Baseball is cruel to all of its children, but it’s particularly harsh on relievers. Even with the trend towards shorter appearances, it’s starters who hog the glory. They’re the ones who rack up the big numbers, most of the awards and most of the money. They’re the ones with the shots at perfect games and no-hitters. Ok, so sometimes there are combined no-hitters, but who remembers that Kirk Saarloos threw an inning and a third of a Houston Astros no-hitter? Not even his family, I bet.
Relievers get saves and holds, but the save is so contrived that one was recorded in a game won by 27 runs, and I think everyone knows the only people who pay attention to holds are the folks who care way too much about fantasy baseball. Besides, both saves and holds are too common to be properly exciting. What’s the pinnacle of relieverism? What’s the most incredible thing a reliever could do in a single game?
Some quick ground rules:
- No fancy statistics. We could play with stuff like win probability or leverage, but if you have to get out a calculator for something, it’s almost definitionally not incredible. It’s just math, faceless and implacable.
- Earning a win is important. Wins are the point of baseball, after all (unless you an an MLB owner, you cheap bastard).
- Let’s lean into the perversity of short-outing relief pitching. If you’re going to achieve legendary reliever status, you should do it as quickly as possible. None of this extended heroics stuff. That’s just wannabe starter-ism. We see your ridiculous strikeout run, Mr. Hader, and we want none of it.
Emerging from this bubbling stew comes something truly silly: the most reliever achievement possible would be earning a pitching win in a game without ever having actually pitched at all*.
*This would be a little bit like the notorious story of Melankomas the boxer, which Will related a few months ago.
According to Baseball-Reference, who have pitch-count records dating back to the 1980s, there have been 217 two-pitch wins. There have been 161 one-pitch wins. But has a zero-pitch win ever been achieved? Yes. Yes it has.
Last time we checked in on the miserably bad 2003 Detroit Tigers, we were marveling at one of Dmitri Young’s great achievements: passing up on hitting for the cycle in order to put his team in better position to win. (They lost, obviously.) What else did the Tigers get up to in their silliest of seasons?
Let’s go to Thursday May 1st. The Baltimore Orioles are in town, and thanks to a rainout the day before we’re getting some afternoon baseball in Detroit. Somehow, the 3-21 Tigers have been leading for much of the game — a Brandon Inge groundout drove in Dean Palmer in the 2nd, and while the Orioles got a run back a few innings later, the Tigers reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the 7th. This is where things get interesting.
There are two outs. Omar Infante, who’s just driven in the go-ahead run, is on at first base. Bobby Higginson, who is hitting .207/.311/.326, is coming to the plate. For the uninitiated, that is an absolutely miserable batting line. Incredibly, it’s also the best the Tigers have to offer so far in the young season. Remember how I said they were miserably bad? Yeah.
Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove decides not to take any chances whatsoever with Higginson’s ‘bat’, summoning B.J. Ryan from the bullpen. Ryan, who’d go on to make a couple of All-Star teams as a closer, is mostly being used as a left-handed specialist, exploiting lefty-lefty matchups to get quick outs. Higginson’s a lefty who can’t hit lefties, so the move makes sense.
If you’ll excuse a very loose sketch, here’s how things stand:
In addition to their ‘platoon’ edge over left-handed batters, left-handed pitchers have an advantage in the running game. Right-handed pitchers have to look over their shoulder to check on a runner at first base; lefties have them in sight the whole time, and therefore have a much easier time holding them close to the bag and preventing stolen bases.
This awareness can be extremely helpful, and some lefties have developed the ability to catch baserunners by surprise with a quick toss to first for a pickoff. B.J. Ryan is not one of those lefties. So far in his MLB career, he has earned a grand total of zero pickoffs.
Infante, meanwhile, is a shortstop, and reasonably quick. He notched a handful of steals in the minor leagues, enough to mark him as a potential threat on the basepaths, although he’s on base so rarely that it’s hard to say whether or not to be worried about him going for second. But with two outs, it’d be a good time for Infante to try, so before Ryan even bothers throwing a pitch to Higginson, he tosses over to Jeff Conine at first.
Omar Infante is not there. He is on his way to second, and he is absolutely screwed. Conine tosses over the shortstop Deivi Cruz, who applies the tag. Infante is out.
It got better. The Orioles came roaring back in the top of the eighth with a barrage of singles to take a 4-2 lead. As the putative pitcher at the time of the lead change, Ryan suddenly found himself in line for the win. Perhaps aware of the numerical oddity at play, Hargrove yanked Ryan in favor of Buddy Groom, who retired the Tigers in order. Baltimore eventually walked away with a 5-2 win. The pitcher of record: B.J. Ryan.
The instant he was pulled for Groom, Ryan became only the eighth pitcher credited by Baseball-Reference with an MLB appearance without throwing a pitch (the fifth is currently the GM of the Seattle Mariners, in case you missed those guys). But when the game finished, he was in possession of our holy grail: A pitching win without a pitch thrown. Trust the ‘03 Tigers to pull off something so marvelously inept.
Was Ryan the first reliever to accomplish this feat? Maybe not. Remember, Baseball-Reference only has pitch count data going back to to the mid-80s. Plenty of baseball had been played up to that point. Is there a candidate from the pre-pitch-count era?
There is! On July 1st, 1970, the California Angels beat the Milwaukee Brewers 4-3. Greg Garrett came on in relief with two outs in the bottom of the sixth and the Angels down 2-1. He picked off Tommy Harper, the Angels scored three times in the top of the 7th, and Garrett went on to earn the win.
But did Garrett throw any pitches before he picked off Harper?
According to the Wausau Daily Herald, yes:
Greg Garrett received credit for the victory without throwing a single pitch to a Milwaukee batter.
According to the Long Beach Independent, no:
There were two men out and Tommy Harper, the league’s leading base thief with 26, was stationed at first. Garrett threw one pitch to Mike Hegan before he calmly picked Harper off first.
Controversy! But we’ll give Garrett credit, based on a) the Los Angeles Times claiming zero pitches thrown and b) Secret Base policy of giving the tiebreaker to ‘cool things happening’.
Regardless of whether or not we include Garrett, Ryan has company in the zero-pitch win club. In 2009 Alan Embree, then with the Colorado Rockies joined the crew, bringing the number to either two or three, depending on who you ask. That’s still a pretty exclusive set. Since … nothing. As for the zero-pitch appearance brigade, it’s been officially accomplished a further 18 times since Ryan’s escapade, with Mike Stanton somehow appearing on the list twice.
Well done to all.