Huston Street says he’d retire if he was used like a 1970s-style fireman

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There was a time, back in ancient history, when dinosaurs and Gerald Ford and doubleknit pullover uniforms roamed the earth, in which managers used their best relief pitchers in the most critical, highest-leverage situations in the game. Two-men on and the middle of the order coming up in a close game in the seventh? Get Goose Gossage in there! Or John Hiller. Or whoever. They were said to put our fires and became known as “firemen.”

Then a bright young boy named Tony La Russa came along and realized that, in some cases, it may actually be better not to have the best overall reliever come in when things got hairy. Rather, in some cases, a specialist may match up better against the middle of that order — or at least make things more difficult for the middle of that order — than the fireman. A lefty who is harder on a big lefty bat than Gossage or Hiller may be, for example. The best guy still had to pitch, of course, so La Russa gave him the ninth inning to give the opposition an almost humiliating kick in the teeth. “You couldn’t capitalize an inning or two ago, and NOW you have to face my best!” he seemed to say. “I shall now foreclose any chance you have to win!” And thus the modern, one-inning closer was born.

La Russa was a smart, smart lad and he used this approach to great advantage, winning multiple division titles, pennants and World Series and managing himself and a closer named Dennis Eckersley into the Hall of Fame.

In baseball, maybe more so than anywhere else, people copy what the smart young lads do, and many began to copy young La Russa. Except not everyone is as bright a boy as La Russa and, over time, the lessons of his specialization were sort of muddled and watered down and in some cases forgotten completely. Oh, sure, everyone is playing those matchups and talking about specialization, but the tail has come to wag the dog. Managers overwhelmingly start with the idea that their closer must pitch the ninth in save situations only — and getting that save is important! — and then they work backwards, giving those specialists their very own innings, as if their success was based on what inning it was rather than the matchup. In fact, the idea that, if you don’t have a specialist as good as the ones young La Russa had, using your best reliever to put out fires is the best idea has been all but lost to history. Today the best relief pitchers exclusively pitch the ninth inning.

Once in a while, people talk about going back to the old ways and using one’s best relievers as old fashioned firemen rather than just in save situations. It’s an interesting idea that people talk about but rarely if ever do anything about. Some closers, however, don’t even want to talk about it, so convinced that they have become that the ninth inning and the save matters more than anything else.

Like Huston Street of the Angels, who was asked what he thinks about reverting to the old fireman model:

“I’ll retire if that ever happens,” Street said. “If they ever tell me, ‘Oh, we’re gonna start using you in these high-leverage situations.’ … All right, good. You now can go find someone else to do that, because I’m going home.”

“It’s a ridiculous idea. It really is,” Street said. “The fact is, a bullpen functions best when you have roles. If you want to have a good ‘pen, you need three or four guys that you trust. And if you trust them, give them roles, so they know what they have to do every day.

“You talk to anybody that’s ever been part of a bullpen where they don’t know their roles — it’s the most miserable experience, it’s the most miserable season. Every single player — good relievers who know exactly what they’re doing in a ‘pen, know exactly how to warm up — they absolutely hate it as a person.”

He says more on that subject to David Adler of MLB.com. And perhaps he has some good points in there about the importance of routine. But perhaps it’s also the case that the model of bullpen usage he describes as “ridiculous” lasted much, much longer than the model which he believes to be ideal. Which isn’t to say that the old ways are better — they often aren’t — but that, in baseball as in life, the current way isn’t always best either and that changes should be expected as new ideas, strategies and efficiencies are uncovered.

Or maybe he should just retire and leave all of that to players who are more flexible.

(h/t Big League Stew)

 

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.