This past postseason, we all marveled at the dominance of that Kansas City relief trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. During the regular season, the three combined for a 1.28 ERA and other sick numbers.
Forty years ago, there was another dominant reliever: Dodgers right-hander Mike Marshall became the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award and put together one of most unique and wonderful seasons in major league history. The most astonishing number for Marshall that season: He threw 208 innings in relief -- or more than Herrera, Davis and Holland combined.
He went 15-12 with 21 saves and a 2.42 ERA while appearing in 106 games as the Dodgers won the NL West. The appearances and innings remain records for a relief pitcher. Marshall certainly impressed the baseball writers at the time: He picked up 17 of the 24 first-place votes in the Cy Young voting, beating out teammate Andy Messersmith, who went 20-6 with a 2.59 ERA in 292 innings. Marshall finished third in the MVP balloting behind Steve Garvey and Lou Brock.
Basically, Dodgers manager Walter Alston went to Marshall whenever the game was close -- and sometimes when it wasn't. Based on the score when he entered the game, here's when he was used most often:
Game tied: 23 appearances
Down 1 run: 16 appearances
Up 1 run: 13 appearances
Up 2 runs: 14 appearances
Up 5+ runs: 11 appearances
Up 3 runs: 10 appearances
Up 4 runs: 10 appearances
Down 2 runs: 7 appearances
Down 3 runs: 2 appearances
He most often entered in the eighth inning (44 times) but entered in the sixth 14 times. Usually when he entered he went the rest of the way as he finished 83 games. He pitched at least three innings in 22 games and posted a 1.25 ERA over those 79.1 innings.
Marshall threw a fastball and slider but eventually perfected a screwball -- and those in the game always considered him a bit of screwball. Or "eccentric." When he was a member of the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969, Jim Bouton chronicled Marshall's clashes with management. (Marshall has a Ph.D. in kinesiology and he teaches a pitching technique that he has argued would help eliminate arm injuries.)
Before the 1974 season, Marshall had considered retiring to finish his Ph.D. He had pitched for the Expos in 1973, finishing second in the Cy Young voting and fifth in the MVP voting when he pitched 179 innings with 31 saves. But he had criticized a couple of teammates and, combined with the retirement threat, that was enough for the Expos to trade him to the Dodgers for Willie Davis, a 34-year-old outfielder. The Dodgers won the pennant while the Expos floundered.
Marshall wasn't the only reliever in 1974 to carry a workload we would now consider unfathomable. John Hiller of the Tigers went 17-14 with 13 saves while pitching 150 innings in relief. He wasn't used as often as Marshall -- he pitched in 59 games -- but went for longer stints. Steve Foucault of the Rangers pitched 144.1 innings, Cincinnati's Pedro Borbon threw 139, Terry Forster of the White Sox pitched 133 and 22 relievers in all tossed at least 90 innings. In 2014, only Carlos Torres and Dellin Betances pitched 90 innings in relief and only two other relievers tossed as many as 80 innings.
The difference is this allowed teams to focus more innings on fewer pitchers. The Dodgers had eight pitchers throw 96 percent of their innings.
As for Marshall, a Sports Illustrated article from May 1975 quotes from a lecture he delivered at Michigan State about proper pitching technique:
"You can see how clean my elbow joint is compared to his garbage dump," fumed Marshall. "This obviously shows that pitching in 106 games last season didn't damage my elbow because I had a good structure to begin with."
His workload would decrease in 1975 -- he pitched 58 games and 109 innings, although he missed most of May and all of September. I couldn't find a reason for the missed time, although he apparently had back issues his entire career that eventually required disk surgery.
This 1979 feature in Sports Illustrated -- he had big comeback that year with the Twins after his back surgery -- quotes Marshall talking about the 1974 season:
"That entire year was not a joy for me," he says. His displeasure was soon apparent, and he quickly developed a reputation as the game's resident curmudgeon. On the most public-relations-oriented team in any sport, on a team where dissension--until last year's Garvey-Sutton contretemps--had been kept undercover, on a team where a smile is always an umbrella, Marshall greeted the public and the press with all of the bonhomie of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Marshall concedes that conditions were just right for a banner season. The Dodgers could score runs, their starting pitchers usually required help in the late innings, and the weather at Dodger Stadium was ideal for a pitcher. He will say today with a straight face that he should have had a better year. The Dodger fielders, he says, regarded his suggestions on where they should play the hitters as gross impertinence. The responsibility, he says, should not have been his in the first place, but Manager Walter Alston's. For all of their hailfellow facade, says Marshall, the Dodgers were a team divided into cliques, none of which he was invited to join. The Los Angeles press was mocking and negative, and if there is anything that discombobulates the sobersided Marshall, it is the thought that someone somewhere might be laughing at him. Even Vin Scully, the sainted broadcaster, "laughed at, not with, people," in Marshall's sour opinion. Finally, the culture shock of Tinseltown was more than his Midwestern soul could bear.
Anyway, relief pitchers continued to carry big workloads for several more seasons, but nothing approaching Marshall's 209 innings. Bob Stanley pitched 168 innings in 1982, Mark Eichhorn 157 in 1986. The last 125-inning relief seasons were Jim Acker in 1989 and Duane Ward in 1990. Scott Sullivan of the Reds topped 100 innings each season from 1998 to 2001. Scott Proctor of the Yankees, in 2006, was the last reliever to top 100 innings, when Joe Torre ran him into the ground.
One reason guys like Herrera, Davis and Holland are so good? They come in for one inning and throw gas and often have the next day off.
We won't ever get back to 1974 levels again. Forty years later, Marshall's season seems just as impressive as it did then.