All-Time A's #4:
In 1975 a young, wild haired ace, Dennis Eckersley burst onto the scene for the Cleveland Indians. Eck pitched 187 innings with a 2.60 era (146 era+) and put together a 13-7 record for the 79-80 Tribe. Although an excellent candidate, he did not get a mention in the Rookie of the Year balloting because of Fred Lynn's remarkable .967 OPS MVP winning rookie campaign.
As many sophomores do, Eck fell back in year two and was a fairly average pitcher. Year three saw him take a step forward before exploding in year four. Although erratic, Eck did show flashes of the dominance that was to come. On May 30, 1977 Eck had a 12 strikeout no hitter through 8-2/3. Gil Flores looking to earn his only claim to fame repeatedly stepped out of the box in an attempt to get into Eckersley's head. True to form, Eck pointed and yelled, "Get in there. They're not here to take your picture. You're the last out. Get in there."
Traded to Boston, Eck became the best pitcher on an excellent Red Sox team that came right down to the wire with the Yanks. Unsurprisingly, Eck was at his best coming down the stretch, dominating his last four starts including three complete games - one a three hitter against the Yankees. The Eastern powerhouses ended the year in a tie, leading to a one game playoff that the Fenway faithful could not pull the home team through. Boston sported a dominant offense that sent 7 players to the All-Star game, including Lynn, Yaz, Jim Rice and Pudge Fisk. Despite Eck's excellent 2.99 era over 268 innings for 20 wins, the Sox did not have the pitching to match the Bronx Bombers. He followed that up with an equally dominant 1979 season but with an otherwise average rotation, the Sox fell to third in the AL East.
As the Red Sox headed into a new decade, Eck seemed to have left his fastball in the 70s. Eck's fastball dropped dramatically and with it went his success. Over the next 3+ years, Eck made 123 more starts going 47-52 with a 4.47 era.
On May 25, 1984, in a trade that cannot be a Boston fan favorite, Eck was swapped to the Cubs for Bill Buckner. Rejuvenated, Eck had two mostly solid seasons with the Cubs and led them to the playoffs his first year. With the Cubs up 2 games to none, Eck was on the mound in game three. With a 1-0 lead and having faced only one batter more than the minimum through four, Eck got roughed up in the fifth and sixth innings and the Cubs would fail to win another game, losing four straight to lose the series.
Although still productive in 1985, his battles with alcoholism began to take its toll on his health. While he posted a 3.08 era, he missed two months of the season and his fastball began to lose velocity again. His 6-11 1986 season left him washed up as a starter in the eyes of the Major Leagues. Fortunately, they seem to have been right.
In Spring Training of '87, Eck was traded for three bags of Minor League caliber sunflower seeds with the idea of sticking him in long relief and possibly making him setup guy for closer Jay Howell. It proved a successful homecoming for the Oakland native and graduate of Fremont's Washington High School. After excelling in middle relief, Eck took over as closer when Jay Howell succumbed to injury and never looked back.
Over the next 5 years, Eck made a run that will forever be the benchmark by which all closers are measured. From 1998 through 1992 pitched in 310 games, saving 220 of them. He posted a 1.90 era over 360 innings, including a magnificent 9.95 k/bb. Eck posted his best year in 1990, allowing five earned runs over 73 innings for a microscopic 0.61 era (606 era+), saving 73 games for the AL Champions. While he became a little too friendly with the long ball and fell off a bit in '91 (don't we all wish we could fall off to a 2.96 era?), he bounced back in 1992 to save 51 games - then the second highest total of all-time - with a 1.91 era. How valuable are closers? Well, the 1992 BBWA voters apparently thought a great one is pretty valuable, awarding Eck the MVP on top of the Cy Young in a route over Kirby Puckett, Joe Carter and teammate Mark McGwire. Given the lack of competition (McGwire or Frank Thomas would have been good choices, but Puckett and Carter both would have been among the worst MVP choices ever) it's hard to question the pick unless you think the modern closer is almost completely lacking in value.
Eck aged quickly after 1992, his ERA escalated each of his last three years with the A's - all in the 4's. In 1996 he followed LaRussa to the Cardinals and had one last good year, saving 30 with a 3.30 era at age 41. After one more season with the Cardinals, Eck went to the Red Sox and hung them up after an injured riddled 1998 campaign as the Major League's oldest player.
Eck will always be remembered as a fan favorite for his demonstrative competitiveness and for defining the modern closer. He remains the only pitcher to post a 50 save and 20 win season and he finished his career with 191 wins and 390 saves - 4th most all-time. Of course, he will probably be best remembered for punching out so many strikeout victims to seal the victory.