By In Stuff

What’s Good For The Goose …

There should be a hotline for former star athletes to call. They would use it just for emergencies, just for those moments when they have this interesting thought but are not sure if they should make that thought public. For instance, before doing an interview like this with Newsday, Goose Gossage might call the hotline.

Goose: So, I’m thinking about talking again about how you can’t compare Mariano Rivera to relievers of our time.

Hotline: Don’t do it.

Goose: No, this time I’m going to talk about how great Mariano Rivera is, you know, how he’s a great guy. I mean, I’ll say it over and over again.

Hotline: Don’t do it.

Goose: “No, it’s OK, I’ll keep saying that Mariano Rivera is great, really great, but you can’t say he’s the greatest because he’s used in a different role than guys from our time, you know, like me. But he’s really, really great and all, it’s just that just guys from our time, you know, like me, would have been just as great if we were used the Mariano way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while he’s super great, he might not be any better than guys from our time, you know, like me, if Rivera had been used the way we pitch. But he’s great.”

Hotline: “Don’t do it.”

There is no such hotline, sadly, and so Goose Gossage once again made a headline by sort of downplaying Mariano Rivera while insisting he wasn’t sort of downplaying Mariano Rivera. It isn’t the first time. It probably won’t be the last. Hey, it’s his right. I’m all for people speaking their minds, and Goose Gossage certainly does that on any number of topics. The reason I think it was unfortunate is, well, there are actually two reasons, one obvious, the other perhaps less so.

The obvious reason is that it diminishes Goose Gossage to talk this way. Goose Gossage was a great pitcher. A truly great pitcher. Gossage is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely remembered, he does not need to go around telling people how great he was or how he wasn’t used the way pitchers today are used. I think it cheapens him to do so, especially when he uses the beloved Mariano Rivera for effect. Rivera has been gracious and classy and respectful. Gossage shouldn’t use him as a prop.

Yes, Gossage was used differently than modern closers, especially in the early part of his career. Yes, he’d have more saves if the game had been managed differently back then. Anybody who cares about such things knows them. And anybody who doesn’t know such things doesn’t care. Anyway, it’s too transparent. If Gossage was using the platform to fight for the Hall of Fame causes of other great relievers of his day — Dan Quisenberry, John Hiller, Sparky Lyle, Lee Smith, etc. — that would be one thing. But you don’t get the sense from Goose’s proclamations that he’s all that interested in new people joining him in the Hall. This kind of talk about Rivera is self-serving and should be beneath him.

But the second reason, the less obvious one, is why I wish Gossage would quiet down: When Gossage talks about Rivera like this, it’s only human nature to start making some comparisons. And Gossage won’t look good in the comparisons. Hey, it’s only human nature to go back and take a look at Gossage’s career and poke around a little bit. And what happens is that you find Gossage’s career wasn’t exactly how he remembered it. Also, there’s no way he was as good as Mariano Rivera.

Gossage, you probably know, was a failed starter. At 19, he went 18-2 with a 1.83 ERA as a starter in Class A Appleton — a performance so dominant that at 20 he was in the big leagues. He struggled horribly. He couldn’t throw strikes. At 21, for the White Sox, he was 0-4 with a 7.43 ERA and more walks than strikeouts.The next year, he was some kind of swing man, starting some, relieving some, and he wasn’t too good. But he was a bit better in the pen than in the starting rotation, so in 1975, Chuck Tanner made him a full-time reliever.

Good move. Gossage was awesome in the bullpen in 1975. Tanner used the Goose in every relief pitching situation imaginable. Gossage faced 34 batters in a 7 2/3 inning relief performance against Boston, and he faced one batter in closing the door against the Yankees and the Angels in August of that season. He was the long man, the short man, the setup man — Gossage has said that relievers of his time did three jobs, and there’s no question that in 1975 Gossage did. There were no relief pitcher rules then — Tanner was making them up as he went along. Gossage pitched 141 2/3 innings, most of them dominant, and posted an almost unbelievable 8.1 WAR — by far the most valuable season of his career. Gossage seems to remember that his whole career was like that. It wasn’t.

The next year, Tanner was gone, Paul Richards was in his place, and Gossage was a starter again. Not many people know this, but Gossage pitched well for the first two months as a starter. He threw a complete game three-hitter in his first start, threw 11 2/3 innings against the Royals, and he was chosen to pitch in the All-Star Game. But then it went bad. In his last 12 games, he went 3-7 with a 5.84 ERA. The league hit .304 against him. In one start, he lasted just one-third of an inning and gave up three hits, four walks and five runs. The White Sox had enough. They traded him to PIttsburgh to reunite him with Chuck Tanner. From that point on, Goose Gossage was a reliever.

He was, for two years, exactly the kind of relief pitcher he had been in 1975. That is to say, he pitched 135 or so innings, finished 55 games, pitched as many as seven innings, and at other times was brought in to face one batter. When Gossage talks about doing three different jobs, he’s really referring to those three seasons. After that, he wasn’t used quite so liberally. After 1978, he only once pitched more than 100 innings — 102 innings for the 1984 San Diego Padres. After 1978, he only twice pitched five innings in a game, and only pitched four innings seven times.

