After filling up a second outfield Mount Rushmore on Saturday, our run through a set of positional top-fours by position for the Chicago White Sox takes its first of three trips to the mound.
We start with the closers, understanding that is a role that has evolved since the institution of the save as an official statistic in 1969. It had been first developed by Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman in the early 1960s.
In the early years of the White Sox franchise, there wasn’t such thing as a closer. There were four starters who completed nearly all of their games and a few guys to pitch in relief if the starters faltered.
It was a trend that continued well into the 1970s — if a pitcher couldn’t cut it as a starter, only then was he considered as a reliever. When the save first came into vogue, the closer was more often referred to as a fireman. Why a fireman? Because he was the guy the manager turned to when there was a fire to be put out.
It was not uncommon for the fireman to be asked to get six, eight, 10 or more outs, based on when the situation in the game got dicey. But over time, managers began to play to the statistic, keeping their closer only for ninth-inning situations with a three-run lead or less. If it wasn’t a save situation, someone else usually got the call.
Thus the era of bullpen specialization was born, and we will delve into middle relievers/setup men in another segment.
The criteria to be considered for inclusion on the White Sox Mount Rushmore of closers? More than half of a pitcher’s appearances had to be as a reliever and he had to accumulate at least 50 saves for the club. There was one exception to this noted below, which left 12 pitchers to examine.
- Clint Brown (1936-40)
- Ed Farmer (1979-81)
- Terry Forster (1971-76)
- Keith Foulke (1997-2002)
- Roberto Hernandez (1991-97)
- Bob James (1985-87)
- Bobby Jenks (2005-10)
- Addison Reed (2011-13)
- David Robertson (2015-17)
- Bobby Thigpen (1986-93)
- Hoyt Wilhelm (1963-68)
- Wilbur Wood (1967-70)*
*NOTE: Wood spent four years as a reliever and eight as a starter for the White Sox and his career stats have been split into those two sections.
There is likely to be a surprise on this list, but the examination went beyond just comparing total number of saves.
Mount Rushmore of White Sox closers: Keith Foulke
Keith Foulke didn’t enter professional baseball on a star track, taken by the San Francisco Giants as a ninth-round pick out of off-the-beaten-path Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho in 1994.
By 1997, Foulke was trying to carve out a spot in the Giants’ rotation when he was moved as part of a nine-player deal with the Chicago White Sox at the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July.
After the trade, Foulke never made another start in the major leagues and it worked out just fine for him. He spent the rest of 1997 and all of 1998 as a setup man, gradually getting more opportunities to close behind Bob Howry in 1999.
In 2000, the roles reversed, with Foulke saving 34 games as Chicago won the AL Central title in 2000 and coming back with 42 saves in 2001.
In 2002, Foulke lost the closer’s role in June and wound up with just 11 saves, one of three relievers on the staff to record at least 10 that season.
That December, Foulke was involved in a six-player trade with the Oakland Athletics that brought Billy Koch, who had just saved 44 games, to the White Sox. Koch never clicked in Chicago.
Foulke later signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent in 2004 and was the closer for their 2004 World Series champion club, but retired due to chronic injury problems before the 2007 season. He came back briefly with the Athletics in 2008.
In parts of six seasons with the White Sox, Foulke saved 100 games in 118 chances while posting a 2.87 ERA and 0.991 WHIP. He struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings and walked just 2.1 per nine over his 446 innings for the club.