say their regular lineup was, for sure, the worst. I’m sure someone will come up with a champion from 1912 that was worse, but I don’t recall any championship lineup in memory that was as ugly.

  10. This is fine, but I’d be more interested in a comparison of the top three pitchers. The Nasty Boys weren’t the Reds whole bullpen. I feel like it’s a bit of apples to oranges. Bullpen X was better than the Reds 1990 bullpen, so the Nasty Boys were overrated…it doesn’t follow.

  11. nfieldr says:

    As an A’s season ticket holder from ’88 until ’92, thanks for grinding ’88 and ’90 into my face. I literally still cannot watch that Gibson HR off of Eck. I change the channel anytime it comes on.

    • nfieldr says:

      After re-reading my comment, it sounds really angry, so I guess I should have put a smiley on it. I’m not really angry about either loses or Joe’s blog post. It’s just one of those things that we fans have to endure.

      • I watched that game with a bunch of Dodger fans and one A’s fan, who was talking some serious trash when the A’s took the lead. When Gibson hit the HR, all I can remember is him yelling loudly NO! NO! NO! followed by him falling back into his chair with his hands on his head, accepting the derision from the rest of the room. I suspect replays of that moment do not bring back good memories for him either.

  12. Crout says:

    What do I remember of Harry Houdini? He looked EXACTLY like Tony Curtis.

    Man, I LOVED the ’90 WS. I wasn’t so much a Reds as a National League fan. It was WAY before advanced statistics became mainstream, so there was this magic about those Reds because the freakin A’s looked invincible. Did ANY national sportswriter give them a chance? I doubt it.

  13. David Gardner says:

    Sure wish Eric Davis had stayed healthy. When he wasn’t hurt, he was amazing.

    • My brother and I used to have Eric Davis vs. Bo Jackson arguments. Who would be greater? Which would be a HOFer. The answer was neither. Both got injured & left a lot of career success on the table.

  14. BobDD says:

    First thing I think of about Joe Namath? Pantyhose!

  15. RJ says:

    For some reason, I thought the reason why Oakland lost the 1990 WS’s had to deal with the ex-Cub Factor! Bullpen, schmolpen! 🙂

  16. NevadaMark says:

    I remember that Houdini died on Halloween.

  17. Michael Green says:

    The 1988 Dodgers had something else: Tommy Lasorda. In the post-season, he did one of the best managing jobs I’ve ever seen and may have done one of the worst. By best, I mean that, more than any manager I can think of, he understood that in post-season, you have to do things differently; there really may be no tomorrow. By worst, I mean that he undoubtedly contributed to Hershiser’s future arm problems, whether or not they want to admit that. That doesn’t strike me as provable enough to go beyond the conditional, but there it is.

    That, by the way, is contrasted with Tommy Lasorda, the worst regular season strategist I have ever seen in a baseball manager, though Don Mattingly sometimes seems to want to challenge him for the title.

    • NormE says:

      LaSorda is the curse LA had to bear for stealing the Dodgers.

    • NevadaMark says:

      Really? The worst? Not saying you’re wrong but I’ve never heard that before. Not that I’ve ever heard anyone call the guy a tactical genius or anything, but the worst? He always seemed boringly conventional to me but I thought he was very good with his pitchers. Interesting take.

      • Michael Green says:

        Norm, I might agree if New York hadn’t gotten to keep Robert Moses.

        NevadaMark (fellow Nevadan!), I don’t pretend to be an expert or the expert. But I honestly believe that Lasorda is convinced that no left-handed hitter ever got a hit against a left-handed pitcher. Statistics didn’t matter to him. Now, that is not to say he wasn’t in fact a great manager, because he kept his players together and loose, and that helped them win games. But once they got on the field, someone else should have taken charge.

  18. top 5 lowest wOBA-against for relievers in the 7th-8th-9th (since 1961),
    1965 – White Sox – 0.2557
    1989 – Oakland – 0.2625
    1990 – Oakland – 0.2637
    1967 – White Sox – 0.2643
    2003 – Dodgers – 0.2654

    I’ll see if I can do it for “top 3”.