I say “only,” though, of course, by today’s standards the concept of a closer going four or five innings is beyond imagination. But my point is that after 1978, Gossage was beginning to slowly morph into something that looked more and more like a modern closer. There were still some significant differences. He still threw multiple innings, something today’s closers almost never do. But he was no longer that wildebeest reliever who filled every imaginable role. After 1984 — so the last nine or so years of his career — he was used even more conventionally. He become more of a middle-reliever after he turned 35 and never again threw even 60 innings in a season.

Could Rivera have done what Gossage did? Well, look at the reliever numbers:

Gossage as a reliever (including postseason):
117-86, 2.77 ERA, 1,588 innings, 1,255 hits, 547 runs, 489 ER, 101 homers, 635 walks, 1,369 Ks.

Rivera as a reliever from 1995-2012 (including postseason):
81-56, 1.91 ERA, 1,310 2/3 innings, 962 hits, 302 runs, 278 ER, 59 homers, 278 walks, 1,191 Ks.

OK, do you see? Rivera was better. A lot better. He was better in cold numbers, and he was a lot better when you take into consideration the eras when they pitched. For Rivera to match Gossage in the basic numbers, he would have had to pitch 278 more innings — all those multiple innings that Gossage pitched — and he would have to allow 201 more (a tidy 6.51 ERA). He would have had to walk 350 or so batters in those innings, while allowing 42 home runs. And he would have had to do all that in a much lower scoring run environment. I’m guessing here, of course, but I think he could have managed it.

And as far as the ease of pitching one inning — Gossage has called it easy in the past — the Goose pitched exactly one inning 249 times in his career. His ERA in those outings: 3.75. You can argue about the value of the closer (and I have a piece coming up on it) but let’s not diminish the skill it takes to throw a scoreless inning, especially in the high scoring era Mariano Rivera found himself in.

None of this should be necessary to say. Gossage’s greatness stands the test of time. He was part of the bridge that took us from the 1950s and 1960s, when relievers were used sporadically and like pawns on a chess board, to now, when closers are celebrated and paid like kings. He was of his time, and that’s a good thing. If he had been used like a modern closer, sure, he probably would have more saves, but he might not be in the Hall of Fame. He might have been like Jeff Reardon or Billy Wagner or John Wetteland — great pitchers who lit up the sky and then burned out in their mid-to-late 30s.

You know, if you just want to talk saves, Gossage does suffer. He blew 112 of the 432 save opportunities he had. Rivera has blown only 73 of the 681 chances he’s had. It’s not an entirely fair comparison, Gossage’s save opportunities were different from Rivera’s. But it’s a comparison we make because Gossage can’t just say “Mariano Rivera is a great and timeless relief pitcher” and leave it at that.

19 Responses to What’s Good For The Goose …

  1. cd1515 says:

    great stuff, Joe, as usual.

    the only thing I’d say in Goose’s defense is I don’t think he took a Newsday reporter hostage and put a gun to his head saying he had a manifesto of thoughts that they had to publish.

    they called HIM and ASKED him about Rivera.
    he gave his honest opinion.
    you can disagree with it but it’s not like he’s seeking this out, IMO.

  2. JGS says:

    That 8.1 bWAR isn’t just the best season of Gossage’s career, it’s the single-season record for a pitcher with fewer than 25 starts, let alone zero. That record will never be broken–no one with zero starts has even cracked 5.0 since 1986. Goose should be happy with that.

  3. Devon Young says:

    Something I noticed 2 or 3 years ago, which i think says a LOT more about relievers than their number of saves, is their ERA in save situations. Gossage’s ERA in save situations is one of the all-time best, a cool 2.41 (714 IP). But Rivera’s got a super cool 1.92, while tossing an extra 70 1/3 more innings than Goose. That’s just in regular season stats.

  4. Unknown says:

    Possibly relevant question: in how many of Gossage’s one-inning outings was he certain that that would be the only inning in which he would pitch? If he assumed he would be pitching multiple innings, but then didn’t for whatever reason (more on that in a moment), his approach would probably be a little different than if he knew he was only going out there for three batters.

    Further, given that his role was undefined in some sense, couldn’t the reason for him only pitching one inning on a particular day be because he struggled in that inning and was thus pulled after one? And wouldn’t that inflate his ERA in one-inning appearances?

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you on everything in this article–Mo is far and away a better pitcher. But it seems a little disingenuous just to cite his 3.75 ERA in one-inning appearances w/o a little context.

    *and I do mean a ‘little’, this isn’t a huge point.

  5. MCD says:

    Sorry, but Gossage has a point, even if isn’t being a little petty by making an issue out of it. We don’t know what Gossage would have done if essentially every appearance he knew his day would be done if he could get 3 outs. Howeve,r we do know that the only time Rivera was consistently asked to face more then a max of 4-5 hitters (1995) he positively stunk.

