Saturday, December 18, 2010

Before Rivera, Before Gossage, There Was Sparky Lyle

The New York Yankees did not invent the modern day idea of the closer, but few teams in history have relied on that ninth inning weapon to seal a win more than the Yankees. Now 41, Mariano Rivera has been indefatigable for the team for a decade. Before him there was two years of John Wetteland. Before Wetteland was Dave Righetti. Before Righetti was Hall of Fame pitcher, Goose Gossage. But the pitcher who started this long line of ninth inning excellent was Albert Walter ("Sparky") Lyle.

Sparky Lyle was probably the second worst trade the Red Sox ever made to the New York Yankees. Does the Fan have to insult you by telling you the worst trade? Nah. Anyway, Lyle was signed as a free agent by the Baltimore Orioles in 1964. They didn't protect him though and the Red Sox drafted him out of the Orioles organization three months later. He was pitching in the big leagues three years later, making his debut in 1967.

Sparky had five solid seasons for the Red Sox from 1967 to 1971. During that time, he invented his image as a tough guy with his flowing hair and facial hair. He was an imposing figure on the mound. He saved 69 games for the Red Sox during that time with a solid ERA for each season. He also won 22 games for the Red Sox. But they decided to trade him to the Yankees before the start of the 1972 season for Danny Cater. Cater had hit .300 for the Yankees in 1970 but he did nothing for the Red Sox and hit .237 in 1972. The trade was a complete bust.

Meanwhile, the Yankees got the beginning of a legend. In 1972, Lyle pitched in 59 games but closers then weren't one inning artists. He pitched a total of 107.2 innings that season and finished with a 1.92 ERA. He won nine games (against five losses) and saved 35 games. It would be his highest save total of his career. That season he came in seventh in Cy Young voting and third in the MVP ballot. The legend was born.

Lyle recorded 28 saves in 1973 in 82.1 innings and finished with a 2.51 ERA. He made the All Star team (he only made the team three times in his career). But that year was his best as far as K/BB ratio. Lyle was never a great strikeout pitcher. His out pitch was a devastating slider that was the predecessor of what Guidry, Righetti and Pettitte would later throw. Those pitchers can all trace their roots to Sparky Lyle's tenure with the Yankees.

1974 was perhaps Lyle's best year. He finished the season with a 1.66 ERA in 114 innings. But oddly, his Save total fell to 15 and he won nine games. 1975 was probably his worst year as a Yankee. His Saves fell to six, his hits per nine went over 9 and his ERA went up to 3.12 in 89 plus innings. But the Yankees, then owned by George Steinbrenner, were building toward their glory years. And when those years began in 1976, Sparky was right in the middle of it.

The 1976 Yankees made the playoffs for the first time since 1964 and Lyle had a magnificent season. His ERA was 2.26. He saved 23 games and pitched in 103.2 innings. He also picked up a save against the Royals in the playoffs in one appearance. He pitched twice in the World Series that the Yankees lost to the Reds, but he didn't give up a run and struck out three in two scoreless innings. 1976 was the precursor to when the legend came into full flower.

The 1977 Yankees became known as the Bronx Zoo and a book written about that team would give you more insight than anything written here. But as much as anything else, 1977 was Sparky Lyle's year. He pitched in 72 games and logged an amazing 137 innings. He won 13 games against five losses and saved 26 games. The big difference for Lyle that year was that his walk rate was the lowest of his career at 2.2 per nine innings. His strikeout total was the lowest of his Yankee career, but that didn't matter. There wasn't a big game the Yankees played all year that he didn't either win or save. He won two more games against the Royals in the playoffs and then won another game in the World Series. In that post season, he picked up another six appearances covering 14 innings. He gave up just nine hits and two runs. Lyle didn't walk a single batter the entire post season.

1977 was, when including the post season, one of the greatest performances by a relief pitcher. He won the Cy Young Award. He came in sixth in MVP voting. But it wasn't enough for George Steinbrenner. King George always had to have the best new toy on the market and in 1978, after one of the greatest relief efforts ever, Sparky Lyle was replaced as the closer by Goose Gossage. The development led to one of the greatest one liners in baseball history courtesy of Graig Nettles who said that Lyle went from Cy Young to syanora.

It's hard to imagine how Sparky Lyle felt at the development. Whatever it was, he handled it gamely, pitching in 59 games for another 111 plus innings. He won nine against three losses and finished with a 3.47 ERA. All the innings Lyle had pitched through the years started to wear him down and in 1978, he struck out only 2.7 batters per nine innings. He got by as much on guile as he did on anything else. Though he got a second World Series ring in 1978, he was not effective in the post season and the Yankees traded him afterward to Texas for multiple players, one of which was a young Dave Righetti, who would throw a no-hitter for the Yankees and later set team records for saves in a season. The Yankees got better value from Lyle's trade than the Red Sox did.

Lyle was finished as a premier closer. He would pitch four more seasons and pitched for the Rangers, the Phillies and the White Sox before retiring after the White Sox released him in 1982. But Lyle finished his career with a record of 99-76, all in relief (he never started a game in 899 appearances. He saved 238 games in his career and finished with a career ERA of 2.88. For those of us who got to see Sparky Lyle pitch, the memories linger. The crowd always went crazy and this very cool guy would toss slider after slider, paint the corners and get the game in the win column.  In his 899 appearances, he finished the game for his teams 634 times. He really is a story that has been forgotten as Gossage is remembered. But Lyle was great for a long time and deserves to be mentioned in the list of great all time relievers and closers.

1 comment:

bobook said...

Sparky was one of my favorites. Loved that chaw in the cheek.
Don't forget Johnny Murphy, the great reliever for the great Yankee teams when they won 5 World Series in 6 years. He was the first to be called 'Fireman' and led the league in saves four times. After his playing days, he was instrumental in assembling the great Mets pitching staff that won them the '69 championship.