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Forgotten Greats: Seven A’s relief pitchers we should remember more often

Not the most famous names, but they dominated in Oakland

Athletics v Mets
Darold Knowles
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

With the MLB lockout dragging on, we’ve been taking a look at some forgotten stars from Oakland A’s history. On Saturday we discussed seven hitters, and Monday we turned to seven starting pitchers.

The inspiration was a tweet from Fox Sports analyst Ben Verlander:

What player was absolutely dominant for a period of time but is mostly forgotten about today?

I’ll start: Travis Hafner

The A’s hitters on the list were Bill North, Mitchell Page, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, Carney Lansford, John Jaha, and Mark Ellis. But there were too many pitchers to choose from, so we split them between starters and relievers, with the following starters covered in the previous post:

  • Ken Holtzman
  • Mike Torrez
  • Mike Norris
  • Steve McCatty
  • Mike Moore
  • Steve Ontiveros
  • Kenny Rogers

Holtzman and Moore were overshadowed members of championship teams, Norris and McCatty almost won Cy Youngs and probably should have, Ontiveros won an ERA title, and Torrez and Rogers each posted one all-time amazing season here.

Now we move to the bullpen! Remember, we’re not looking for the most famous stars here, but rather players who were briefly and/or quietly great. None of them are named Mike, Steve, or Ken this time, but there are a lot of Bills.

Darold Knowles

The 1972-74 three-peat champion A’s dynasty was loaded with memorable names, but when it comes to the bullpen, we mostly talk about Rollie. That’s fair enough, since he was a Hall of Fame closer, and an All-Star each year, and put up great numbers in enormous workloads. In 1972 and 1974 he really did carry most of the October relief work himself.

But Rollie wasn’t quite alone, particularly in 1973, when Knowles was historically impactful alongside him.

Knowles had been excellent in ‘72, posting a minuscule 1.37 ERA and 11 saves as a reliable supporting character in the pen, but he broke his thumb in the final week of September and missed the whole postseason. He came back the next year and turned in another quality season, and this time he got his chance on the biggest stage.

The A’s used only six pitchers in the 1973 ALCS, and Knowles wasn’t one of them, but he more than made up for it in the World Series against the Mets. The Fall Classic stretched to seven games that year, and he appeared in every single one of them, a feat that had never been achieved before. Only one player since then has pitched in all seven games of a World Series, Brandon Morrow of the 2017 Dodgers.

And these weren’t just token mopup outings, as all of them came in tight spots and six of them featured inherited runners on base. In Game 1, with Rollie already more than three innings deep and the tying run on base in the 9th, Knowles came in for the final two outs to earn the save. In Game 7, with Rollie once again into his fourth inning of work and facing the tying run in the batter’s box in the 9th, Knowles entered to seal the final out of the series. His overall stat line included 6⅓ innings, one unearned run, and two saves.

Now don’t get your mustache twisted, Rollie was still the bullpen star of the series. He appeared in six games himself and did phenomenal work, notching the other two saves with even better numbers, and he returned the favor by bailing Knowles out of a jam in Game 6. But Knowles was quietly an essential cog in the 1973 championship, and he set a literally unbreakable MLB record along the way.

Bill Caudill

Manager Billy Martin outlawed relievers in Oakland for a while in the early-80s, but the A’s eventually got a new closer in 1984 when they acquired Caudill. “The Inspector” was a popular player known as a fun-loving prankster, having previously been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for his antics, and on the mound he challenged batters with a high heater that was nigh unhittable at its best.

The right-hander pitched one season here in ‘84, and it was a good one. He notched 36 saves, which at the time set an Oakland franchise record in the relatively new stat, though it was broken a few years later by Eck and many more times since. He added in a strong 2.71 ERA and 8.3 K/9, which back then ranked as the sixth-highest strikeout rate in the league.

All of that netted him an All-Star nod, and not even as a token lone rep, since Rickey made it too. He pitched a scoreless 7th inning in the game itself, striking out NL stars Raines, Sandberg, and Hernandez in order.

Caudill’s successor as Oakland’s closer, Jay Howell, made two All-Star teams in ‘85 and ‘87, but neither year quite matched up with Caudill’s performance. And anyway, Howell was involved in memorable trades in both directions, first acquired in a package for Rickey and then shipped out later for Welch, and as a Dodger he pitched against the A’s in the 1988 World Series. Caudill, on the other hand, slipped in, posted a record-breaking season, then slipped back out and barely lasted another 100 innings in the majors afterward before retiring.

Todd Burns

The late-80s A’s bullpen is one of the most famous in MLB history, as La Russa helped pioneer the shift away from old multi-inning firemen and toward the modern design we see today. Eck was the closer, with Rick Honeycutt and Gene Nelson as the top setup men, and that trio dominated for so many years that it changed how the sport was played.