    • MCD says:

      I mean *is* being a little petty

    • Vidor says:

      Yes, this comment by Gossage is pretty defensible. Rivera is used far more gently than relief pitchers of Gossage’s day. That’s just a fact. If Rivera had been used as Gossage was, starting games sometimes, he would not have been as dominant. That’s also a fact. Goose Gossage pitched more than 80 innings in a season ten times. Rivera’s done it twice.

    • Ian R. says:

      To be fair to Rivera, though, that was his rookie year, and he only pitched 67 innings that year. I think it’s fair to say we don’t know how Mariano would have responded if he’d been asked to fill Gossage’s role year after year, but his 1996 season (in which he pitched over 100 innings) wouldn’t have looked out of place in the middle of Goose’s career.

    • Teddy Pigeon says:

      in 1996 rivera era was 2.08 in 107 innings with a 4.4 war. he routinely pitched the 7th and 8th inning.

      in postseason .70 era in 141 innings more than 3 outs most of the time

  6. Martin F. says:

    Gossage pitched 1 inning 249 times in his career. That means 1,339 innings, or more innings than Rivera’s entire career, he pitched multiple innings or parts there of. So no Joe, Rivera wouldn’t have to pitch 278 more innings for him to equal all those multiple innings that Goose pitched, he’d have to pitch 1,061 inning of multi-inning ball, otherwise it’s like comparing either of these gentlemen to Walter Johnson. It makes no sense.

  7. Rob Smith says:

    Just for fun, let’s compare Greg Maddux to Bob Gibson. On second thought, let’s not and say we did.

  8. purebull says:

    you want excitement? bring on the goose. you want automatic? bring on rivera.

    i don’t agree with the comparison, but i do agree that this isn’t the first time goose has spoken his mind about this very topic. joe’s dead on, this makes gossage look like…weak sauce. not the image i had of him in my head and heart…before he started speaking his mind..

  9. mickey says:

    gossage’s return to starting in 76 coincided with Bill Veeck’s buying the team and believing that a pitcher of such talent would have more value as a starting pitcher, a pretty common belief in the era before one-inning stoppers. Gossage was traded away not so much because the Sox gave up on him because of a bad season (the team came in last, so a lot of players did poorly) but because he would be a free agent after 77 and Veeck wasn’t going to be able to sign him. Of course, richie zisk, whom the Sox got for Gossage and Terry forster, didn’t sign with the White Sox either–his big South Side Hit Men season priced him beyond Veeck’s meager budget.

  10. I’ve seen a lot of dominant pitchers in my day, but only two of them were terrifying, pitchers who could make Major League batters quake stepping into the box: Goose Gossage and Randy Johnson. With the Goose, it was a combination of a 100mph fastball, an imposing mound presence, a violent delivery, and that Fu Manchu moustache. At his peak, he was the best, if measured by the underrated stat of soiled undergarments.

    But Gossage’s peak lasted about a decade, after which he was just another good to middling reliever. Rivera’s peak was essentially his whole career. Like Henry Aaron, Rivera simply put up top tier stats year after year after year. Add to that Rivera’s insane post-season numbers, and there’s no question that Rivera was the best of the best.

    It’s unfair to call Rivera a one inning reliever, as one might designate Trevor Hoffman, since Rivera has come out of the pen plenty of times to record saves of more than 3 outs, especially in the post-season. What Rivera really gave you was dominance one time through the order. As a starter that was his problem—he dominated the first time through the order, got hit the second time, and got clobbered the third. His lack of a second pitch combined with diminishing returns on the fastball made him vulnerable to longer outings. For two innings or so, he was lights out, but after that—well, you didn’t see him very often beyond that.

    That’s why I agree with Goose that Rivera wouldn’t have made it in the days when relievers were called in to close the game in the seventh inning or earlier. What people forget about Gossage is that he had an excellent curveball that he kept in his pocket most of the time, but could bring out to freeze a batter he was seeing the second time around.

    Technically, of course, the greatest long reliever was Ernie Shore, who came in after the starter (a certain Mr. Ruth) was thrown out of the game after walking the first batter, and proceeded to throw a Perfect Game in relief. Let’s see Mo or Goose top that!

  11. David says:

    Arguing about closers is like arguing about the best punter of all time. One guy might lose a game for you slightly more often than another, but none of them actually win it for you. So, big deal.

  12. Jeff says:

    Joe, what you did is exactly what Gossage is saying you can’t do. It’s a fact that they were used differently. What Gossage would have done if he’d been used like Rivera, or what Rivera would have done if he’d been used like Gossage, is pure speculation.

    What Gossage was doing was providing a needed counterpoint to all the stories that “OMG! Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher EVER! In fact, he’s probably the greatest pitcher EVER! In fact, he might even be the greatest player EVER!” Gossage was a great pitcher. Rivera is a great pitcher. That’s really about all we can say. Because the fact is that Gossage is right. They were used differently. Gossage said it because no one else seemed to be.

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  14. Possibly relevant question: in how many of Gossage’s one-inning outings was he certain that that would be the only inning in which he would pitch? If he assumed he would be pitching multiple innings, but then didn’t for whatever reason (more on that in a moment), his approach would probably be a little different than if he knew he was only going out there for three batters.


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