A new thought about Sparky Lyle

The writing brain is a funny thing. This post was going to be all about Kevin Youkilis and how a hated enemy is suddenly a Yankee. The feelings of this signing were so mixed up and tangled that any attempt at staying on the journalistic side and not the fan side were impossible. The deal led to thoughts of other enemies that were hated and then suddenly Yankees and that was what the topic here was supposed to be. It was all planned out with a list that included Reggie Jackson, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon and Sparky Lyle. The research led to the stats pages for all of those players, but once Lyle’s pages were under the microscope, all thoughts of the original topic got blown up. The more Lyle’s numbers were put together and considered, the overwhelming thought became, “How come this guy is never talked about as a Hall of Fame candidate?”

Sparky Lyle certainly fit the original topic to a tee. When he started his career with the Red Sox and pitched there for five seasons, he killed the Yankees. His WHIP against the Yankees in 42 appearances covering 72 innings was 0.986. The only team he was better against was the Chicago White Sox. His ERA against the Yankees was 2.25 and he won three of those games and saved thirteen more. Add in his glowering presence on the mound and he was hated by Yankee fans. Until he was a Yankee, of course, and then he became one of the most beloved figures of New York sports.

When it was time to consider Sparky Lyle for the Hall of Fame, the voters were not excited. He garnered thirteen-plus percent his first year, a little over five percent the next two years and then fell off the ballot in his fourth year. When his name came up again by the veteran committee, they were again unimpressed and he was not close to getting the vote. When Graham Womack asked dozens of baseball bloggers to submit his survey to compile the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame, Sparky Lyle did not make the top 50. The consensus all around is that he does not belong in that exclusive club.

The problem with Sparky Lyle’s career is that our present pitching stats are really heavy on strikeouts and a lack of walks. The theory is that walks and strikeouts are two of the few things that a pitcher can actually control. That makes sense in many ways, but there is still this little inkling inside this old brain that still says a batter has some say in the matter too. But be that as it may, Lyle did not strikeout a lot of people. And by most standards, he walked more than he should have too. For his career, his strikeouts per nine innings was a pedestrian 5.7. And since he walked 3.1 per nine for his career, his strikeout to walk ratio is a non-thrilling 1.82.

On top of those numbers, Lyle’s career WHIP was 1.275. That number is also rather average. His career ERA+ of 128 pales compared to say Mariano Rivera who sits at over 200. None of those numbers are sexy. And those are precisely why Sparky Lyle is not a geek’s HOF pick nor a writer’s pick for that august body. And even his career WPA is a mundane 14.  Most of these numbers just do not get exciting because his strikeout and walk totals were not exciting.

There is some merit to the argument that the game was different back when Lyle pitched. The prevailing thought to the day as shared to this writer by Lyle’s contemporary, Ducky Schofield, was to get the batter to hit the ball to the shortstop and get the game over with. But that argument is standing on the weakest of legs.

The argument for Lyle is hard to make because it is all those kinds of subjective arguments. For example, there is only one pitcher in major league history that pitched more innings and faced more batters than Sparky Lyle without ever making a single start in the major leagues. That guy was Kent Tukulve, another vastly overlooked pitcher in the annals of baseball. But even there, Tukulve did not beat Lyle by much in the IP and BF department despite pitching in 151 more games than Lyle.

-Lyle was one of those bridge relievers from the old days to the new. Like Tekulve, Gossage, Fingers, Garber  and Quisenberry, his career bridged the days from multiple-innings relievers to single innings relievers. Lyle averaged 1.54 innings pitched per outing for his career. He topped a hundred innings a season as a reliever six different times, tied for second most of relievers who did not start in any of those seasons. Only two relief pitchers had more seasons with three or more rWAR per season, Gossage and Rivera. Heck, Lyle pitched so many multiple-inning appearances that he accumulated 89 plate appearances along the way (he hit .192).

And you have to add in his post season appearances. In the post season, he totaled thirteen games, 21 innings pitched, an 0.938 WHIP, a 1.69 ERA and a 3-0 record with a save. And no one really likes the win statistic anymore, but Lyle’s 87 wins in relief appearances is still an American League record. His winning percentage was .566. He won 99 games when you include his two-plus years in Philadelphia.

