Mike Marshall’s 1974 Cy Young Award Mirage
In 1974, Mike Marshall became the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. In this essay, which is the first in a series about award winners, Gabriel Schechter examines Marshall’s season and the reasons behind his gaudy numbers, which included 106 games and 208 1/3 innings pitched.
Source: The Trading Card Database
Twenty-five starting pitchers won the Cy Young Award before the voters found a relief pitcher they felt deserved their votes. That pitcher was Mike Marshall of the 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers, who put up Herculean numbers out of the bullpen. Nobody had approached his figures of 106 games and 208 1/3 innings pitched—and nobody pitching today will get the chance to. But did Marshall actually have an award-worthy season in 1974?
Michael Grant Marshall was originally drafted in 1960 and reached the Majors in 1967 with the Detroit Tigers. Taken by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft, he meandered through two subsequent trades before he landed on the Montreal Expos in 1970. Three years later, he became a star.
Marshall was a legitimate case of a peon knowing more than the bosses. He earned a doctorate in the physiology of exercise and knew the intricate workings of all 31 muscles involved in throwing a baseball. “I’m a lab study,” he told interviewer Phil Pepe. “I’m a doctoral candidate doing this lab study. It’s my summer job that I’m doing this research with, that’s all I considered major-league baseball to be.” It took him years to convince a manager that he needed to work a lot, and then some, in order to pitch his best.
In Ball Four, Jim Bouton quoted Marshall explaining (in 1969), “The minute I approach a coach or a manager I can see the terror in his eyes. . . . What’s it going to be? What’s this guy want from me? Why can’t he be like everybody else and not bother me?”
Mauch Had Nothing to Lose
Finally, after a fifth-place finish in 1972, Expos Manager Gene Mauch turned Marshall loose the next season, the year Marshall turned 30. “Let’s find out what the limits are,” Marshall told Mauch. “What do we have to lose? Run me out there.” He appeared in 92 games, breaking the record of 90 set by Wayne Granger in 1970, and compiled 179 innings, also a record, while winning 14 games and leading the league with 31 saves. For that performance, he finished runner-up to Tom Seaver in the Cy Young Award balloting and fifth in the MVP Award vote.
He also got traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers and walked into a team that used a torrid start to interrupt the reign of the Big Red Machine. By May 15, the Dodgers had a 27–9 record and a 7½-game lead. After the Dodgers coasted through the summer with a comfortable lead, the Reds made a belated charge. They got as close as 1½ games on September 14 before the Dodgers held them off by four games.
The Dodgers’ season divided neatly into three phases: that 27–9 start, the long midseason joyride, during which they went 46–28 and led by as much as 10½ games, and the long grind toward the pennant, at 29–23 over the final two months. How did Marshall’s performance correlate with his team’s success?
Marshall pitched in 21 of those crucial first 36 games, a little below his pace for the season. He went 1–1 with a 2.43 ERA and three saves, which sounds like a small output for the No. 1 reliever out of 27 wins. It helps his cause to note that a short-lived change in the saves criteria in 1974—essentially disqualifying games in which the last pitcher entered to start the ninth inning—held his saves total down. Using today’s criteria, he would have had five saves.
The Other Side of the Coin
All of that masks the two huge negative stats that outweigh any good pitching he did up to that point. In those 21 appearances, Marshall entered with a total of 20 inherited runners. Sixteen of them scored! That’s a terrible record, beyond excuse. Officially, he amassed five blown saves. Four times, he entered with the bases loaded, and three times all the runners scored.
After one of the blown saves, he scavenged his lone win during the Dodgers’ sprint to the big early lead. Then there was the game on May 12 at San Diego. The Dodgers led, 9–3, in the seventh inning when Al Downing loaded the bases with nobody out. In came Marshall. Two walks and two hits later, his day was done. He had blown the six-run lead, but because it wasn’t a “save situation,” he didn’t earn a blown save. He didn’t take the loss either.
