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LaTroy Hawkins and Dave Cameron’s Radical Proposal

Dave Cameron made a radical proposal today aimed at teams thinking of moving away from the standard five-man rotation. He suggested that they essentially blur the lines of starters and relievers and simply assign an even number of innings (or batters faced) to each pitcher in the pen. “Each pitcher will be asked to face 10 batters per game, which translates to about 38 pitches apiece.”

Cameron advocates that teams target two-way players like Micah Owings, who are decent at handling a bat and also can throw average innings, and swingmen like Alfredo Aceves — mopup guys capable of taking a fair number of innings fairly frequently. That’s actually much more akin to the way that bullpens used to function in the days before hyperspecialization, except that in those days the majority of the important innings went to a “closer” like Roy Face or Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers, who pitched a lot more innings but had a lot fewer appearances than modern closers and setup men.

Cameron’s strategy makes pitchers more fungible. But teams would still want reliability. The best pitchers in such a system would be the ones who throw a lot of innings every year without fail. There aren’t many of those around: there are only two active pitchers in the top 40 on the all-time appearances list. One of them, Mariano Rivera, is out for the year and maybe for good. But LaTroy Hawkins is still going strong.

He’s busy climbing up the list of the most longevitous relievers in baseball history. His 839 appearances make him 38th of all time, and his 741 relief appearances make him 35th of all time. If he pitches another two seasons, he’ll be the age that Arthur Rhodes was last year, and he has a decent chance of passing Rhodes (839), Doug Jones (842), and getting within spitting distance of Billy Wagner (853), who is 27th on the list of most relief appearances. (No one’s catching #1 Jesse Orosco, who has 1248. Number two is Mike-not-Giancarlo-Stanton, who has 1177.)

The thing that makes Hawkins so amazing is the reliability of his arm. He wasn’t much of a starter and he wasn’t much of a closer, but from the moment that the Twins made him a full-time bullpen arm in 2000, he pitched ten straight years with at least 50 innings in relief. He’s just the 36th pitcher in baseball history to do so.

It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. The earliest reliever in baseball history with ten consecutive seasons of at least 50 innings was, rather naturally, Hoyt Wilhelm, who may be the best relief pitcher of all time; he had 16 such seasons. (Wilhelm is one of three Hall of Famers in the list, along with Sutter and Fingers. Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley didn’t manage ten in a row as relievers.)

Wilhelm’s total was only exceeded by that of Lindy McDaniel, who had 18 such seasons, 17 of them in a row from 1959 to 1975. Here is the complete list:

first year
in streak
last year
in streak
# in
a row
Hoyt Wilhelm 1961 1970 10
Ron Perranoski 1961 1971 11
Don McMahon 1958 1972 15
Ted Abernathy 1963 1972 10
Jack Aker 1965 1974 10
Lindy McDaniel 1959 1975 17
Clay Carroll 1966 1977 12
Darold Knowles 1969 1978 10
Paul Lindblad 1968 1978 11
Sparky Lyle 1968 1981 14
Dave LaRoche 1971 1980 10
Tom Burgmeier 1974 1983 10
Tug McGraw 1969 1980 12
Gary Lavelle 1975 1985 11
Bruce Sutter 1976 1985 10
Tippy Martinez 1976 1985 10
Rollie Fingers 1971 1982 12
Gene Garber 1973 1987 15
Kent Tekulve 1975 1989 15
Greg Minton 1979 1989 11
Dave Smith 1980 1990 11
Jeff Reardon 1980 1993 14
Lee Smith 1981 1993 13
Eric Plunk 1988 1999 12
Robb Nen 1993 2002 10
Steve Reed 1993 2004 12
Roberto Hernandez 1995 2006 12
Steve Kline 1997 2006 10
Mike Timlin 1996 2007 12
Todd Jones 1994 2007 14
Jose Mesa 1994 2007 14
Alan Embree 1998 2008 11
Trevor Hoffman 1993 2002 10
David Weathers 1998 2009 12
Guillermo Mota 2002 2011 10
LaTroy Hawkins 2000 2009 10

Running down that list, you can see many of the most reliable and most beloved relievers of the last half-century, if not necessarily the best-paid. (Mariano Rivera just barely missed the list, because he only pitched 46 innings in 2002.) If a team were to implement Dave’s proposal, they would want guys like the ones on this list: multi-inning closers like Garber, rubber-armed middle relievers like Weathers, year-in-year-outers like McDaniel.

Trevor Hoffman was viewed as a future Hall of Famer in his day, and his ilk of relief ace would be just as scarce under Cameron’s as they are now. But bullpen glue guys like Timlin, Kline, Reed, and Embree are often undervalued, because they are both good performers and extraordinarily healthy. Obviously, it’s easier to determine a proclivity for good health in hindsight. But it’s one of the most important determinants of a player’s value.

Pitchers like Hawkins are underrated in the four-starter and five-starter systems that they’ve pitched in. In Cameron’s no-starter system, they will be just as valuable, if not more so.