Friday, April 20, 2012

All-Time Bluefield Team - Sparky Lyle

The All-Time Bluefield-to-the-Bigs Team has a great infield and a solid starting staff, but this hypothetical team's biggest strength might be its bullpen. The guy I've designated as the stopper is a colorful left-hander who has a Cy Young Award and a couple of World Series rings, Sparky Lyle.

Albert Walter Lyle was born on July 22, 1944 in Du Bois, PA*.

* Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, who ranks among the game's top prospects, was also born in DuBois.

Fellow July 22 MLB birthday boys include Mike Sweeney, Dave Stieb, Ryan Vogelsong, Juan Uribe, Scot Shields, Cliff Johnson and Hall of Fame pitcher Jesse Haines.

He got his nickname "Sparky" because, "My dad wanted a dog."

Lyle was 19 when signed with the Orioles in 1964 and he was sent to Bluefield to begin his pro career. He went 3-2 with a 4.36 ERA in seven games (four starts). He moved up to the Midwest League in the middle of the season and finished with the Fox Cities Foxes in Appleton, Wisc., posting a 2.31 ERA in six starts.

The Red Sox picked him up in the minor league draft and began the transition to full-time reliever in his second season. He picked up his devastating slider in spring training in 1966. As he recalls in this SABR article, Ted Williams told him it was "the best pitch in baseball because it was the only pitch he couldn't hit even when he knew it was coming." He shot up through the system and earned a call-up to the majors in 1967.

He made his big league debut for Boston on Independence Day, tossing two scoreless innings in a loss to the Angels. He got into 22 games during one of the tightest pennant races in history. He registered a 2.28 ERA and allowed only 33 hits in 43.1 innings; saving five games down the stretch as the Red Sox held off the Twins, Tigers and White Sox to unexpectedly win the pennant. Lyle did not make the World Series roster and his Red Sox fell in seven games to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals.

Lyle developed into a fierce closer for the Red Sox, taking the mantle from Dick "The Monster" Radatz as Boston's relief ace. He finished in the AL's top ten in saves in each of the four seasons from 1968-71 and over that span racked up the fourth-most saves in baseball (64). His K/9 IP mark of 7.28 was the fifth-highest rate during those years.

During spring training in 1972, he was traded in a lopsided deal that helped a struggling franchise get back on top. On March 22 he was sent to the Yankees in exchange for first baseman Danny Cater. Lyle continued to grow and had an outstanding career for the rival Bombers. Cater lasted three seasons in Boston, hitting 14 home runs with a .301 on base percentage and 93 OPS+*.

* The Red Sox must not have been happy with how it turned out. The two rivals have only made three trades since. In 1986, Don Baylor was sent to Boston for Mike Easler. The Red Sox sold Scott Bankhead to the Yankees in 1994. The last deal was back in 1997, when the Yankees brought back Mike Stanley (and a minor leaguer) for Tony Armas Jr. (and player-to-be-named-later Jim Mecir). Armas never pitched for the Sox, he was flipped to Montreal a few months later in a deal for...Pedro Martinez.

Sparky quickly thrived in pinstripes. In his first season in the Bronx he set a new American League (and major league southpaw) record with 35 saves, pitching to a 1.92 ERA while only allowing 84 hits in 107.2 innings. He got some love in the awards voting in '72 and interestingly, he finished third on the MVP ballot despite coming in seventh in the Cy Young vote.

1973 brought Lyle's first All-Star selection. He got into the Midsummer Classic in Kansas City, pitching a scoreless eighth inning that included a strikeout of Willie Mays in his final All-Star at bat. The following year, he lowered his ERA to a career best 1.66 while the Yankees played at Shea Stadium. The Bronx Bombers spent the '74 and '75 seasons in Queens while the House that Ruth Built was being renovated.

In the new Stadium's inaugural season, Lyle led the AL in saves with 23 and once again made the All-Star team. More importantly, his Yankees won the AL East and earned their first postseason berth since 1964. In the ALCS against the Royals, he locked down the save in the pivotal third game and two nights later, Chris Chambliss's walk-off homer in the deciding fifth game gave New York the pennant.

Lyle pitched well in two World Series relief outings (2.2 IP, 0 R, 1 H), but the Yanks were smoked by the Reds as the Big Red Machine swept the series.

1977 would be Sparky's crowning achievement. He went 13-5 with a 2.17 ERA while working 137 innings and leading the league with 72 appearances. He beat out Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan and Dennis Leonard for the Cy Young Award, becoming the first reliever to win it in the American League.

Once again, the Yankees won the division again and once again, they played the Royals for the pennant. Down 2-1 in KC and facing elimination, Lyle was called on very early in Game Four. New York was clinging to a 5-4 lead with two on and two out in the fourth inning when Billy Martin called him in to face George Brett. Sparky retired the star third baseman and only faced one over the minimum in closing out the 6-4 win. The lefty worked five and one-third shutout innings and allowed only two hits to force a fifth game.

