Jim Kern’s Four Incredible Seasons

Yesterday, the Q&A from the estimable David Laurila focused on relievers of the 70’s and 80’s, so I thought I would take a look at some relievers from that era. During the 1970’s, relievers began to take on the importance that they have today. But back then, they were used far differently. In the process, many stars were born. Going down the list of most valuable relievers for the decade, you surely recognize the names that reside in the top five, three of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown — Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Mike Marshall, Rich Gossage and Sparky Lyle. The next name on that list, Jim Kern, might be a little less well known, but he had a significant impact nonetheless, albeit for a shorter period of time.

Before we get to them though, let’s take a brief look at how reliever usage has changed over time. In the ‘70’s, the reliever became really important for the first time. To wit:

Years Avg Yrly RP WAR
1950-1959 0.7
1960-1969 13.2
1970-1979 36.7
1980-1989 69.7
1990-1999 69.7
2000-2009 92.7
2010-2012 94.6

In the 50’s, relievers weren’t valuable at all. That ramped up a little bit in the ‘60’s, as players like Hoyt Wilhelm began to take hold. But in the ‘70’s, it all changed. In 1974, relievers totaled more than 40 WAR for the first time. And aside from the strike-shortened 1981 season, relievers have totaled at least 40 WAR in every season since. Then in 1977, relievers crossed the 60 WAR plateau. There have been a few seasons that have dipped under 60 WAR since, but for the most part that is also a line that is always crossed, especially today — 2007 was the first season in which relievers surpassed 100 WAR, and they did so again this past season.

As the idea of the fireman began to take hold in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, reliever usage per game began to dip, as relievers were becoming less mop-up men and more important tactical weapons. That is, until the mid-‘70’s, at which point it shot up dramatically, and that is where any relation to the relievers of today diverges:

Reliever IP.G

All of a sudden, instead of averaging 1.4 innings per appearance, the average appearance shot up to the 1.7 range, and stayed so for the rest of the decade. When you hear analysts trumpet the halcyon days of the 100-inning reliever, these are the days to which they are referring.

They are also referring to the fact that relievers back then were used in the most critical of situations, whereas today, not as much:

Reliever gmLI

The downward trend is striking. This might put it more simply:

Years Avg. RP gmLI
1974-1986 1.38
1987-1999 1.27
2000-2012 1.16

Now, to be sure, this is skewed by the fact there are more relievers plying their trade today, and as a result they enter earlier in games, when situations may not be as critical. Having said that, we will see below that the choice relievers of the ‘70’s still were used in higher leverage situations than their counterparts from today.

When we think of relievers, we often think of words like “fungible,” and “unreliable.” So when a reliever is consistently good, it is worthy of note. It is for this reason that Gossage, Sutter and Fingers find themselves in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and why Lee Smith is on the doorstep. And while Kern didn’t have quite the career that those four pitchers did, for a time he was quite dominant.

Signed by the Indians in 1967, Kern didn’t see the majors until 1974, and though he was groomed as a starter, he was quickly shifted to relief in the Show. By 1976, he was the co-closer in Cleveland, and in ’77 and ’78 he had the gig to himself. After the ’78 season, he was dealt to the Rangers, and in ’79 he hit his high-water mark in saves, with 29. He also hit his high in innings pitched. Despite the notable disadvantage of being a relief pitcher, Kern managed to toss 143 innings in 1979. Interestingly, this only places him 17th on the list of most innings pitched in a season by reliever. Throughout these four seasons, during which he tossed 452 innings total, Kern managed to post FIP- marks of 68, 72, 80 and 64. There have been 1,503 qualified relievers throughout major league history, but only 43 relievers have posted a 80 FIP- or better in four or more consecutive seasons like Kern did:

