In Their Footsteps: The long reliever

Nobody wants to be the long man.

Almost by definition, it’s the last spot on the pitching staff.  It’s the pitcher who may go eight days between appearances.  Who often pitches when the starter has been chased early and the game has gotten out of hand, or when the team has a huge lead (or huge deficit) late and doesn’t want to send a reliever out who might be needed the next day in a critical spot. 

Sometimes it’s a rookie whose upside as a starter may be perceived as relatively limited and therefore the organization isn’t concerned with the sporadic work, at least not as much as it would be if the pitcher were a top prospect.   Other times it might be the former top prospect getting what could be a last shot at holding down a big league job.

There are those rare instances, however, in which the last man on the staff is the equivalent of the utility player on the bench, a pitcher capable of filling different roles effectively, giving the manager – and the general manager – flexibility during the game, and with the roster.

Danny Darwin was that man in 1980, his first full season in the major leagues.

Signed by Texas as an undrafted free agent out of Grayson County Junior College in 1976, Darwin staged a meteoric rise through the Rangers system, reaching Arlington in 1978.  He split the 1979 season between AAA and Texas, and in 1980, at age 24, he was in the big leagues for good, even if his job description wasn’t as sharply defined as his staffmates’ roles were.

Darwin started two games (contributing quality starts both times).  He appeared in relief 51 times, logging at least three innings 10 different times (including three outings that lasted at least five frames).  He had 14 opportunities to save games, converting eight of them, but he also entered the game five different times in the third inning.  All told, the Bonham Bullet went 13-4, 2.63, striking out 104 American Leaguers in 109.2 innings and yielding only four home runs.  He was versatile, resilient, and an invaluable member of manager Frank Lucchesi’s staff.

“Danny always wanted to pitch,” recalls Eric Nadel, the longtime radio voice of the Rangers who was in his second year with the club in 1980.  “He wanted the ball all the time, whether it was as a reliever or a starter.  And he was unbelievably tough, rock solid physically and mentally.”

Darwin’s toughness was never more evident than in June of that season.  Having started the season in the bullpen, he was moved in the rotation late in May when Steve Comer was sidelined with a sore shoulder.  Three days after his second start, Darwin fractured a knuckle on his throwing hand when coming to the defense of teammate Mickey Rivers in a brawl with White Sox fans after a doubleheader in Chicago.  Three weeks later he was back on the mound, once again working in relief.  

Pitching in every imaginable role that season, Darwin logged 94.2 of his 109.2 innings in relief, an especially formidable number in those days, when starting pitchers regularly went deeper into games.  Texas starters average 6.1 innings in 1980.  

Darwin exemplified what you’d want out of your long man if you could draw it up.  Though just 24, he was effective regardless of whether you needed a save, an emergency start, or six innings of rescue work when a teammate didn’t have it on the mound that day.

But Darwin’s success as a long man led to a 21-year career that for the most part was in higher-leverage situations.  He made 371 big league starts, and of his 345 relief appearances, the vast majority came in the final third of the game, including 57 save opportunities.  The long relief role is generally a young pitcher’s stepping stone to something more pivotal, as in Darwin’s case, or else a landing place for an older pitcher who didn’t quite make himself indispensable as a starter or late reliever.

So how do you project a prospect into that role?  By suggesting a young pitcher is suited to be the final man on a pitching staff, isn’t that essentially lowering his ceiling?  

Not necessarily – not if the idea is that a pitcher can break into the big leagues that way, building stamina by way of long relief appearances, if not a spot start or a save opportunity from time to time.  Darwin did it.  So did Johan Santana, in his Rule 5 season with Minnesota.  And Dave Stewart and Storm Davis and Scott McGregor.

I’m not about to sentence Oklahoma righthander Doug Mathis or Frisco righthander Michael Schlact to a career as a long reliever.  Both are on paths that could make them reliable inning-eaters in the middle or back of the big league rotation.  But they offer some things that could work well in long relief.  Both are groundball machines, a style that helps keep pitch counts down and inning counts up.  And when I look at Nadel’s description of Darwin – “unbelievably tough, rock solid physically and mentally” – that’s an equally perfect portrayal of Mathis and Schlact.  Bakersfield Tommy Hunter potentially fits the profile, too.

Santana is the premier starter in baseball today.  Stewart and Davis and McGregor had very good careers as starting pitchers, and Darwin did, too.  Each had at least one 15-win season.  But before doing so, each of them worked out of the back of a big league bullpen, which isn’t necessarily a condemnation.  It can be a launching point for the pitcher, while potentially giving the club a flexible, dependable arm that can impact games in any number of ways.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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