He was summoned the next night in the deciding game with New York trailing 3-2 with two on and two out in the eighth. He struck out Cookie Rojas to end the frame and after the Yankees rallied with three runs in the top of the ninth, he set the Royals down to clinch the pennant again*.

* Lyle gave up a one-out single to Frank White before inducing a Freddie Patek 5-4-3 double play to end the series. It's one of only four twin killings to end a postseason series. The others are:

- 1921 WS Game Eight - NYG @ NYY (there was a tie earlier in the series): Art Nehf outdueling Waite Hoyt of the Yankees 1-0 in ninth inning. With one out and Aaron Ward on first, Home Run Baker bounces out 4-3. Ward tries to go first to third on the play and is thrown out to give the Giants the series.

- 1947 WS Game Seven - BKN @ NYY: A remarkable series that saw Bill Bevens's near no-hitter in Game Four and Al Gionfriddo's famous catch in Game Six. The Yankees beat the Dodgers 5-2 thanks to Joe Page, who entered in the fifth inning with a 3-2 lead. He set down 13 straight before Eddie Miksis singled with one out in the ninth. Bruce Edwards followed with a 6-4-3 double play to end it.

- 2002 NLDS Game Five - SF @ ATL: The Giants led the Braves 3-1 on the road when Atlanta rallied off of Robb Nen. Rafael Furcal reached on an error, stole second and moved to third on a Julio Franco single. The tying run was on and the winning run was at the plate with no outs. But Nen buckled down and struck out Gary Sheffield. Chipper Jones hit a grounder to first baseman J.T. Snow, who stepped on the bag for a quick second out. They got Franco in a rundown between first and second and tagged him out to move on to the NLCS.

All four of these contests were not only series enders, they were all sudden-death, winner-take-all games.

Lyle pitched again in the World Series opener two nights later. He came in to protect a 3-2 lead with two on and one out in the top of the ninth, but couldn't close it. Lee Lacy stroked a pinch-hit single to tie the game. Sparky recovered and retired the next 11 batters and got the win when Paul Blair won it with a single in the bottom of the 12th.

The Yankees didn't need him in their three other wins as they got complete games from Mike Torrez* and Ron Guidry before Torrez threw another one in the clincher.

* Torrez left the Yankees after his 2-0, 2.50 ERA World Series, but he played a big part in their title the next season as well. He signed with the Red Sox for 1978 season and served up Bucky Dent's home run in the famed one-game playoff at Fenway Park.

Reggie Jackson cemented his Mr. October legacy with his three-homer game in the 1977 World Series, but it was Lyle who was the Yankees' most valuable player in that postseason. He allowed two runs in 14 innings (1.29 ERA) in six games.

That would be the beginning of the end for Lyle in the Bronx. That offseason, George Steinbrenner signed Goose Gossage to be the new closer. Serving as setup man, Lyle saved only nine games while his ERA ballooned to 3.47, prompting third baseman Graig Nettles to say "he went from Cy Young to sayonara."

It would be sayonara after the '78 season, as Lyle was traded in a ten-player deal to the Texas Rangers. Lyle was traded again within two seasons while one of the players the Yankees received was a standout in both the rotation and the closer's role, Dave Righetti.

The lack of playing time in 1978 did allow Sparky to observe the acrimonious insanity that swirled around the team and he teamed up with author Peter Golenbock to write "The Bronx Zoo," a hilarious account of Yankee madness that was published in 1979.

Lyle made history on June 4, 1980 when he broke Hoyt Wilhelm's major league record of 227 career saves. Rollie Fingers had tied Wilhelm as well and was poised to pass him on the same exact night, but he blew a 3-1 lead for the Padres in a loss to Houston. Fingers passed him for good three weeks later.

He was on the move again on September 13 when the Phillies traded for him during their final push for the NL East. In ten games, he pitched to a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings as the Phils finished 15-6 to take the division crown from the Expos on the season's final weekend.

Sparky joined the club too late in the season to qualify for the postseason roster and missed Philly's run to their first championship. He pitched poorly during the 1981 season, but he did contribute two and one-third scoreless innings in the Phils' postseason loss to the Expos.

Lyle stole one base in his career and it came with the Phillies in 1981 at the ripe old age of 37 in this game against Doug Bair, Darrell Porter and the Cardinals*.

*I figured a pitcher swiping a bag at that age was very rare, and while it's certainly not common, it's happened more than I would have thought. There are 26 pitchers to steal a base at 37 years or older. Among them are Greg Maddux (the oldest at 42), Orlando Hernandez, Jim Kaat, Orel Hershiser, Woody Williams, Kenny Rogers, Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan.

With his ERA north of five in 1982, he was sent to the White Sox in August. He had a 3.00 ERA in 11 games for manager Tony LaRussa before retiring at season's end at 38. His final game was on September 27, when he served as a bridge from Jim Kern to Salome Barojas and held the lead 4-1 win. When he retired, Lyle was second on the all-time saves list with 238. Now he's 33rd and could be surpassed this season by Brad Lidge and Jonathan Papelbon.

