Bruce Sutter is my Go-To reference when I talk about players in the Hall of Fame that I would not have voted for if I had the vote.
Now let me be 100% clear. I have nothing against Bruce Sutter. He had a fine career. His peak was outstanding. And the next time I go to Cooperstown, I will see his plaque, nod and move on. I won’t egg it, cover it in toilet paper or stand by it with a megaphone protesting it.
If I were a Cubs or Cardinals fan, I’d love his inclusion. I am not. I am a Red Sox fan. I am sure some people feel that Jim Rice does not belong in, but I was thrilled at Rice’s election because he was one of my favorite players.
I am not one of those people who do not believe relievers should be in Hall or disrespect closers (or firemen as they were called in Sutter’s day.) I love closers. I wanted to be one growing up.
I just think only a handful of relievers in history belong in the Hall of Fame. Hoyt Wilhelm Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Mariano Rivera would be my proverbial Mount Rushmore and probably the only 4 I would admit.
Sutter was an undrafted free agent out of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania signed by the Cubs in 1971. From the start, he was a reliever. A surgery on his arm in 1972 made him change how he gripped the ball. Sutter learned the split finger fastball and he was off and running.
In Single A Key West and Double A Midland and Triple A Wichita, he threw to microscopic ERAs out of the pen. This was at a time when teams were embracing the role of the relief pitcher, so Sutter went through the farm with only two career Single A starts.
Midway through 1976, he got the call to Wrigley. Right away, he became an elite reliever in the National League. He was selected to the 1977 and 1978 All Star teams. In 1979, he was teamed up with Dick Tidrow in the bullpen with Tidrow being the set up man and Sutter closing out the games.
The result of the Tidrow/Sutter combination was a lockdown pen for an 80-82 Cubs team. Sutter saved 37 games and pitched to a 2.22 ERA over 101 1/3 innings. He struck out 110 and walked only 32.
Sutter’s performance won him the Cy Young Award, a title that bolstered his Hall of Fame case. Today there would be no way that he would have won the Cy Young over J R. Richard’s dominant performance or Phil Niekro’s 342 innings (or the other Niekro, Joe, and HIS 21 win season.) But you can not remove Cy Youngs retroactively.
Sutter had another fine All Star season in 1980 but the Cubs were a rotten 64-98. It is amazing that Sutter led the league with 28 saves that year when you consider how infrequently his team had a lead. The Cubs realized they had a luxury they could not afford with a dominant reliever around a lousy team. They shipped him off to St. Louis for a package that included Leon Durham on December 9, 1980.
The Cardinals found themselves in a strange spot that day. The previous day, they made a blockbuster trade with San Diego to acquire Rollie Fingers. So they had the two best relievers in baseball under contract. On the 9th, 10th and 11th of December, Sutter and Fingers were teammates technically. The idea of that tandem must have been tempting.
On the 12th of December, it was over. The Cardinals forked over Ted Simmons, Pete Vuckovich and Fingers to Milwaukee. The Brewers would get 2 Cy Youngs and a MVP out of the deal. The Cardinals would get Dave LaPoint and a few others.
The Cardinals chose Sutter to be their closer. The 1981 Cardinals had the best record in the NL East overall, but they did not make the post season because of the absurd split season playoffs. Sutter won the Rolaids Relief award and led the NL in saves.
In 1982, everything came together for St. Louis. Another saves lead for Sutter, 102 1/3 innings logged out of the pen, and a third place finish for the Cy Young as the Cardinals won the Division.
Sutter closed out the NLCS sweep of the Braves and faced the Brewers in the World Series. An injury to Rollie Fingers made the Brewers bullpen vulnerable. Sutter won a game and saved 2 more as he got the highlight all closers wish for, the final out of the World Series.
In 1984, he had his last great season, matching the record for saves in a season, 45, and throwing 122 2/3 innings along the way. He left St. Louis for Atlanta for the 1985 season. He bombed in Atlanta, missed an entire season and never pitched after 1988, even though he collected a check through 1990.
He had a fine career. He had a fantastic peak. But it was not as long a peak as Rollie Fingers or Rich Gossage. Was his Cy Young what put him over the top?
His career seems more comparable to Dan Quisenberry, who also had a great peak, post season success and many top 5 Cy Young finishes. And yet Quiz was one and done on the ballot and Sutter hung around until he was voted in.
Again, I am not mad that Sutter got elected. I won’t get mad when Trevor Hoffman gets elected either. I just would not have voted for him with all due respect.
But let’s finish this positively and remember his greatest moment, confirming to St. Louis they made the right choice in bullpen closers at the end of the 1982 World Series.