Sparky Anderson was ahead of his time in the use of his pitching staff

It’s all the rage now to use a starting pitcher out of the bullpen, to pull a starting pitcher from the game after only five innings (or less), to use something called an “opener.”

Years ago, before every pitching change was analyzed on Twitter and analytics was invented, Sparky Anderson earned the name “Captain Hook” because of the unique manner in which he used his pitching staff. Sparky’s methods helped The Big Red Machine win back-to-back titles in the mid-1970s, and in some ways his tactics predicted the way managers are using their pitchers today.

First, maybe there are folks out there who are too young to remember the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s. I feel sorry for you. The team was named “The Big Red Machine” because they were so damned good. In the decade, the Reds won six division titles, four pennants, and two World Series. But it was the manner in which they won that was so impressive. The Reds were stacked with some of the greatest position players in history. Their starting lineup was so legendary that they earned a nickname: “The Great Eight.”

The Great Eight consisted of catcher Johnny Bench, first baseman Tony Perez, second baseman Joe Morgan, shortstop Dave Concepcion, third baseman Pete Rose, left fielder George Foster, center fielder Cesar Geronimo, and right fielder Ken Griffey (the original). At times, Rose also played the outfield, and Perez spent some time at third base, but that core group comprised the lineup for several years. They were immensely talented, the likes of which has rarely been seen in baseball history.

Bench, Morgan, Rose, and Foster all won Most Valuable Player awards at various times in their careers, in fact Bench and Morgan each won the award twice. All four of the “up the middle” guys (Bench, Morgan, Concepcion, and Geronimo) won multiple Gold Gloves, they were all fantastic with the leather. Seven of the eight were All-Stars numerous times. Three of the players won home run titles, Rose won the batting title multiple times. Six of The Great Eight reached 2,000 hits for their career, and Foster had more than 1,900. Rose broke the all-time hit record with more than 4,000. Three of them are in the Hall of Fame: Bench, Morgan, and Perez. The only reason Rose isn’t is the fact that he couldn’t keep his betting slip in his pants.

That’s an amazing team. The last National League team to win consecutive titles, and one of the five best teams in the history of baseball. But they had a weakness: their pitching staff.

That’s where Sparky came in.

Sparky Anderson always looked like he was somebody’s grandpa. He had silver-white hair forever. He might have been born with it. But Sparky was actually a young guy when the Reds hired him before the 1970 season. He turned 36 years old during his first spring training as the Cincinnati skipper. He was part of a new wave of young managers who entered the game in the 1970s, and he had no problems trying new things.

The weakness that threatened The Big Red Machine was their pitching staff. They had some nice arms, a few very talented hurlers, but injuries and inconsistency plagued them. Every year they also had mediocre arms on the staff too. We’re looking at you, Pat Darcy, Fred Norman, and Wayne Simpson. But Sparky eventually learned how to maximize his assets: be unconventional.

Realizing that his best starters (Don Gullett, Gary Nolan, Jack Billingham) were not as effective as other starters on other teams, Sparky limited their innings and gave the baseball to his bullpen. The Cincinnati bullpen in the 1970s had several strong arms, pitchers who had flaws (one-pitch pitchers, for example), but who could be utilized in a way to maximize their strengths. Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon, and Rawley Eastwick were the three most prominent bullpen arms that Sparky relied on. He wasn’t afraid to call any of them as early as the sixth or seventh inning. Today that doesn’t seem unusual, but in the Era of Disco, it did.

In 1975 the Reds won 108 games, they led the league in runs scored and stolen bases. The Great Eight steamrolled the National League. But Sparky’s methods also helped the club finish third in earned run average. This despite the team finishing seventh in starting pitcher ERA and eighth in innings pitched by starters. Clearly, Sparky was leaning on his bullpen. His leisurely strolls and gingerly steps over the foul lines became a common sight during this period, as “Captain Hook” was born.

This was in stark contrast to the strategy used by the Reds’ chief rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers relied on a five-man rotation who chewed up more than seven innings per start. The Cincinnati bullpen pitched nearly three innings per game that year.

In the ’75 World Series, while the Dodgers watched from home, Sparky wore a path to the pitching mound. In Game One, Gullett went six innings before getting in to trouble in the seventh. The Reds lost 6-0, and that was the longest any Reds’ starter went in the Fall Classic against the Red Sox. The next night, Billingham worked into the sixth before giving way in a tight one-run game. In Game Three, with the series tied, Sparky’s finger was itchy. He yanked starter Darcy after four innings and ran four relievers out from his pen as he deftly navigated the team to an 11-inning victory. In Game Four, Fred Norman got hammered and got only ten outs, and in Game Five his ace (Gullett) got him into the ninth before Eastwick came in for a one-out save. In Games Six and Seven, Anderson used ten relievers, including Billingham, Darcy, and Norman, traditional starters. Of course, it was crucial, but Sparky’s faith in his pen was unheard of. In all, during the postseasons of 1975 and 1976, Sparky made almost twice as many pitching changes as his opposing managers. His starting pitchers averaged five innings per outing.

How much of Sparky’s methods were genius and how much were necessity? We can’t factor that precisely, but to be fair, had the Cincinnati manager been blessed with a Don Sutton or a Tom Seaver or even a Randy Jones or John Montefusco, he certainly would have allowed those pitchers to go deeper in games. But he didn’t one of those guys.

A mediocre pitching staff may have pushed Sparky to adopt a progressive strategy. But isn’t that what the Brewers did during the 2018 postseason? A bevy of hard-throwing relievers may have nudged Anderson to have a quick hook with his starting pitchers. Isn’t that what’s happened across baseball in recent years with this trend toward one-out and one-inning specialists?

How far will teams go in reliance on opening pitchers, specialists, and “bullpenning”? We’ll see over the ensuing years. But if history is a guide, teams and managers will adapt to their rosters and the way the game is played, just like Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson did more than 40 years ago.