You also have to give the guy some cred for teaching Ron Guidry that slider too!

Sparky Lyle does not make anyone’s list when it comes to the Hall of Fame. He will never get elected if he is considered by ten more veteran committees down the years. In the seven years he pitched for the Yankees, he averaged 105 innings pitched a season. He gets little love because we live in a strikeout, no-walk world. But that wasn’t Sparky Lyle. But what he was worked for a long, long time and it gets pretty difficult calling that kind of long-term success a fluke. He did something right. No, he’ll never be in Cooperstown, but if this chair had a vote, he would get it.

16 thoughts on “A new thought about Sparky Lyle

  1. jay_robertson

    Thanks, Will. Learned a lot this morning; I never realized he started in Boston, for one.

    I'd always wondered why he wasn't in the Hall – I realize, I'm a Yankees fan, but I loved the guy. Take Mo's reliability (for winning games, not for strikeouts) and add Sparky's own personality – what's not to love?

    Over a hundred innings in a season, as a reliever? There are a lot of starters who don't manage that, anymore. (due to injury and incompetence, I realize.)

    • dockeen

      Famously, it was Ted Williams that told Lyle that the toughest pitch in baseball was the slider, which prompted Lyle to figure out how to throw one.

      I also read where Guidry said that Lyle actually had a fastball that was about as good as his, but he never threw it like that in a game, only in the bullpen.

    • ProfRobert

      Lyle was traded for the immortal Danny Cater. It was the second-greatest fleecing of the Red Sox by the Yankees after Ruth for No No Nanette.

  2. Steve

    Could never understand why he wasn't in the hall. Anytime he came in to pitch always seemed they won. Always be my childhood idol

  3. Frank S.

    Nice piece, as usual, Will. But I thought "Dirt" Tidrow taught Gator the slider?

    • Not as I understand it. Tidrow was right-handed, so it makes more sense that Lyle would teach that pitch to the lefty Guidry.

      • Bill

        The story as I heard it was that they both did. One night early in 1977 (I believe it was in KC), the two of them sat down with Guidry in the bullpen and explained to him the importance of learning the pitch. My understanding is Lyle taught him the grip and Tidrow gave him pointers on when to use it. Then both of them worked with him as he developed it in the pen. That led to him pitching a terrific game against Oakland on a Friday night that started Guidry on his way. Talk about guys who should at least be considered for the Hall. Guidry's numbers match up quite nicely with Dizzy Dean's.

        • dockeen

          I saw an interview where Lyle said that his arm action and Guidry's were very similar, and that made teaching Guidry the downer slider that Lyle threw much easier.

  4. Corey

    I saw him pitch, and he was in the same class as Rivera when it came to post-season clutch performances. In some ways he was better, given his multi-inning appearances. Like Lou Piniella and Thurman Munson, he was a great Yankee who doesn't have the stats necessary to get into the Hall of Fame.

  5. John B

    I remeber the trade like it was yetserday. Lyle for Danny Cater and a PTBNL. It was the first of several moves that made the Yanks a Championship team and we fleeced the Red Sox along the way!

    • Bill

      And I think the player to be named later was Mario Guerrero, a middle infielder who could hit a little bit. Talk about your basic case of highway robbery.

    • ProfRobert

      John, sorry, I posted my comment above before I read yours. Funny how we think of the deal in the exact same words!

  6. dockeen

    Lyle was at his best in games with close leads. If it wasn't 1 run, it almost seemed like he would make it one run.

  7. Goose gossage

    Overrated by far. A good reliever, not HOF by any means

    • Dockeen

      In some ways, for some reason, Jessie Orosco reminded me of Lyle.

      I do know I felt confident that Lyle would not lose a game for you. Perhaps it was because he was
      such a contrast to some of the other guys they had in the pen, like Ken Clay, who, when they came
      in, you got the feeling the manager had given up on the game.

  8. Todd Orsich

    Great article. I am one who thinks Sparky should get consideration for the hall. If the relievers of these times would have to do what Sparky, Goose, and Fingers had to do, I don't think they be racking up the numbers that they are. The guys now a days benefit by the rules changes to earn a save. Maybe a harder push should be made for some of these relievers. If so, count me in.

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