That’s how it went for Mike Marshall. If he had held every lead he was handed during the season’s first six weeks, the Dodgers’ record would’ve been 30–6, not 27–9. Marshall held them back. I have a lot of trouble giving him much credit for his contribution to their hot start.
Source: The Trading Card Database
He Pitched How Many Games in a Row?
Next under the microscope is the long, sweaty underbelly of the season, from mid-May through early August, when the Dodgers played solid ball and maintained a comfortable lead. The high point came in late June and early July, when the Dodgers won 10 games out of 11, with Marshall pitching in all of them as part of an astonishing 13-game streak. Surely this was Marshall’s time to shine.
He did shine. In those 13 games (in a 16-day period), he pitched 26 2/3 innings, went 6–0 with a 2.05 ERA, and added two saves. Five times he entered a tie game, winning four of them—once after giving up a run and escaping a loss when the Dodgers scored twice to win it. Of the seven inherited runners he faced during that stretch, four scored. That incendiary tendency hadn’t changed.
During the rest of that 74-game midsection of the season, Marshall’s results weren’t that special, with a 4–5 record and five more blown saves to go along with 11 saves. He struggled down the stretch, going 4–6 (and was rescued from two more losses by their offense). Two blown saves offset five saves, though under today’s rules he would have added five more.
The bottom line is a trio of alarmingly bad stats: 12 losses, 12 blown saves, and 31 of 75 inherited runners scoring (30 of 61 scored when he entered with less than two outs). No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of bad pitching. On July 4, his record was 11–3, and he went 4–9 the rest of the season.
Usually when a reliever wins the Cy Young Award, a contributing factor is the absence of a clearly superior starter. Consider all those blown saves. Andy Messersmith, Marshall’s teammate, finished second in the Cy Young Award vote after posting a 20–6 record and a 2.59 ERA. Twice he was leading when Marshall relieved him and blew the save. Those two wins would have given him a 22–6 record, perhaps more clearly worthy of the award.
How He Got Those Big Numbers
Still, the emphasis at voting time was on the gaudy numbers for games and innings, and those numbers have become legendary. But what kind of work did they actually represent? Exactly how was Marshall used in amassing those numbers? It wasn’t as if Manager Walt Alston told Marshall, “If I let you pitch every day, will you leave me alone?”
Actually, Marshall told Phil Pepe, it wasn’t far from that. After Alston stopped trying to understand Marshall’s thesis about continuous work (he pitched batting practice after days off), he told Marshall, “You just tell me when you can’t pitch. I’ll use you no matter what.” Which he did.
In today’s parlance, Marshall was not only the closer in 1974, he was also the set-up man, the seventh-inning man, and the mop-up guy. He entered 24 games when the Dodgers were losing, logging 42 2/3 innings. He used up another 44 innings in the 21 games he entered with at least a four-run lead. That’s roughly 40 percent of his output—wasted in games he wouldn’t even have warmed up in today.
Marshall had more appearances and innings pitched in relief than the other Dodgers’ pitchers put together. In 10 of his 21 saves, he pitched at least three innings, nursing a lead of at least four runs four times. Four times—that’s also how many times all season when he protected a one-run lead to earn a save. Twice as often—eight times—he blew a one-run lead. That’s horrible!
He was at his best when entering tie games, which he did 23 times. They accounted for 50 2/3 innings, nearly one-fourth of his workload, with a 10–5 record. That was also, ironically, his undoing in the World Series.
After logging nine shutout innings in six postseason appearances (with one save), Marshall made his first entrance in a tie game in Game 5 at Oakland. He pitched a scoreless sixth inning in a 2–2 game, but Joe Rudi led off the seventh with a home run, the game-winner that wrapped up the title for the A’s. It was a sour ending to an experiment that otherwise succeeded despite all the lab spills along the way.
Source: The Trading Card Database
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