  19. If I do only top-3, meaning the 3 relievers that got the most batters faced in the 7th+, I get
    2003 – Dodgers – 0.2357
    1990 – Oakland – 0.2378
    1981 – Yankees – 0.2432
    1964 – Reds – 0.2440
    2012 – Rays – 0.2508

  20. NevadaMark says:

    Did Kirk Gibson have the weakest MVP season ever for an outfielder? Off the top of my head I thought his stats would be depressed by injuries but it turns out he played 150 games. When BRs talk about undeserving MVP winners, I don’t recall Gibson’s name coming up.

    • invitro says:

      It doesn’t come up because it shouldn’t. He had 6.5 WAR that season, 4th in the NL and 3rd among batters (among those who got votes), behind Orel (7.1), Brett Butler (6.8) and Will Clark (6.6).

      You’re only one year off an excellent choice: Dawson has only 4.0 WAR. Some others:
      – Joe DiMaggio, 1947, 4.8 WAR
      – Jackie Jensen, 1958, 4.9 WAR
      – Jeff Burroughs, 1974, 3.6 WAR
      – Don Baylor, 1979, 3.7 WAR
      – George Bell, 1987, 5.0 WAR
      – Juan Gone, 1996, 3.8 WAR
      – Juan Gone, 1998, 4.9 WAR
      And that’s all the OF winners with <= 5.0 WAR.

      Honorable mention: Bichette finished #2 in 1995 with 1.1 WAR.

      • According to BBR, Gibson was 6th in WAR in the NL behind Larkin (7.0), Ozzie (6.6) and the three you mentioned. So, by the numbers, he wasn’t the MVP. It was more the eye test, plus his being the best position player on the best team (as things turned out).

  21. BSG says:

    Another big part the 90’s Reds first half was starting pitcher Jack Armstrong. He was so dominant in the first half of the season, he started for the National League in the All-Star Game. In the second half he fell off a cliff and never regained his form for the rest of his career. In fact, he was out of the rotation in the playoffs, though he did have a few strong innings in Game 2 in the World Series.

  22. Dusty says:

    looking forward to the Houdini book. have you read Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man by John Kasson?

  23. bpdelia says:

    The championship jays teams featured ridiculously good bullpens as i recall. Obviously ward and Heinke but also guys like wells, Eichorn, timlin, Hentgen.

    Seemed like every guy they brought out was fantastic.

    I, a lifetime Yankees fan, still consider those amongst the best ever teams and criminally forgotten.

    Great defense up the middle, power up and down the lineup, speed, youth and a revolving door of veteran mashers.

    Great starting pitching and an absurdly drop bullpen.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Those really were great teams, but the Braves would likely have beaten them in 1992 if they had had a strong closer. That’s one of the few years that I would actually say that having Mariano Rivera or someone like that would have been decisive. Jeff Reardon, at the end of his career, blew Game 2 or the Braves would have been up 2-0. The Jays bullpen was much better than the Braves and that was pretty much the difference. And, of course, 1993 was the Joe Carter/Mitch Williams show. Bullpens really do make a big difference in the post-season.

  24. Herby Smith says:

    That “memory” thing is a really interesting concept. So true.

    You ask 100 baseball fans about the ’84 Tigers, and the first thing 90 of them will say is “35-5.”

    The Gashouse Gang…95 win team (90 Pythag, but a great nickname).

    The 1973 World Series? An out-of-nowhere New York team that featured Tom Seaver at his zenith (an 11.0 WAR year), vs. an all-time great Oakland A’s powerhouse in the exact middle of a five 1st place, 3 World Series Champ run. Reggie in his MVP year (he also won MVP of the Series), Catfish, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers and his mustache, Charlie O.; and it’s a 7-game thriller for a Series.

    But what does everyone remember? Willie Mays falling down in the outfield.

    • I wouldn’t say that the Mets were “Out of Nowhere”. They performed about the same level the prior three years, but the NL East was just really bad that year, so they finished first with 82 wins. Once they were in, they were very dangerous with a pitching rotation of Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman, with Tug McGraw and Ray Sadecki in the bullpen.

  25. Grzegorz Brzeszczyszczykiewicz says:

    That Reds team with the Nasty Boys, in many series that year, would start a fight in the first game and then go on to take two out of three or three out of four.

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