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Card-by-Yankees Card: The 1977 Topps Set, Card #319, Rich Gossage (Article 62)

by Paul Semendinger

(Continuing a series…)



He is the man that made Sparky Lyle go, as Graig Nettles said, from “Cy Young to sayonara.”

In 1977 Sparky Lyle was the American League Cy Young Award winner. Lyle was, of course, the Yankees’ ace out of the bullpen. After that season, Rich “Goose” Gossage, a dominant relief pitcher in his own right, was available as a free agent. The Yankees, or should we say George Steinbrenner, swooped in and brought the Goose to the big city.

You know what, as crazy as that sounds, bringing in a new relief pitcher to basically replace your own relief pitcher who just won the Cy Young Award, in this context at least, made sense.

One one level, the Yankees envisioned a lefty (Lyle) and righty (Gossage) complimenting each other and closing out games day after day. Can imagine a two-headed monster this good? (All these years later, isn’t this was so many teams try to do?) In this, George Steinbrenner was light years ahead of his time.

Now, that plan didn’t work in practice. There was too much ego, not enough close games, and not enough big innings for Lyle and Gossage to share this job. It wasn’t long before the closer job went to Gossage and Lyle was put into more of a support role. After the 1978 season, Sparky Lyle would be traded. (The next great Yankees’ relief pitcher, Dave Righetti, was part of the package for Lyle.)

But, bringing in Gossage also made sense on other levels as well.

The 1978 season was Sparky Lyle’s age-33 season. The Goose was just 26. Sparky wouldn’t be great forever, and by bringing in Gossage, the Yankees were setting themselves up for the future.

And, yes, Lyle was the Cy Young winner, the long time Yankee, the fan favorite, but, heading into 1978, it could be argued that Gossage, even without the award, was the better pitcher.

Sparky Lyle (1977): bWAR = 3.7

Goose Gossage (1977); bWAR = 6.0

They didn’t have the WAR statistic back then, but there were other numbers from 1977 that also indicated that Gossage was the better bet going forward:

ERA: Lyle (2.17), Gossage (1.62)

Games: Lyle (72), Gossage (72)

Innings: Lyle (137.0), Gossage (133.0)

Strikeouts: Lyle (68), Gossage (151)

WHIP: Lyle (1.197), Gossage (0.955)

History also proves this out.

After 1977, Lyle pitched 5 more seasons going 29-22, 3.88 with 37 saves.

The Goose pitched for 16 more seasons going 73-53, 2.55 with 251 saves.

***

Often fans look at the immediate and don’t consider the long-term. A popular fan saying is, “He was great last year!” And Lyle was, but when players hit their mid-30’s, it isn’t always sunshine and rainbows going forward.

(The Yankees faced this very same scenario this past winter but stuck with the MVP runner-up, D.J. LeMahieu, who will also turn 33 this summer, passing on the opportunity to try to swing a trade to get a 27-year-old replacement in Francisco Lindor. This isn’t a knock on LeMahieu who has been great and might stay great, but the smart move, often times, is to look to the future, not just the next season or two. Time will tell. In sports, when dealing with the most talented players, often the most important number isn’t hits, homers, ERA, or saves… it’s the age of the player. We’ll see how it all plays out. In the case of Sparky Lyle and Rich Gossage, the decision to bring in the younger player certainly worked out.)

***

Gossage was lights out for the Yankees in his first tenure with the club.

How about these stats:

1978 – 27 saves, 2.01

1979 – 18 saves, 2.62

1980 – 33 saves, 2.27

1981 – 20 saves, 0.77

1982 – 30 saves, 2.23

1983 – 22 saves, 2.27

***

In 1979, Gossage missed about three months of the season with a broken thumb after getting into a fight in the showers with Cliff Johnson.

He came back as good as ever.

But, as I often do here, I must dispel a Yankees Myth.

The story goes that once Gossage went down with the thumb injury that Ron Guidry, the reigning Cy Young Award winner coming off his greatest season (1978) offered to be the closer. That much is true. The myth is that Guidry actually became the closer. He didn’t.

Gossage was out that year from April 19 until his comeback on July 12.

Had Guidry become the closer, he would have had a lot of relief appearances in that time. The following is the complete list of all of Ron Guidry’s relief appearances in 1979 between April 19 and July 12.

May 6

May 8

In 1979, Ron Guidry pitched in 33 games. 30 of those were starts. (He had a save on April 14, days before Gossage went down with the injury.)

Ron Guidry is one of my all-time favorite Yankees. I love that he volunteered to be the closer (or the fireman as they were known back then). He was too valuable as a starter though and he never became the closer as some today remember. The facts are the facts and Ron Guidry becoming the closer in Gossage’s absence is just a great Yankees myth.

***

People don’t remember this at all, but the two pitchers who closed out the most games in Gossage’s absence were…

Ken Clay – 14 finishes and

Ron Davis – 12 finishes.

***

When I think of Gossage, a few games stick in my memory, some not so great…:

Getting Carl Yastrzemski to pop out to end the 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox

George Brett taking Gossage deep in the 1980 playoffs

George Brett’s pine tar homer off the Goose (1983)

***

After the 1983, Rich Gossage, fed up with a lot of the Bronx Zoo Yankees’ goings on at the time, left the Yankees and signed with the San Diego Padres. He helped the Padres reach the World Series that year. Graig Nettles was also on that Padres team.

***

How do the Yankees great closers stack up since 1970? (Baseball-Reference WAR)

Mariano Rivera* – 56.1 WAR (1,096 games, 652 saves, 2.03)

Rich Gossage – 18.8 WAR (319 games, 151 saves, 2.14)

Sparky Lyle – 14.9 WAR (420 games, 141 saves, 2.41)

Dave Righetti* – 12.5 WAR (440 games, 223 saves, 2.96)

Aroldis Chapman – 6.0 WAR (211 games, 114 saves, 2.54)

*Mariano Rivera’s numbers from 1996 on. Dave Righetti’s numbers since 1984 when he shifted to the closer

How great was Mariano Rivera? Adding the WAR totals for Gossage, Lyle, Righetti, and Chapman combined falls short of Rivera’s total alone. The same is true for saves.

Rivera’s WAR vs the Others (combined): 56.1 to 52.2

Rivera’s Save Total vs Others (combined): 652 to 629

***

Rich Gossage came back for a cameo in 1989 pitching in eleven games to close out the season and seemingly his career…

Until he came back in 1991 and pitched a few more years:

1991 – Texas (44 games, 3.57)

1992 – Oakland (30 games, 2.84)

1993 – Oakland (39 games, 4.53)

1994 – Seattle (36 games, 4.18)

***

In the end, the Goose Gossage never won a Cy Young, but he did one better.

The Goose is in the Baseball Hall-of-Fame.

#1977ToppsBiographies

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