If you weren’t a baseball fan between 1968 and 1984, you probably aren’t very familiar with Tom Burgmeier. Even if you know the name, chances are you don’t realize he was one of the top workhorse relievers of his era. Over 17 big-league seasons — mostly with the Royals, Twins and Red Sox — the lefthander appeared in 745 games and threw 1,258.2 innings.
Burgmeier was no slouch. An American League All-Star in 1980, he finished his career with a record of 79-55, 102 saves, and a 3.23 ERA. Displaying excellent control, he walked just 2.7 batters per nine innings. As for the innings themselves, they rarely came one at a time, even though he finished 370 games.
David Laurila: How did being a relief pitcher in the 1970s and early 1980s differ from today?
Tom Burgmeier: Back in my era, it didn’t matter when you came into the game, whether it was the third inning, fifth inning, or whenever. You pitched until you got in trouble. Nowadays everything is designated. A guy is a long man, so if it gets past the fifth inning he never comes into the game. They have a sixth-inning guy and a seventh-inning guy. They don’t have an “eighth-inning guy,” he’s called a set-up guy. Then you obviously have your closer, who is another one-inning guy.
All through my career, if you came into the game in the fifth inning, you got them out in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. You stayed in there until the ninth unless you had a bona fide closer. When I was with the Red Sox, we had Bill Campbell and Bob Stanley. and we were all reliable for multiple innings. That’s what we did. It kind of bothers me to see a guy come in and have really good stuff, and strike out the side, and the next inning there’s someone else on the mound.
DL: You were a closer in 1980 and saved 24 games.
TB: By definition I was a closer. In total, I had 19 saves that were more than one inning. Several were three innings and there were a couple of four-inning jobs. That’s 19 out of 24. Today, if a guy gets 35 or 40 saves, he might have one or two that are more than an inning.
Three times in my career I went over eight innings [as a reliever] and one of them came when I was in my late 30s. I was elderly by then. You just kept pitching. You were in the game and you kept getting outs. They weren’t saying, “Oh, you’ve thrown 40 pitches, so we have to get you out of there.”
DL: How did you get hitters out?
TB: Mainly by throwing strikes and keeping the ball down. There are no secrets in baseball. It’s pretty straightforward, and while that doesn’t mean you’ll be successful every day, if you consistently do the things you’re supposed to do, you’re going to get outs. Keep the ball down, don’t walk guys, get your breaking ball and changeup over. If you do those things, you can’t help but be successful.
I always tell people — I coached for 19 years, as well — that baseball is the only major sport where you can do everything 100-percent correct and come out wrong. And vice versa. You can make a perfect pitch, down and away, and the guy breaks his bat, hits a dunker over the first baseman to score two runs, and you lose the game. The next day you throw one right down the middle of the plate and the guys hits into a 6-4-3 double play. Everyone tells you, “Nice pitch.”
DL: How did Bill Campbell get guys out?
TB: Same thing. He was very aggressive. He had a screwball and threw from the side and all angles, but he was also very tough, mentally. We played together for three or four years in Minnesota and another three or four in Boston. We were kind of like the same ham and eggs. Did we feed off each other? No, but Soup and I did the things baseball calls on you to do to be successful. Like I said, that’s keep the ball down, get your breaking ball over, and be aggressive throwing strikes.
It would be foolish for a pitcher to stand out on that pile of dirt and say, “Geez, I don’t want to throw this guy anything he can hit.” The object of the game is to throw the ball over the plate and make him hit it. Not “let” him hit the ball, but “make” him hit the ball. Soup was very good at that.
DL: Mark Clear had trouble throwing strikes, but he had great stuff.
TB: His stuff was second to none. He knew he didn’t have control, so he wasn’t trying to nibble on the corners. But he had one of the best breaking balls of all time and threw hard. On today’s gun, he’d probably be close to the 100-range. He was 95 and up.
He was also very aggressive from a mental standpoint. His approach was, “Get in there and hit.” Actually, it was “Get in there and try to hit.” He was always trying to throw strikes, he just never had good control. He admits that.
His stuff was as good as anyone’s. When it comes to breaking balls, the best were Bert Blyleven’s and Mark Clear‘s. Mark’s was not only hard, but extremely sharp. Ask anybody who ever hit off of him.
DL: What made you successful besides throwing strikes and keeping the ball down?
TB: I had pretty good movement on my fastball, but it was mostly keeping the ball low and away. I didn’t care who was hitting, I was throwing low and away.
I remember in the 1950s, there was a picture of Ted Williams on the cover of Life magazine. He was in his stance and they had all his hit zones. They were .450 inside — maybe .460 or .500 — and the farther you went out, and the lower you went, he was around .220. I figured out at a young age that if Ted Williams — probably the best hitter that ever lived — hit .220 low and away, guess where I’m going to try to throw it? The longer my career went, the more capable I was of doing that.
I threw more fastballs than breaking balls, just like everybody else, even through I didn’t throw as hard as everybody else. I remember one game at Fenway Park, Clear pitched and I pitched. The next day a guy told Clear, “Boy, you were really throwing hard last night.” Mark asked how hard. The guy said, “We had you at 95.” I asked, “What about me; how hard was I throwing.” He said, “It didn’t register.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.