Player Years Start End G IP IP/G career gmLI as RP
Jim Kern 4 1976 1979 68 128 1.88 2.00
Scot Shields 4 2003 2006 65 110 1.69 1.36
Alejandro Pena 4 1989 1990 66 109 1.65 1.26
Stu Miller 4 1963 1966 69 113 1.64 N/A
Mark Littell 4 1976 1979 66 108 1.64 1.68
Bruce Sutter 5 1976 1980 69 112 1.62 2.01
Rich Gossage 4 1980 1983 68 106 1.56 1.89
Hoyt Wilhelm 4 1966 1969 69 107 1.55 N/A
Doug Jones 4 1987 1990 68 103 1.51 1.57
Larry Andersen 4 1987 1990 69 103 1.49 1.35
Carl Willis 4 1991 1994 68 97 1.43 1.28
Duane Ward 5 1989 1993 69 97 1.41 1.46
Lee Smith 10 1982 1991 68 93 1.37 1.8
Mark Eichhorn 5 1990 1994 69 93 1.35 1.28
Rob Dibble 5 1988 1992 68 90 1.32 1.61
Paul Assenmacher 4 1988 1991 68 89 1.31 1.53
Randy Myers 4 1987 1990 68 89 1.31 1.87
Jeff Montgomery 6 1989 1994 68 88 1.29 1.67
Tom Henke 6 1986 1991 68 88 1.29 1.77
Eric Plunk 4 1993 1996 69 87 1.26 1.25
Octavio Dotel 4 2001 2004 68 85 1.25 1.39
Rob Murphy 4 1986 1989 69 86 1.25 1.31
Keith Foulke 6 1999 2004 69 85 1.23 1.4
Mariano Rivera 6 1996 2001 68 83 1.22 1.81
Dennis Eckersley 9 1987 1995 68 83 1.22 1.72
Trevor Hoffman 5 1996 2000 68 77 1.13 1.84
Gregg Olson 4 1989 1992 69 78 1.13 1.49
Troy Percival 4 1995 1998 68 74 1.09 1.78
Paul Shuey 4 1999 2002 69 75 1.09 1.28
Mariano Rivera 9 2003 2011 68 73 1.07 1.81
Joakim Soria 4 2007 2010 69 73 1.06 1.77
Jonathan Papelbon 4 2006 2009 69 72 1.04 1.75
Francisco Rodriguez 5 2004 2008 69 72 1.04 1.67
Joe Nathan 6 2004 2009 68 70 1.03 1.61
Francisco Cordero 5 2003 2007 68 70 1.03 1.59
Ryan Madson 4 2008 2011 68 69 1.01 1.33
Jonathan Broxton 5 2006 2010 69 70 1.01 1.49
Mark Wohlers 4 1994 1997 69 68 0.99 1.43
B.J. Ryan 4 2003 2006 69 67 0.97 1.47
Darren Oliver 4 2009 2012 68 66 0.97 1.16
Matt Thornton 5 2008 2012 68 65 0.96 1.43
Arthur Rhodes 4 2000 2003 68 65 0.96 1.46
Rafael Betancourt 4 2009 2012 69 63 0.91 1.44

Note: the games, innings pitched and innings pitched/game figures are all “per 162 games”

We can see a few things in this list (besides the fact that Mariano Rivera really has just been on another planet). First, we can see how exclusive this club is. Among the names you do not see are Fingers, Billy Wagner, Robb Nen, Rick Aguilera, John Wetteland and Jay Howell, to name just a few. Second, we can see that most of the relievers on this list pitched in the last couple of decades. Only two of the 43 streaks started in the ‘60’s, and only three started in the ‘70’s. So it wasn’t like Kern was just another face in the crowd — he was one of the few standout relievers of his time. Third, we can see that despite the fact that elite modern relievers still enter games in much more critical situations, they don’t quite get to the level that Kern, Sutter and Gossage were at in the ‘70’s.

In looking at Kern specifically, we can see that no one even touches him in terms of innings pitched, and only Sutter was in his league in terms of gmLI. Expanding the realm past these 43 pitchers, we see that Kern’s career 2.00 gmLI as a reliever ranks fourth all-time, and that number is watered down by his later years. From ’76-’79, his gmLI marks as a reliever were 2.47, 2.19, 2.26 and 2.40. All four of those marks place in the top 75 seasons of all-time — only Gossage has as many seasons in the top 75. Simply put, for those four years, Kern worked harder and in more pressure-packed situations than just about every other pitcher in baseball history.

Of course, four seasons does not a career make. After he tossed his epic 143 innings in ’79, Kern wasn’t able to shoulder the same workload in the next two seasons, as he accumulated just 93.1 innings in the next two seasons. He once again hit the 100 inning plateau in 1982 (though he did start one game that year) but it was all downhill for him after that — he managed to hang around in the majors for four more years with four different teams, but he only amassed 57 innings in that time, and retired after the 1986 campaign.