Always a prankster, Lyle developed a habit on teammates' birthdays of getting naked and sitting on the birthday cakes that were delivered to the clubhouse. Some of his other shenanigans are mentioned here.

Next week, Lyle will begin his 15th season as manager of the Somerset Patriots, an independent minor league team in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He's been their skipper since the club's inception in 1998 and has guided them to five Atlantic League championships.

From 1972-1978, Lyle was right there with Rollie Fingers and the criminally underrated John Hiller as one of baseball's top relievers. Here is a comparison of the three over those seven seasons (with their MLB rank among relievers in each category):

Lyle 148 (2) 14.4 (4) 745.2 (5) 141 (2) 1.207 (3) 78 (3)
Fingers 132 (4) 15.0 (3) 858.0 (1) 177 (1) 1.112 (1) 77 (2)
Hiller 162 (1) 23.6 (1) 727.2 (7) 103 (4) 1.233 (5) 74 (1)

K/9 K/BB HR/9 Inh. Runners Inh. Run. Score % Adj. Pit. W
Lyle 7.67 (3) 1.94 (7) 0.39 (3) 500 (1) 34.60 (22) 9.92 (2)
Fingers 5.48 (15) 3.07 (1) 0.52 (8) 454 (2) 27.75 (2) 8.67 (3)
Hiller 8.37 (1) 2.16 (3) 0.68 (18) 379 (4) 30.08 (6) 11.85 (1)

It's worth noting that Hiller, not Fingers, Lyle, Goose Gossage, Mike Marshall, Tug McGraw, Gene Garber or any other fireman led the majors in bWAR, ERA+, K/9 IP, OPS+ Against and Adj. Pitching Wins. From '72-'78 he had the most bWAR by a wide margin. Hiller's* total of 23.6 tops Gossage by six wins, a gap wider than that of the margin between numbers two and seven.

* Hiller was only 27 when he suffered a heart attack and missed the '71 season. He returned in '72 and began the stretch detailed above. Incredible. He went 17-14 in 1974 even though he didn't start a game all year. The only reliever with more wins in a season was Roy Face of the 1959 Pirates, who went 18-1 out of the pen. No one has had a 17-14 record since Bert Blyleven in 1986 and the most decisions by a reliever since 1990 is Scot Shields's 21 in 2005.

Lyle ranks 24th on the all-time list in games pitched, but he holds the distinction of having never started a game in the majors. Here are the pitchers with the most appearances who have never gotten a start:

Pitcher G
John Franco 1119
Kent Tekulve 1050
Trevor Hoffman 1035
Sparky Lyle 899
Mike Myers 883
Jeff Reardon 880
Billy Wagner 853
Steve Reed 833
Jeff Nelson 798
Bob Howry 769

Looking back at a time when closers entered games in the seventh or eighth innings, Lyle is eighth all time in saves of four outs or more:

Saves of 4+ Outs Saves
Rollie Fingers 201
Goose Gossage 193
Bruce Sutter 188
Lee Smith 169
Dan Quisenberry 160
Jeff Reardon 152
Hoyt Wilhelm 144
Sparky Lyle 134
Gene Garber 127
Mike Marshall 127
Mariano Rivera 116

I listed the top 11 to include Rivera, he's one fireman who's a bit of a throwback in this respect. Since 1994, the closer with the second-most saves of this variety is Keith Foulke with 55.

How about saves of at least six outs:

Saves of 6+ Outs  Saves
Rollie Fingers 135
Bruce Sutter 130
Goose Gossage 125
Dan Quisenberry 120
Hoyt Wilhelm 114
Gene Garber 107
Mike Marshall 95
Lee Smith 94
Sparky Lyle 91
Tug McGraw 79

The leader in this category since 1994 is, surprise! Danny Graves with 22.

Lyle often came in and sent everyone down 1-2-3 (or in some cases, 1-2-3-4-5-6). He's tied for tenth on the all-time list in both perfect saves of 4+ outs and perfect saves of 6+ outs. Gossage leads both categories, including a tie with Hoyt Wilhelm atop the perfect 6+ out save list.

In the 1970s heyday of multiple-inning relief aces, Sparky Lyle was one of the best in the major leagues. Often overlooked because of the poor teams he pitched for early in his career, he helped resurrect the Yankees and certainly belongs in the closer's role on the All-Time Bluefield Team.

(I'll close with pictures. I loved the old Sports Illustrated cover at the top, but it lacks his awesome mustache. So here's a quintessential mustache/wad of tobacco in cheek photo...and an action shot.)

All-Time Bluefield Roster
SP 1 Dean Chance
SP 3 Bill Monbouquette
Setup TBA
Setup TBA
Closer Sparky Lyle

C Gregg Zaun

SS Cal Ripken

LF Don Baylor
OF David Dellucci

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