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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #67 Sparky Lyle

The first truly great Yankees closer gets his due.

ALCS Game 4 - New York Yankees v Kansas City Royals

Name: Albert Walter “Sparky” Lyle
Position: Relief pitcher
Born: July 22, 1944 (Du Bois, PA)
Yankee Years: 1972-78
Primary number: 28
Yankee statistics: 745.2 IP, 420 G, 57-40, 2.41 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 148 ERA+, 141 SV, 454 K, 15.1 fWAR, 14.9 rWAR

Biography

The Yankees had pitchers who racked up saves before Sparky Lyle came along, before the contemporary definition of closer came into being in the mid- to late-1960s. However, the lefty was one of the first star pitchers to make their hay with the save, which only became an official stat tracked by MLB in 1969. Lyle reached the big leagues in 1967 and experienced success with the Red Sox, but ascended to fame upon a trade to the Yankees before the 1972 season.

Lyle’s 141 saves during his seven years in the Bronx were second in the league to Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers during that time, and easily the most in Yankees history, clearing then-second place Johnny Murphy by nearly 40. After short stints with the Rangers, Phillies, and White Sox, Lyle was again second only to Fingers in career saves at the time of his retirement. Throw in some playoff heroics, becoming the first true modern reliever to take home a Cy Young Award, and being the first in what’s now an extended tradition of star closers in New York, and Lyle’s place in Yankees history is nothing if not well-earned, despite a somewhat acrimonious end to his tenure.

Early Years

Born in 1944 and raised in rural Pennsylvania, Lyle’s route to the pros was unconventional, by modern standards. Coming from a working class family with a carpenter father and seamstress mother, Lyle starred in football and basketball as a teenager, but his high school’s lack of a baseball team forced him to look elsewhere, eventually leading him to play — and dominate — American Legion ball.

The Brandon Nimmos of the major leagues are few and far between these days, but Lyle came of age just at the tail end of the era in which the amateur-to-pro pipeline consisted pretty much of scouts watching players and signing them if they looked good. Lyle threw too soft to be much of an impact prospect, but his performance was enough to get him a chance with the Baltimore Orioles, who gave him no signing bonus and just a $400 monthly salary in the minor leagues, which, believe it or not, is significantly better than what some minor leaguers these days are getting.

Trade to Boston and path to the majors

Lyle’s first season as a pro went well, working mostly as a starter and finishing with 95 punchouts in just 65 innings as a 19-year-old in the Appalachian League. It was enough of a performance to convince the Red Sox of his gusto, who wasted no time selecting him in the second round of the Rule 5 Draft, one of the first successes to come out the then-new institution.

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

Lyle began thriving upon a full-time move to the bullpen, crediting then-Red Sox coach Ted Williams for the development of his nasty slider, which later became his signature pitch for the bulk of his career. The “Splendid Splinter” told Lyle that it was the only pitch that he could never hit, even when he knew it was coming.

Lyle made three spot-starts for Boston’s Double-A club in 1968, and that was the last time he’d ever take the field at the start of the game. Lyle’s second year as a full-time reliever was even better than his first, and after holding hitters to a 1.77 ERA through his first 16 appearances of the 1967 season, was called up to the big leagues, where his career embarked to the top level at which it would stay for nearly a decade.

The left-hander made an immediate impact on one of the best Red Sox teams in several decades, debuting with a 2.28 ERA over 27 games that, somewhat hilariously, was still good for “just” a 156 ERA+, thanks to the pitcher-friendly run environment. (For reference, Blake Snell’s Cy Young winning 2.25 ERA in 2023 led the league with an ERA+ over 180). However, Lyle showed little long-term negative effects of the post-Bob Gibson lowering of the mound in 1969, struggling to a 3.88 ERA in 1970 but rebounding to a 2.77 ERA with 16 saves the subsequent year, having already established himself as a premium back-end pitcher with at least 11 saves in his final four years in Boston. But it was further down the interstate, the year later, that Lyle became truly elite.

Move to the Yankees

More or less the moment he arrived in the Bronx, Lyle was a star. Already one of the better relievers in the majors, the Yankees poached him from the Red Sox in a baffling deal for a pair of players, Danny Cater and Mario Guerrero, neither of whom wound up having much of a career. Lyle, meanwhile, quickly established himself as a force in the back of the Yankees bullpen, slicing his walk rate nearly in half and dominating to the tune of a 1.92 ERA and a league-best 35 saves, breaking the AL record set two years prior by Minnesota’s Ron Perranoski.

New York Yankees

Earning the Fireman of the Year award on a mediocre Yankees team, Lyle was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise moribund franchise, suffering through the final years of CBS ownership and then seven consecutive seasons without postseason play.

While he’s often credited alongside Fingers as the godfathers of the modern closer role, Lyle may have been the true pioneer of the modern model. Of the 59 games he appeared in in 1972, he finished an astounding 56 of them, at the time the highest rate in big league history. With 107.2 innings under his belt, though, he wasn’t a one-inning specialist. He was simply a pitcher who came in when the game needed to end. The result was, somewhat humorously, a seventh-place finish in Cy Young voting but a top-three result in the MVP race.