Kern didn’t serve as a cautionary tale or anything like that — there have been 144 100-inning seasons by a reliever since 1982. But only six of them have come since 2000, and none since Scott Proctor’s 2006 campaign (which may actually have served as a cautionary tale). As such, it makes Kern’s late ‘70’s run stick out just a little more. He didn’t have a Hall of Fame career, but in that narrow window when relievers were barrel-chested mighty lords who wrestled bears with their bare hands, few did it better than Jim Kern.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

10 Responses to “Jim Kern’s Four Incredible Seasons”

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  1. lexomatic says:

    Looks like Kern also blew his arm after that 79 season.

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  2. FieryFurnaces says:

    I was glad to see this. I was just a pup in 79 but Kern was a beast. Plus he has that crazy man beard for a while. Too bad it ended so quickly for him.

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  3. Brian says:

    I think this is an area that teams should explore again. They use pitch count for starters, so why not or relievers? My point is that the top bullpen arms are dramatically underutilized. Who says your top three relievers should not be able to throw 30-40 pitches each in an outing by May or June. It’s a waste to carry 7-8 pitchers in a bullpen and cripples a manager’s ability to better use platoon matchups, defensive replacements and pinch runners.

    I’d like to see top relievers getting 80-100 innings or more each season over 55 appearances. Teams should try to carry a true long man to save the pen on the days when it’s 8-1 after 6 and the starter is done. Those extra 1-2 bench spots are all too critical in several situations throughout a season.

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    • Balthazar says:

      There is a point missed in the ‘have ’em throw more’ argument: frequency of appearances. What managers want isn’t two shut down innings today, i.e. 30-40 pitches in an outing, but a shout down inning today and a shut down inning tomorrow also. Yes, a dominating reliever going 2+ innings likely increases the odds of winning the current game, but having the guy throw the last inning today and then again tomorrow increases the odds of winning _two games_. Managers want that closer edge as often as possible because winning more games is there goal. The only times we see closers go two are where the individual games themselves are judged to be critical, and even then the manager is often second-guessed it seems.

      The key aspect of modern closing is frequency. Guys throwing 30-40 aren’t going to routinely throw back to back days in the present era. Maybe they could; arguably they wouldn’t be as effective if they did on a per outting basis as now. And that’s what managers are giving up in trying the experiment, the likelihood of frequent dominance in the last inning. The way to go about it if someone tried, it seems to me, would be with a co-closer situation, where two guys alternated days, pitching multile innings each time. Finding two guys that good isn’t easy. Then there is the question of handedness, where a manager might have a closer-type guy but the one ready on a given day didn’t have a platoon advantage on a particular line-up. Then there is the whole psychological aspect which has built up around ‘if we get to our closer it’s in the bag’ which teams and especially managers seem to lean on (too much). Given all those permutations, I don’t really see anyone trying this.

      Having a closer as dominant as the guys on this list is NOT overrated. Most other closers aren’t that good, so pair of multi-inning guys might work just as well in terms of the results. But from the ‘security blanket’ standpoint, the idea seems, well, a non-starter.

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  4. Balthazar says:

    Jim Kern was the first player consistently clocked in triple digits. He never had great command, but that was part of his game; high hard stuff where not even he was sure where it was going, and the batters never dug in. I rembember him in those years, and he was scary. Back in those days Eckersley was _starting_ in Cleveland, and then they’d bring in Kern. He threw harder than Gossage, but Rich Gossage had better location and repeated his motion more consistently, which was why Gossage had the better results overall. Gossage, Tekulve, Kern, Lyle, Fingers: those were the guys that put it in managers’ heads that a ‘fireman’ was a game-changing asset rather than a band-aid for a starter who didn’t cut it that day.

