Good But, Not Great- Part Seven
The Off-Season: Good But, Not Great- Part Seven
By Tim Kabel
February 21, 2022
So far, I have written six articles about Yankees’ players who were good but, not great. These players were not Hall of Famers. However, they were key components of their teams. In many cases, they were the backbone of World Series Championship teams. In my last article, which was about Willie Randolph, I surmised that the Yankees’ Championship teams of the late ’70s, had more good but, not great players than teams from any other era. Today, I will stay in the ’70s for the subject of this article.
I number and save each of the articles I write for SSTN. This is my 77th article, which is ironic when you consider the subject. Albert Walter Lyle, better known as “Sparky”, played 16 years in Major League Baseball from 1967 through 1982. He started out with the Red Sox and finished with the White Sox. However, his most significant years were with the New York Yankees, where he pitched from 1972 through 1978. He was a three-time All Star, a two-time World Series Champion, a two-time American League saves leader, and the American League Cy Young Award winner in 1977. He was the first American League relief pitcher to win that award. Sparky Lyle is credited, along with Rollie Fingers, with expanding the role and importance of the reliever in Major League Baseball.
Sparky Lyle was born in Dubois, PA on July 22nd, 1944. His father was a carpenter, and his mother was a seamstress at a coffin factory. He played varsity football and basketball in high school but, because his school did not have a baseball team, he played American Legion baseball. In one game, he struck out 31 batters in 14 innings. At the time, his pitching repertoire consisted of a fastball, curveball, and change up. He was drafted by the Red Sox in 1964. He worked his way through their system as a relief pitcher. In 1966, during spring training, Ted Williams suggested that Lyle develop a slider. As Lyle recalled, “he told me it was the best pitch in baseball because it was the only pitch he couldn’t hit, even when he knew it was coming.” Lyle followed Ted Williams’ advice, and the slider became the most important pitch in his arsenal.
He reached the major leagues in 1967 and became Boston’s closer in 1969. During spring training, prior to the 1972 season., Lyle was traded to the Yankees for Danny Cater, and Mario Guerrero. The trade was a steal. Lyle established himself as one of the top relief pitchers of the 1970s. In 1972, He saved 35 games, which was an American League record, and a Major League record for left-handers. Both records would later be broken by John Hiller. In 1972, Lyle also became the first left-hander in the American League to accumulate 100 saves. He finished third in the 1972 MVP voting.
Sparky Lyle was known for his distinctive mustache, his entrance song, “Pomp and Circumstance”, and his penchant for playing practical jokes on his teammates. One of his most famous pranks involved sneaking into the clubhouse during games to sit naked on birthday cakes prepared for teammates, leaving the imprint of his posterior on the frosting. He once put goldfish in the dugout water cooler. Another time, he ordered pizzas to be delivered to the opposing team’s bullpen. Lyle became so fed up with Yogi Berra using his toothpaste before games, that he injected liniment into the tube, which he reported caused smoke to pour from Berra’s gums. Lyle also co-authored, along with Peter Golenbock, “The Bronx Zoo,” a 1979 tell-all book that detailed the chaos within the Yankees Championship teams of 1977 and 1978. However, more important than all that, he was an extraordinary relief pitcher.
In 1977, Sparky Lyle beat out future Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan to win the Cy Young Award. That season, Lyle led the AL in appearances with 72 and led AL relievers in ERA, ERA plus, and batters grounded into double plays. He was also in the top five among AL relievers in innings pitched with 137, saves with 26, wins with 13, and winning percentage. Think about this: In 2021, Chad Green led the AL in innings pitched among relievers with 83.2. Lyle’s 137 innings were only good enough for 3rd place in 1977. Lyle averaged 5.7 outs per appearance and faced 554 batters during the regular season. Only three starting pitchers on the 2021 Yankees faced more batters, to put things in perspective. Billy Martin, the manager in 1977, believed that crucial spots in the game required the use of your best relief pitcher, with little regard to which inning the game was in. Lyle entered games in the sixth inning or earlier 15 times in 1977. The most amazing example of this came in the postseason. Trailing Kansas City two games to one in the best of five ALCS, Martin brought Lyle in to protect a one run lead, with two on and two out in the 4th inning. Sparky not only worked out of trouble in that inning but closed the game out with 5.1 innings of two-hit shutout baseball. Even more impressive was the fact that Lyle came back to pitch an inning and a third the next day, to win that game, too. Lyle’s 137 innings were not comprised of long appearances performing mop up duty. Of his 72 appearances, Lyle entered into a high leverage situation in 46 of them and inherited at least one base runner in 82% of his appearances. To compare, Aroldis Chapman inherited a base runner in 6% of his games in 2021.
Sparky Lyle was not a strikeout pitcher. He struck out batters only slightly above the league average. He was 32 years old in 1977. Prior to the 1978 season, the Yankees signed fire balling reliever Rich, “Goose”, Gossage. It was clear, at least to Lyle, that his days on the Yankees were numbered. As Graig Nettles famously remarked, Lyle went from, “Cy Young to sayonara.” In 1978, Lyle worked mostly in middle relief, posting a 9 -3 record but, he had the second highest ERA of his career to that point. He was left off the team’s World Series’ roster after suffering a varicose vein flare up in his pelvic area. Lyle did not want a diminished role and requested a trade. On November 10th, 1978, the Yankees traded him to the Rangers along with catcher Mike Heath, pitchers Larry McCall and Dave Rajsich, and minor league shortstop, Domingo Ramos in exchange for Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella, Dave Righetti and Greg Jemison. Lyle pitched for the Rangers, Phillies, and White Sox before ending his career in 1982. From 1998 to 2012, Lyle served as manager of the Somerset Patriots, an independent baseball team of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.
Sparky Lyle was a driving force behind the resurgence of the Yankees. Not only that, remember it was Sparky Lyle who taught Ron Guidry the slider. I struggled a great deal with including Sparky Lyle in the good but, not great category. He is on the cusp of greatness. However, he is not in the Hall of Fame and most likely never will be. I firmly believe he belongs in Monument Park. He may not be a Hall of Famer but, he was an integral part of the Yankees’ Championship teams of the late ’70s and deserves more recognition than he received.
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