But there was one more arm mixed in during their run of three straight AL championships, and he had a big role in their 1989 World Series title. Burns debuted as a starter in 1988, but he moved to the bullpen the next year and thrived there, tossing nearly 100 innings that summer with an even better ERA (2.24) than Honeycutt or Nelson and a higher WAR value than both of them. He didn’t work quite as much high-leverage duty as they did, but he saw enough late-inning leads to rack up eight saves and eight holds with only three blown, and he stranded most of his inherited runners.

When the World Series paused midway through for the earthquake, Honeycutt and Nelson both struggled after the long layoff, and it was Burns who bailed them out. Oakland led Game 3 by a 13-3 margin entering the 9th inning, but the Giants rallied against Nelson, and when Burns entered it was 13-6 with a runner on first and two out. His first two batters reached, pushing home another run and causing Eck to begin warming up, but NL MVP Kevin Mitchell flew out to the warning track to end it.

Game 4 was déjà vu all over again. The A’s led 8-2 entering the 7th inning, but Nelson served up a homer, and Honeycutt allowed a triple off the wall, and suddenly it was 8-6. Burns entered with a runner on and two out, to face none other than Mitchell for the second straight night. Once again the slugger blasted a fly deep to left, and once again it fell into a glove on the warning track to mercifully end the inning. Burns went on to pitch a perfect 8th, and Eck wrapped up the 9th to clinch the series.

A 10-run comeback in the final frame of Game 3 would have been improbable. And even if Game 4 had gone wrong, fully blowing a 3-0 series lead would have been improbable. But we’d never seen a series interrupted by a disastrous earthquake either, so would it really be that hard to imagine other weird stuff happening? To the same bullpen that had unexpectedly blown the previous year’s World Series?

Fortunately there were no further shenanigans, because Burns retired the league MVP twice in the most crucial moments. They were the loudest of outs by the narrowest of margins, but his teammates had allowed hits over the wall and off the wall, so keeping the ball barely in front of the wall instead was enough to get the job done and stop the Giants from breaking our hearts. Burns probably isn’t one of the relievers you think of from this A’s era, but in 1989 he had a great season and a key role in winning the championship. Excellent.

Billy Taylor

Pop quiz! Who are Oakland’s top three career leaders in saves?

First is Eck. Second is Rollie. Third is Taylor, with exactly 100. And he didn’t even make his MLB debut until after his 32nd birthday.

The right-hander arrived in 1994, after 14 years in the minors, then after one strong season in the majors he promptly got injured and missed the entire next year. But in 1996 he came back, and for most of the next four seasons he was the A’s closer, ultimately serving as the successor to Eck.

Those were big shoes to fill, but Taylor had just enough sidearm in his delivery and just enough mullet peeking out of his hat that you could kinda squint and pretend it was still Eck out there. More importantly, he got the job done, not quite at an All-Star level and certainly not at a HOF level but more than impressive for a nobody plucked off the scrap heap by a bad team. His ERA was never better than decent, but he converted leads at an adequate rate, topping out at 33-for-37 in saves in 1998.

Midway through 1999, the A’s cashed in their homemade closer to try out the next experiment, sending him to the Mets for a busted starter prospect named Isringhausen. That gamble ended up going even better! But for around one-third of the 90s, Taylor held down the 9th inning in Oakland.

Billy Koch

One of the hallmarks of Billy Beane teams, ever since the beginning, has been a revolving door of star closers. Seems like there’s a new one just about every year, and they’re good so often that it can be tough to remember all of them. It started when he acquired Isringhausen, who rose to such heights that he was later immortalized in Moneyball, both the book and film. But that was only the beginning.

After Izzy came Koch, in 2002. Koch is also mentioned in the pages of Moneyball, but only in passing as a “tempestuous flamethrower with uneven control of self and ball” whose primary strength is his ability to be overvalued in a future trade, while other relievers like Bradford and Rincon are covered in more detail. Similarly, on the big screen his likeness only briefly appears, mostly to dramatically blow a save. Those minor cups of coffee belie his hyper impact on the 103-win roster.

The right-hander’s numbers were gaudy, in both quantity and quality. His 84 appearances are still an Oakland team record, and his 79 games finished are the third-most in MLB history. He used that time to convert 44 saves, more than anybody else in A’s history except Eck, and he only blew six tries, a healthy success rate. On top of that he recorded 11 wins, and while half of them were merely the serendipitous result of his own blown saves that were later bailed out by his teammates, he’s nevertheless the only pitcher in MLB history to post double-digit wins and 40+ saves in the same summer.

And he did it all in typical flashy closer style. He unleashed terrifying triple-digit heat, a wild personality to match, and an intimidating visage complete with a thin billygoat beard that looked like if Huddy’s stinger got angry and turned into the Hulk. His most extended glimpse in the Moneyball movie is of him throwing his glove in the dugout in frustration after allowing a run.