    Man, that whole list takes me back. I remember when every guy on that list was ‘the Man’ who could come in and shut the other team down late; the guy you _didn’t_ want to see up in the bullpen if your were for the other squad. Several things stand out looking at the table. Rivera is indeed from another planet. No one else has been as good. No one else has had such a long career as a dominating closer. (And of course, it would be the Yankees who latched onto him). But the further thing that stands out is that it’s ridiculous that Lee Smith isn’t in the Hall of Fame. That was in my mind during the recent debates about “Who’s going to get in in 2012?” People get in more because they are popular than because they are ‘the best.’ There is no case for Fingers being in and Lee Smith not. Lee Smith was arguably better than Trevor Hoffman, who was a shoo in. Big Lee was a very Gossage like guy; hard stuff, consistent mechanics, good location, went about his job. He lasted a very long time, and team after team let him go (which has hurt him for the Hall, in my view). And Lee would show up somewhere else the next year, throw exactly as always, and close down the last inning like always. Lee Smith would be worth a post by himself, though I’m happy to see Jim Kern getting some love. Kern was a colorful, memorable guy who would still be among the best if he was throwing today.

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    • Robbie G. says:

      I strongly disagree that Trevor Hoffman is a shoo-in for the HOF and will actually be surprised if he gets in. Lee Smith doesn’t appear to be getting in and I don’t have a problem with that. I believe the only reliever who gets in at any point in the foreseeable future will be Mariano Rivera. The days of grossly overrating the value of a relief pitcher are long gone. Steve Bedrosian got 40 saves for an 80-82 team in 1987 and won the Cy Young Award despite a pretty unimpressive (for a reliever) 2.83 ERA. Dude was 149th in MLB in WAR that season… with just 1.0 WAR. 149th!

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  5. psychump says:

    Articles about Jim Kern leave a bad taste in my mouth as he turned John Henry Johnson on to drugs in 1980 and ruined both their careers. I grew up in Sonoma and followed John’s rise to the majors from a local boy (we are both from Sonoma) who signed with the home team(Giants) to being traded to the A’s ( in the Vida Blue deal). He (John) turned his career around in 1976 and in 1977 went 14-2 to bring a two year W-L total to a wonderful 27-4.
    I have pictures of my brother and John playing video games on our couch. His downfall was a heartbreak. My brother , a CHP officer , mentioned that, after I asked him one day what had happened to John Henry Johnson, he had fallen into a bad crowd that had included Jim Kern.
    It is so sad that wonderful careers and lives can be changed and/or shortened because of wrong choices. I will never forget the first start of John’s career in the home opener of 1978 season ( I was 16). The A’s won 1-0 as Johnson threw a shutout. I thought he would be a Hall of Famer.

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  6. Spit Ball says:

    You missed Dick Radatz who did all this first from 62-65. From 62-65 his FIP-‘s were 53,57,64 and 80. Over that 4 year period his ERA- was 151 and he averaged 12 wins, eight losses, 134 innings (1.97 innings/game) 68 games, 25 saves, 10.2 K’s a 3/1 k/bb and 2.5 fWAR a year and 4.5 rWAR. The original short lived fireman.

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      That’s upsetting on a couple of levels. For whatever reason, his ’65 season didn’t turn up in my leaderboard. Or perhaps I deleted it manually by accident. I actually had the chance to meet Mr. Radatz a couple of times before he passed, he was an awesome guy. And yes, one of the original, but also short-lived firemen. Thank you for the catch.

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  7. NATS Fan says:

    A very fond memory for me is I used to play this card game called Status Pro Major League Baseball back in the 1980s and early 90s. The very first season of cards we used were 1979 cards (in 1983). I drafted Kern, Joe Sambito (great in 1979), Dick Tidrow and Tekulve as closer and middle men and they dominated big time all season. Tug Mcgraw was my long man (over 5 era but lots of innings). For those who have not gotten bored yet, I also had Willie Wilson cf, Dave Parker rf, Ron Cey 3b, Gary Mathews lf, Bump Wills 2b, steve Yeager , Gary Templeton, and Rod Carew. Ralph Gar and Rick Cerone were on my bench (with a few forgotten others). My starting pitching was Dennis Lamp, Rick Wise, Bert Blyleven, Fred Norman, and Mike Lacoss (all slightly above average that season, but none dominated). I had Rod Carew steal third and home against Sutter in the 14th inning for a regular season win. I finished only 3rd (one win short of the playoffs) out of 5 teams because all the teams were full of very good players. The world series champ had JR Richard and the WS loser had Ron Guidry. The 5th place team was full of good players yet still lost (Phil Neikro , George Brett and Paul Molitor)

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