Long before “bullpening” and “shortening the game” became fashionable terms, the 1990 Cincinnati Reds deployed a triumvirate of late-inning arms to a World Series victory.
Lou Piniella probably didn’t realize it a the time, but in his debut season managing the Cincinnati Reds he was about to revolutionize the game. The 1990 Reds were coming off a nightmarish season that saw their former manager accept a lifetime ban from the game while finishing fifth-place in the National League West after four-consecutive years as the runners-up.
Even though Piniella was blessed with a trio of dependable arms in Jose Rijo, Tom Browning and Danny Jackson at the top of the rotation, the No. 4 and No. 5 spots were question marks to say the least. Somehow Sweet Lou was able to coax 59 starts out of Jack Armstrong, Rick Mahler and Norm Charlton.
With Armstrong averaging right at six innings per start and Mahler just below that mark, it was apparent Piniella would be going to the bullpen early and often. Despite going an average of 6.5 innings in 16 starts, Piniella gambled that Charlton would be even more effective in relief. It was a bet that paid off handsomely.
Charlton would toss 154.1 innings in 56 appearances on the season, winning 12 games and collecting two saves. For good measure, Charlton threw a complete game and a shutout. To say Charlton was a workhorse would be an understatement, but the bullpen was his true home.
Making 40 trips to the mound from the pen, Norm Charlton saw himself entering the game 28 times when the Reds were either ahead or tied. In addition to earning a couple of saves, Charlton won six games in relief, collected 10 holds and only allowed five of the 25 runners he inherited to score.
As Charlton was doing his damage in the 7th inning, Rob Dibble was warming up to handle the next frame. Dibble had a career year in 1990. Throughout his 68 appearances, Dibble hurled 98 innings while striking out a staggering 136 batters. Additionally, Dibble collected 11 saves and posted an absolutely ridiculous 229 ERA+.
However, it was the postseason where Dibble shined his brightest. Tossing a total of 9.2 innings between the National League Championship Series and the World Series, Dibble failed to yield a run. Fanning 14 Pirates and Athletics, while issuing only two free passes, he earned a share of the 1990 NLCS MVP award.
The player Rob Dibble shared the 1990 NLCS MVP award with was none other than his bullpen mate and Reds closer Randy Myers. Following the 1989 season, the Reds and Mets thought it would be a good idea to swap southpaw closers. The Reds shipped John Franco to the Big Apple in exchange for Myers landing in the Queen City.
Despite Franco becoming the best closer in Mets history, I can’t imagine anyone in Reds Country being disappointed in what Myers provided to the city of Cincinnati. Sporting a 2.08 ERA over 86.2 innings, Myers collected 31 saves and posted a sparkling 188 ERA+ for the 1990 season.
But like his set-up man Rob Dibble, the postseason is where Myers firmly established his place in Reds lore. Pitching 8.2 innings of shutout baseball in the NLCS and the World Series, Myers also fanned 10 hitters.
In addition to amassing four saves, Myers was on the hill as Carney Lansford popped out to first baseman Todd Benzinger for the final out of the Reds four-game sweep over the heavily-favored Oakland A’s.
Bullpens have become as important as any area of the game. In the last five years, the Royals have won a championship because of it and the Astros have lost one as a result of late-inning implosions.
However, the next time MLB Network or another talking head speaks about the importance of “shortening the game” you can sit back and remember when the Reds were playing a six inning game to perfection 30 years ago. The Nasty Boys were ahead of their time.