Forty-four years ago today, the Yankees’ Sparky Lyle became the first relief pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award. Sparky received nine first-place votes, finishing ahead of future Hall of Fame starters Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan, who finished second and third respectively in both first-place votes and overall voting. It’s worth taking a look back at Sparky’s season, as it sure was a compelling one.
Lyle obviously had a phenomenal 1977 season helping the Yankees win their first World Series in 15 years, just one week prior to winning the award. Sparky led the AL in appearances with 72 and led AL relievers in ERA, ERA+, and batters grounded into double plays (which came in handy with a strikeout rate that was a tick below league average, as Sparky’s was). He also finished in the top five among AL relievers in innings pitched with 137, saves with 26, wins with 13, winning percentage, and FIP.
Of course, the workload jumps out at us when we read it. Chad Green led the AL in innings among relievers in 2021 with 83.2 – Lyle’s 137 frames were only good enough for third among that group in 1977, and he was one of six AL pitchers* to pitch exclusively out of the bullpen who topped 100 innings. Lyle averaged 5.7 outs per appearance and faced 554 batters during the regular season; only three starting pitchers on the 2021 Yankees faced more, for more perspective.
*That total doesn’t include late Yankees teammate Dick Tidrow who threw 104 innings out of the pen but also made seven starts.
Yet it wasn’t just the volume of work — it was when Lyle was required to do it that is interesting as well. Yankees manager Billy Martin was of the mind that crucial spots in the game required the use of your best relief pitcher, with little regard to what inning the game was in. Unlike today’s game, in which a team’s best reliever is typically only used in the eighth inning or later, Lyle entered games in the sixth inning or earlier 15 times in 1977. (Aroldis Chapman entered a game prior to the ninth inning one time in 61 appearances in 2021.)
Although it didn’t factor in winning the Cy Young, the most amazing example of this came in the postseason. Trailing Kansas City two games to one in the best of five-game ALCS, Martin called on Lyle to protect a one-run lead with two on and two out in the fourth inning. Sparky not only escaped the jam but closed the game out with 5.1 innings of two-hit, shutout baseball.
When I wrote “crucial spots” above, I also meant that Martin paid little regard to if the Yankees were winning or losing when identifying tight situations in which to deploy Lyle. During the 1977 season, Lyle entered the game with the Yankees leading 36 times and with the Yanks trailing 26 times. Considering the fact that the 1977 Yankees won 100 games, they trailed far less often than they led, so 26 is a very high number.
Those 137 innings weren’t comprised of long appearances performing mop-up duty, either. Of his 72 appearances, Lyle entered into a high-leverage situation in 46 of them and inherited at least one base runner in a staggering 82 percent of his appearances. (Chapman inherited a baserunner in six percent of his games this past season, for comparison.)
Although such numbers and circumstances seem particularly odd when put side-by-side with today’s relievers, usage patterns like Lyle’s weren’t that unusual in 1977. For example, Minnesota’s Tom Johnson and Boston’s Bill Campbell also had great seasons, and both were used in similar fashions to Lyle. Both Johnson and Campbell threw more innings and faced more batters than Sparky in 1977, and both were used whether their teams were leading or trailing, whether it was early or late in the game and often with runners already on base. Also like Lyle, they were rarely used in low leverage or mop-up situations.
In fact, Johnson led the AL in wins among relievers, while Campbell tied with Lyle for second. Campbell also led the AL in saves with 31 with Sparky finishing second with 26. It almost begs the question of whether or not Lyle “should have” won the award. In addition to Johnson’s and Campbell’s great seasons out of the pen, Chicago’s Lerrin LaGrow topped Lyle in WAR among relievers as well. Of course, WAR wasn’t a measuring stick regarded by BBWAA writers in 1977, but there wasn’t a shortage of starting pitchers having great seasons in either, WAR totals and otherwise. Future Hall of Famers Palmer, Ryan, and Bert Blyleven had typically great seasons, as did California’s Frank Tanana and Lyle’s teammate, Ron Guidry. Perhaps quite telling of the varied opinions at the time: Lyle was actually left off 13 of the 28 ballots entirely.
Who the award should have gone to is a discussion we can delve into more deeply some other time. For today’s purposes, it’s simply a great moment in Yankees history to revisit. Lyle was not only the first AL reliever to win, he was only the third Yankee to do so up to that point, joining Whitey Ford and Bob Turley as previous pinstriped winners. Also in an interesting piece of trivia, Lyle was MLB’s career leader in saves at the time as well. As Lyle noted himself, pairing the award with the end of a 15-year title drought made it even more special. (Although I would disagree with his assessment that it may have been “too much to take.”)