How Luis Arroyo Opened the Door for Closers

 

Oh, What a Relief: Luis Arroyo

During the 1961 season, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record. But it was a left-handed reliever named Luis Arroyo who changed the game forever.

Luis Arroyo elevated the role of the closer thanks to his spectacular 1961 season with the New York Yankees.

Luis Arroyo elevated the role of the closer thanks to his spectacular 1961 season with the New York Yankees.

Arroyo didn’t invent the save. And he didn’t invent the role of closer. What he did – through his spectacular season of 1961 – was demonstrate what a dedicated closer could be for a pennant contender: indispensable.

Elevating the Role of Reliever

At the beginning of the 1960s, the measure of a pitcher was how effective he was as a starter: how many wins, how many innings, how many complete games. Aces pitched complete games, and occasionally relieved. And while baseball in the early 1960s had its share of successful relief specialists such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Roy Face, Stu Miller and Lindy McDaniel, any reliever could be used at practically any point in the game for as many innings or outs as needed.

The closer just happened to be guy who got the last out.

Arroyo more than any other pitcher changed that, and set baseball on the course where single-inning set-up pitchers and single-batter specialists became as integral as they are in today’s game. Arroyo’s spectacular dominance during the 1961 season established the prototype for the “closer,” the relief pitcher whose job was to get the critical final outs that preserved victory. The closer became a strategic pitching weapon rather than a late-inning after-thought.

Out of the Bullpen, Out of Nowhere …

Arroyo won 11 games as a St. Louis Cardinals rookie in 1955. He won only seven more games over the next four seasons.

Arroyo won 11 games as a St. Louis Cardinals rookie in 1955. He won only seven more games over the next four seasons.

Little in Arroyo’s career prior to 1961 suggested that his pitching in that season would be so effective and game-changing. He toiled in the minor leagues for 6 seasons. In his first 4 major league seasons – pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds – Arroyo posted a combined record of 18-22 with a 4.42 ERA and only one save in 117 appearances. Eleven of those victories came as a Cardinals rookie in 1955.

On July 20 of 1960, Arroyo was purchased by the New York Yankees. Both his effectiveness as a reliever, and his career, improved dramatically with that change of franchise. Over the second half of the 1960 season, Arroyo appeared in 29 games for the Yankees – all in relief – going 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA and seven saves.

In 1961, Arroyo was 15-5 with a 2.14 ERA and set a major league record with 29 saves.

In 1961, Arroyo was 15-5 with a 2.14 ERA and set a major league record with 29 saves.

The 1961 season was when Arroyo showed the baseball world what the role and value of a closer could be. Arroyo pitched in 65 games and finished 54 of them, the most in the major leagues in both categories. Arroyo also set a major league record with 29 saves, while compiling a 15-5 record with a 2.19 ERA. He finished sixth in the balloting for Most Valuable Player.

Arroyo’s Legacy

Arroyo’s stay in excellence would be short-lived. He developed a sore arm during the next spring and was limited to only 27 appearances in 1962 and six in 1963 before retiring. He finished with a career record of 40-32 with a 3.93 ERA.

Prior to 1960, the major league record for saves in a season was 27, shared by Joe Page (1949) and Ellis Kinder (1953). Major league pitchers had posted 20 or more saves in a season only nine times, with McDaniel (26) and Face (24) both accomplishing the feat in 1960. After Arroyo, the floodgates were opened. Through the rest of the 1960s, 39 times pitchers recorded seasons of 20 or more saves. Ted Abernathy cracked the 30-save barrier in 1965 when he notched 31.

Arroyo’s record lasted only four seasons. His impact remains greater than ever.

 

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