Lyle would eventually get his award, but the rest of the Yankees had to get better, first. The 1973 season brought George Steinbrenner, and another couple years of mediocrity ensued for the Yankees, with Lyle taking a slight step back to a mid-twos ERA and 25 saves. The best was yet to come, though.

The Best of the Best

Things improved for the Yankees in 1974 under new management (and manager Bill Virdon), and if Lyle was in the conversation for the best in the game at that point, he left no doubt during that summer, bringing his ERA down to a career best 1.66. He also brought to town his distinctive mustache, paving the way for countless rebels of the Steinbrenner era dress code. Lyle only recorded 15 saves, but a 215 ERA+ was the best among big league relievers by nearly 20 percent. In the vein of the early closer, who often resembled the October 2016 Andrew Miller definition of Relief Ace more than anybody since, he ran that ERA while also throwing 114.1 innings, nearly two per appearance, which itself was good for fourth on an otherwise mediocre pitching staff.

Lyle wasn’t a fireballer by any means, but with one of the deadliest sliders in the game, he didn’t particularly need it. By modern standards, his strikeout numbers don’t scream “elite back-end reliever,” but his 17.4-percent strikeout rate as a Yankees was roughly four points above the league average, because hitters just didn’t see that many lefty sliders like his.

Sparky slider

Up until the advent of the closer, the bullpen was generally considered the realm of pitchers simply not good enough to be a starter, who could be expected to go the distance on any given day. Lyle was perhaps the first pitcher whose stardom was recognized from the get-go as a reliever. Other contemporaries like Fingers, Rich Gossage, and Mike Marshall all had spells as mediocre starters near the beginning of their careers, and by the time the next generation of true closers emerged in the vein of Bruce Sutter, Kent Tekulve, and Dan Quisenberry, Lyle was already at the peak of his powers, or even past them.

One of the things you can do when you’re good is get away with being a bit of a jerk, depending on how you define jerk of course. Lyle was more a jerk who folks referred to with a grin than one who was disliked. That is to say, all sources — most prominently Lyle himself — say that few loved practical jokes like the popular lefty, whose habit of covertly lighting matches in the shoe heels of players giving interviews is something that I still can’t quite wrap my head around, because, in part, I simply can’t picture someone lighting a match within several inches of me and not noticing? I’m also not a big league reliever, and even within the weird realm of baseball, bullpenners are just a different breed.

The Yankees won 89 games that year, but it still wasn’t quite enough for Steinbrenner, who landed the first ever big fish of free agency, ensuring that Lyle wouldn’t be the team’s undisputed best pitcher by signing Catfish Hunter, fresh off of three consecutive rings with the Athletics. But it didn’t quite have the desired effect: Hunter was dominant, but the rest of the team? Not so much. Lyle was sapped by injuries and took a step back, recording a 3.12 ERA, and amid a chaotic season that saw the ballyhooed return of Billy Martin to manager’s chair, actually lost his closing gig for a while, ceding saves to Tippy Martinez and Dick Tidrow at various points of the season.

The chaos wasn’t over. But Lyle’s rough year certainly was.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning”

If the advent of free agency and acquisition of Hunter in 1975 was a harbinger of more urgency from the Steinbrenner regime, 1976 hit the gas pedal, with Lyle adding plenty of fuel to the tank. Bold trades for Oscar Gamble, Mickey Rivers, and Carlos May re-invigorated the Yankees offense, and just as importantly, Lyle re-gained his form and re-captured the closer job, making his second All-Star team and once again leading the league with 26 saves. The Yankees famously made it all the way to the World Series before falling to the Big Red Machine. Surprisingly, Lyle hardly saw any burn during this playoff run, appearing just once in their five-game set with the Royals in the ALCS and twice in their losing effort to Cincinnati. He’d have his moment in the sun soon enough.

If 1976 brought the Yankees back into the national spotlight, 1977 shone it even brighter with the controversial signing of Hunter’s erstwhile teammate Reggie Jackson, with Lyle reportedly being one of the more vocal leaders in the clubhouse against what was perceived to the haughty ego of the game’s greatest hitter.

New York Yankee Mike Heath

At the same time, Lyle was as dominant as ever for a team that was in the spotlight like they hadn’t been since the days of Mantle, Maris, and Ford. Lyle led the league in appearances, improved on his ‘76 numbers with 26 saves and a 2.12 ERA, and with the Yankees rotation once again relatively unremarkable — save the emergence of another young southpaw named Ron Guidry, whose breakout was partially accredited — Lyle and his career-high 137 innings made him as key of a cog in their pitching staff as Guidry. Incredibly, the Yankees utilized just 13 pitchers all season, and with Hunter struggling to the worst season of his career, Lyle’s stardom was front and center. The result? The first relief pitcher to ever win the Cy Young award. WAR may scoff at the idea, but you had to be there, right?

And then there were the playoffs. Even by Yankees standards, the 1977 team stands alone as one of the most fascinating teams in history, but without a championship, it would be nothing but what-ifs. Without Lyle, there simply would have been no championship. After once again sitting out the first three games of the ALCS against the Royals, in which Kansas City took a 2-1 series lead, Lyle put the team on his shoulders, throwing a dominant 5.1 innings (unheard of for a modern reliever) to close out Game 4, forcing a winner-take-all Game 5.

At which point, Lyle simply did it again: entering with two runners on base and a 3-2 deficit in the eighth inning, the lefty struck out Cookie Rojas to end the threat. After the Yankees offense came alive with three runs in their half of the ninth, Lyle finished the job, sending the Yankees to the World Series with a scoreless ninth.

The heroics continued into their World Series showdown with the Dodgers. Lyle finished off a Game 1 victory with 3.1 shutout innings in relief of Don Gullett. His only blemish of the postseason came in more or less garbage time, allowing a run in an inning tossed at the end of a 6-1 loss in Game 2. Complete games from Mike Torrez, Guidry, and Torrez again precipitated the need for any more Lyle in the series, but his spot in history was well secured.

Now We Have Bad Blood

Usually, a closer isn’t at the top of a team’s offseason needs list when the one you have just won the Cy Young Award, but it was George Steinbrenner’s world, and we were living in it. The signing of Gossage to a sizeable free agent contract put the writing on the wall, and while expectations were that the back end of winning games would be more or less a timeshare, it didn’t take long to find that wouldn’t be the case. Lyle was 33 and had more than 600 appearances on his body, which already lacked what you might call octane; Gossage was a 26-year-old fireballer who put up strikeout rates that would be considered good in 2023 at a time when the league average was in the vicinity of 13 percent.

New York Yankees
Lyle, Rawly Eastwick, and Gossage
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Lyle struggled to a 3.43 ERA and 105 ERA+, easily his worst marks as a Yankee, while Gossage dominated. Billy Martin was infamously sacked midseason, and while the Yankees managed to repeat their World Series win over the Dodgers, Lyle watched from the bullpen, making just one appearance across 10 postseason games.

That was it for Lyle in pinstripes. After expressing dissatisfaction with his role on the team throughout the season, as well as a desire to be traded specifically to Texas (he had the NBA beat by about 40 years in that regard), he achieved wish fulfillment with an offseason deal. The Yankees dealt him to the Rangers with several players for a substantial package that included Dave Righetti, the eventual successor in the role to Gossage himself.

How do we know most of this? Because Sparky wrote a book about it! While he was still playing! Less than a year after leaving the team, The Jim Bouton-esque The Bronx Zoo hit the shelves, an inside tell-all of the chaos and conflict within those championship Yankees teams. If nothing else, it did give us the gem, courtesy of Graig Nettles, of how Lyle so very quickly went “from Cy Young to Sayonara.”

The End of the Road & Post Playing Days

While it is entirely understandable why someone would be upset about being replaced literally on the heels of a Cy Young Award, the unfortunate thing is that it was probably the right move; Lyle was more or less done after his 1977 heroics. His trade to Texas produced little in the way of results, and after a year and a half, he found himself on the move to Philadelphia in a simple PTBNL deal. Lyle’s Phillies won the World Series in 1980, but he was in eligible to pitch since he was acquired in September.

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Lyle endured a tough year in 1981, despite a trio of scoreless playoff appearances that turned out to be his swan song on the national stage. The Phillies lost that series to the Expos, and over halfway through another subpar ‘82, Philadelphia cut bait. Lyle finished his career with the Chicago White Sox after having had his contract purchased for the simple price of cold, hard cash.

After 11 appearances on the South Side, Lyle had reached the end of the road. He spent the later part of his post-playing career managing in the Atlantic League, top dog amongst non-MLB affiliates in the country at the time, where he led the Somerset Patriots to five championships before having his number retired in 2012. Their mascot is named for him, and few baseball figures are more beloved in Somerset County.

Even now, good closers are hard to find. A six-year run as one of the undisputed three or four best closers in the game is never something a fanbase should take for granted, given the volatility of bullpen life. The closer role existed in some form or another before Lyle came along, but it certainly wasn’t the same by the time he left it. It’s quite a shame that he just couldn’t quiiiiite stretch his peak — or the end of his career — past that six or seven year run of greatness, otherwise he’d almost certainly be joining his back-end pioneer penmates in the Hall of Fame. But for now? This list will certainly do for him.

Staff rank: 66
Community rank: 42
Stats rank: N/A
2013 rank: 79

References:

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

Lyle, Sparky and Peter Golenbock. The Bronx Zoo. New York: Crown Publishers, 1979.

Mahler, Johnathan. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning. New York: Piccador, 2005.

MacLennan, Diane. SABR Bio

National Baseball Hall of Fame

Previously on the Top 100

68. David Wells
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