This annotated week in baseball history: Nov. 15-Nov. 21, 1967

On Nov. 18, 1967, Tom Gordon was born. Gordon is one of only a handful of pitchers in the “3-100 Club”—those with 100 games started, wins and saves. Richard looks at the entire group.

At the recently concluded general managers’ meetings, Brian Cashman was asked how his team saw Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, young pitchers who have experienced success out of the bullpen, but were previously starters. Cashman replied that the Yankees viewed them as “starters that can relieve,” which is the sort-of Nixonian non-answer you learn to give when running a team in New York. But it did make me think of pitchers like Tom Gordon who were at various times both starters and relievers and who did it with success on both fronts.

100 wins doesn’t necessarily sound like a lot, and it is true that some fairly ordinary pitchers (Russ Ortiz, Brett Tomko, recently) have reached that figure, it is still relatively exclusive company; until recently, 100 wins still put one in the top 500 all-time. The same could be said of 100 saves; while the occasional Mike Williams slips in, only 120 pitchers have recorded that many saves, though modern usage patterns would suggest the figure will zoom up in the future.

But the convergence of those groups is truly rare company; only 15 pitchers have reached both 100 saves and 100 wins in their career. Of those, only eight fall into Cashman’s “starters that can relieve” category, marked here by starting at least 100 games in their career. I will cover each individually in a moment, but it is an interesting group.

Dennis Eckersley, in his closer days (Icon/SMI)

Two of the eight made their debut in 1988 (both were active last year), but the years of debut besides that range all the way back to 1923, with a player debuting in each decade save the 30s since then.

One of the group made a majority of his appearances as a starter, the rest vary in a relatively small grouping from a fifth to a third of their appearances coming as starters.

There is less than three-quarters of a run difference between the highest and lowest ERAs of the bunch, although the many decades the group covers means that certain numbers—like Gordon’s—–are more impressive than they appear.

The earliest debut starts with Firpo Marberry. Marberry spent most of his 11-year career in Washington. After a brief appearance in 1923, Marberry burst onto the scene in 1924, leading the league in games, games finished and saves. For good measure, he also started 15 games, a number that equaled his save total. Used as both a starter and reliever in the World Series that year, Marberry was masterful, throwing 8 innings with a 1.12 ERA, though unearned runs ruined his only start.

Marberry continued to alternate between reliever and starter throughout his career, winning as many as 19 games (in 1929, when he made 26 starts) and recording as many as 22 saves (in 1926, when he started just five games).

Saves were not, of course, an official statistic back then, but Marberry was sui generis in baseball history. He was the single-season saves leader from 1924 through 1948, the first pitcher to record more than 20 in a season, and the total saves leader from 1926 through 1945.

Like Marberry, Dennis Eckersley also helped to change the common usage of relievers. It is true that big save totals were not unprecedented prior to Eckersley assuming the closer role in Oakland. Dave Righetti, for example, had 46 in 1986. It is also true that the role that Eckersley (and Tony LaRussa) played in making “the modern closer” is somewhat overplayed in the popular history of baseball.

Nonetheless, Eckersley did excel in his role, and is the only Hall of Famer on this list. Of course, that might only be until John Smoltz comes up for election. Smoltz is the odd man out here; nearly two-thirds of his games were starts, unlike the rest of the list. He’s also the best pitcher on the list, having thrown more innings than anyone—many, many more innings than some—and sharing the best ERA+ on the list.

He shares that title with Ellis Kinder. Kinder comes from the Eckersley career type. He won 23 games in 30 starts in 1949, and outside of his rookie season he started two-thirds of his games through 1950. After 1950 he became a full-time reliever. He would never start more than 10 games in a season, and just 14 of the nearly 300 games after 1950.

Kinder is also notable for the trivia-question aspect of his spot on this list; he finished his career with exactly 102 wins and saves.

On the other side of the spectrum from Smoltz and Kinder are Ron Kline and Dave Giusti, who finished their careers with an ERA+ of 101 and 95, respectively. Kline was a righty who earned his spot on this list the hard way, pitching forever. He played for nine teams over a 17-year career, the best coming in his early 30s when he pitched all but exclusively out of the pen for the Senators, raking up 83 saves and a 2.54 ERA. He was never close to that good before or after.

Giusti meanwhile, also earned his spot on the list through persistence. From 1970 through 1976 he never won more than nine games in a season, but also never won fewer than five, all while averaging 19 saves a year. Combined with his early career work as a starter, Giustui makes the list despite his worse-than-average career ERA.

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

The remaining men are Tom Gordon, who won 17 games at age 21 with the Royals throwing what has been called “perhaps the best curve of his generation.” By 1998 arm problems forced him into the bullpen, and he has never started another game.

Ron Reed is on the list, but the most interesting thing about him is probably that the 6-foot-6-inch righty spent two years playing in the NBA before moving back to baseball and making the All-Star team as a rookie in 1968. Reed was shifted to the bullpen in 1976 after earning 89 wins but just one save in the years prior. He would reach 100 saves in his final year, while crossing the wins plateau in ’78.

Finally, if you’re wondering, Derek Lowe is 15 saves away from joining the club (though now starting full time) and the only active player close. Someday Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain might join the club, but for now the “3-100 Club” remains exclusive.

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Could you slip in a table with name, years, W, S
at the end of the article?

Made me look up Tim Wakefield (189 W, 22 SV), Charlie Hough (216 W, 61 SV), Wilbur Wood (164 W, 57 SV), Lefty Grove (300 W, 55 SV)

One of these is not like the others.

Richard Barbieri
Richard Barbieri

Oops, probably should have included the table. In any case, you can find the entire list here: