Player: Dennis Eckersley had an extraordinary career that spanned 27 professional seasons. It all began with the Indians drafting the 17 year-old in 1972. After three seasons in the minor leagues he made the big league roster in '75. He initially joined the team as a bullpen arm despite having exclusively started in the minors. After 14.1 innings without allowing an earned run, he joined the rotation on May 25 and threw a three-hit shutout in his hometown of Oakland against the A's. He didn't allow an "earnie" until his 29th inning which is quite a way to start a career. He won 13 games with a 2.60 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 186 innings.
Eck was the Indians opening day starter in '76 and had a decent follow up to his rookie campaign. Despite a slump that saw him spend most of July in the pen he still won 13 games, K'd 200 in 199 frames and limited batters to a .214 batting average. In '77 Eckersley threw an 11 inning three-hit shutout on April 30, a no-hitter on May 30 , and a one-hitter on August 12. Pitching for a fifth place Cleveland team he won just 14 games, but made his first All-Star team. The major breakthrough for the young hurler was a result of his improved control as he cut his walk rate from 4.3 and 3.4 walks / 9 innings his first two years to 2.0.
The Indians traded their young star before the start of the '78 season to the Red Sox. Whether you believe the Indians traded him because they knew teammate Rick Manning stole Eck's wife or not, the trade seemed strange. Measured by WAR Eckersley had his two best years as a starter in Boston with 7.0 and 6.9 seasons. He had identical 2.99 ERAs both years winning 20 games in '78 and 17 in '79. He struggled with back problems the next two years as reflected by his ERA which jumped over four in both '80 and '81. He continued to battle back problems and spasms in his right bicep but rebounded somewhat with a 13 win, 3.73 ERA season in '82.
The 1983 season was a disaster with Eckersley allowing 223 hits and 27 homers in 176 innings. When things failed to improve in '84 he was traded to the Cubs for Bill Buckner on 5/25. He pitched much better for the Cubs with an ERA just a shade over three the rest of the year which helped the Cubs win the NL East. He was roughed up in his first postseason action, allowing five runs in a loss against the Padres in the NLCS. Shoulder tendonitis limited him to 25 starts in '85 but he was effective when healthy with a 3.08 ERA (128 ERA+). Eckersley's battle with alcoholism began to wear on him as did his weakened shoulder and he had a disappointing year in '86. Although healthy enough to start 32 games he won just six with a 4.57 ERA (88 ERA+).
Eckersley sought treatment for his alcoholism in the offseason, dedicated himself to physical fitness, and got a fresh start when he was traded to the A's on the verge of the '87 season. At first used in middle relief with a couple of spot starts, Eckersley was given some save opportunities and did well. With Jay Howell experiencing shoulder troubles of his own, the A's gave Eckerlsey a shot and he responded with 16 saves and a 3.03 ERA in 115 innings.
A's pitching coach Dave Duncan thought Eckersley was best off used in one or two inning save situations and that's exactly how the A's began to use him. The career changing move paid off in '88 as he saved 45 games, with a 0.867 WHIP in 72 innings. Of course Eckerlsey is well remembered for surrenduring the game ending home run to Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the World Series that year. The event led to Eck coining the term "walk-off".
From '88 through the '92 season Eckersley was the preeminent closer in baseball. Starting with the '89 season he posted ERA's of 1.56, 0.61, 2.96, and 1.91. Prefer WHIP? His marks in that category 0.607, 0.614, 0.908, 0.913! He saved 175 games in that span including 51 in '92 culminating in dual Cy Young / MVP honors. Eck wasn't overpowering but had superb control, able to nip the corner with his 90 mph fastball seemingly at will. His command so great that he issued just six unintentional walks in 131 innings in the '89-'90 seasons.
Eck redeemed himself in '89 postseason allowing just one run in 7.1 innings in the as the A's won the World Series. The next year he pitched well in the playoffs until allowing the game winning run against the Reds in a pivotal loss that gave Cincinnate a 2-0 edge in the Fall Classic. He continued his up and down postseason performance with a blown save in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays in '92. This put the A's down 3-1 when Toronto eventually won in extra innings.
Eckersley remained the A's closer three more years but began to decline in '93 as his ERA ballooned to 4.16 and stayed north of four in '94 and '95. Eckersley was traded to the Cardinals after the '95 season joining former A's skipper Tony LaRussa and pitching guru Dave Duncan who were now in St. Louis. They squeezed some more quality innings from the aging hurler who was now on the wrong side of 40. He posted respectable ERA's and saved 59 games in two years for the Redbirds. Eckersley threw seven scoreless innings in the '96 playoffs but the Cards were eliminated by the Braves in the NLCS.
The 43 year-old Eckersley signed with the Red Sox for the '98 season and was used as a situational reliever. Usually a stat reserved for lefty specialists, Eck appeared in 50 games but logged just 39 innings. He had the same great control but his pitches had lost their zip and he allowed 46 hits including six homers. Eckerlsey called it a career in December when the Red Sox didn't offer him a contract.
Player: The April 10whitewashing was on Opening Day, I bet some of the Oriole fans out there remember that game with disdain.
Oddball: Eckersley has his own app. With the Eck App you can customize a photo to add his familiar shaggy hair and 'stache to the image of your choice. You can also play Eck Trivia and learn Eck-speak which revolves around his unique vocabulary.
if that isn't enough, there is also a quiz on Sporcle to test your knoweldge of Eck's catch phrases.
History: If you created a Dennis Eckerlsey character for a book no one would believe it, because it would be too far fetched. Here's a guy who posted over 1,100 innings before he was 25 and never missed significant time with injury. Sure he had a few seasons as a starter with some missed starts but he was otherwise durable. He wasn't a full-time closer until he was 32, yet when he retired with 390 saves he was 3rd on the all-time list. He was the first to have both a 20 win and 50 save season, a feat since matched by John Smoltz. His career is so unique that his closest comparable player per similarity score is list at just 722: Lindy McDaniel.
Eck won a World Series in '89, was a six time All Star, won a Cy Young and an MVP and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
A great source for this post was this SI article.
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