Unfortunately Koch’s whirlwind tenure ended in the playoffs with an implosion in the deciding ALDS Game 5, fueling Oakland’s elimination. The revolving door turned again the next winter, and he was traded to the White Sox for a new star closer, Keith Foulke; two years later Koch was out of the majors, and he retired at age 30, having never been an All-Star. But for one summer here he powered his way to numbers we’ve rarely seen before, on one of the best A’s teams of all time, even if you won’t find it in the book written about that season.

Joey Devine

Pop quiz, part two! Which pitcher holds the Oakland record for lowest ERA in a season, minimum 40 innings?

Not Rollie. Not Eck. Not Treinen, or Hendriks, or any of the other famous closers. It’s Devine, who posted an 0.59 ERA in 45⅔ innings as a rookie in 2008. That stood as the best in MLB reliever history too, until eight years later when Zach Britton of the Orioles beat him with an 0.54 mark, and Devine is still the runner-up. And he wasn’t a total fluke, backed up by a sterling 1.97 FIP, more than a strikeout per inning, and a solid rate of stranding inherited runners, plus a nearly perfect record of holding leads when asked.

Unfortunately, Devine’s performance was as irrelevant as it was brilliant. The A’s were also-rans that year, fading out of the race in July and spending the rest of the summer in obscurity, so he didn’t get to contribute to any kind of pennant drive or playoff trip. He wasn’t their closer (Street), limiting him to just occasional setup work at best, and he wasn’t their top breakout darling, as another rookie (Ziegler) stole the headlines with his own historic debut. Devine set the franchise ERA record and he wasn’t even the biggest story in his own bullpen that season.

And then as quickly as he’d appeared, he was gone. Tommy John surgery shut him down for the next two seasons, and he returned for a couple dozen games in 2011 looking strong again, but a second TJS the next year ended his career well before age 30. We’re left with dreams of what might have been, but at least we’ll always have 2008.

Andrew Bailey

Pop quiz, part three! Who was the last Oakland pitcher to make two All-Star teams as a member of the A’s?

The answer is Bailey, in 2009-10. In fact, he’s the only A’s closer to get multiple berths since Eck, since they don’t usually stay here long enough for a second go-around.

The right-hander burst onto the scene in ‘09 at age 25, and a couple months into his rookie year he took over the closer job. He finished that campaign with a superb 1.84 ERA, 26 saves at a high success rate, and a ton of strikeouts, earning him Rookie of the Year honors and a trip to the Midsummer Classic as the lone but deserving rep on a bad team. The next year he was just as good, with a 1.47 ERA and a 25-for-28 saves record and another All-Star nod.

However, it all went downhill from there as injuries kicked in. He missed most of the second half of 2010, then the first couple months of 2011. He returned that June for another nice partial-season, saving 24 games and blowing only two, but that winter he was traded away in the next round of rebuilding, to the Red Sox for Josh Reddick. He never got healthy again, throwing only 100 more innings in the majors before eventually retiring.

Bailey is far from forgotten, as he’s still in the league and even the Bay Area as the Giants pitching coach. But at 37 years old, if things had gone differently, he could still be on the mound right now wrapping up a Hall of Fame career. That’s how great his first three seasons were. It was a forgettable section of A’s history, which makes it easy to skip past him when thinking of all the closers of years past, but he was one of the very best and he converted saves at a higher rate than any of them.

***

Knowles, Caudill, Burns, Taylor, Koch, Devine, and Bailey. They’re not Hall of Famers, most of them weren’t All-Stars, a few weren’t even closers, and some we barely seem to remember at all. But each was great for a while in Oakland and they all hold special places in A’s history, whether by making marks in the record books or helping bring home championships.

Wanna do one more? Let’s do one more. Here’s a bonus eighth reliever!

Mudcat Grant

We’re going all the way back to the start for one final pop quiz. Who was Oakland’s first closer?

If you consider it to be their saves leader in their inaugural 1968 campaign then it’s Jack Aker with a dozen, but the bullpen was more by committee back then and he didn’t even get a majority of the team’s saves. Same with a young Rollie in 1969.

I’d argue it was Grant, who became their first true primary full-time closer in 1970. The right-hander had enjoyed a long career elsewhere as a starter, but he came here at age 34 and converted into an old-school fireman out of the bullpen. He appeared in 72 games and tossed 123⅓ innings with a sparkling 1.82 ERA, earning 24 saves and only blowing one chance. Nobody else had more than four saves that year, and he had over half the team’s total, setting an early Oakland record along the way.

Grant didn’t even finish out that season in Oakland, as he was traded to the Pirates for the final couple weeks, but he came back midway through 1971 and picked up right where he’d left off for another 15 similarly great games. The A’s made the playoffs, and though they were swept out of the ALCS, he pitched two scoreless innings in the last game of that series, which also turned out to be his final MLB appearance.

He just missed being part of the 1972-74 championship run, but Grant helped set the scene in the early days when the club was still getting established in the Bay Area. He was the first star closer in what has since become a long line of them here, and his 4.5 bWAR in 1970 is still the highest for any reliever in Oakland history.