During the winter I watch a lot of MLB Network. A lot. While watching it, waiting for Spring Training to come around, a stat popped up that blew my mind. Former Kansas City Royals closer and a favorite of most of us in the 80’s, Dan Quisenberry was 5th in ERA since the beginning of the live-ball era(which started post 1920)! This was for pitchers with over 1000 career innings, which seems odd for a closer if you follow the game nowadays. Quisenberry racked up just over that total, eventually getting 1043.1 innings pitched over his 12 year career. While I knew he was one of the top closers of that time, I also remember the guy who struggled mightily in 1988 and was eventually released. I remember the guy who wrapped up his career in St. Louis and San Francisco, but not looking like the Quiz of old. So of course, I digged further. What I found was a guy who should be held in higher esteem in baseball circles. What I found was a guy who was better than we remember.
Dan Quisenberry made his major league debut in 1979 at the age of 26, four years after being signed as an amateur free agent. Just the fact that he made it to the majors was an accomplishment, considering he wasn’t drafted. But before the 1980 season, the Quiz tinkered with a submarine style delivery. The changes were noticeable, as Quisenberry led the American League that year by appearing in 75 games and saving 33 of those. This was just the beginning of an era of dominance, one that would last through the mid-80’s.
Looking at the statistics from 1980 and running through 1985, Quisenberry was about as sure a thing as there was in baseball. With the new submarine style delivery that was recommended by former manager Jim Frey, and his pinpoint control, guile and deception, Quisenberry was the most dominant closer of that era. Think about this for a minute. He was more dominant than a couple of Hall of Famers in Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage. He was more dominant than a possible future HOFer in Lee Smith. It should also be pointed out here that being a closer in the 80’s was nothing like it is now. There was no ‘one and done’, meaning very few closers pitched only one inning and that was it. Most of the closers of that era pitched 2-3 innings each outing, and it is noticeable by the numbers. During that six year span, Quisenberry threw over 100 innings a season 5 times! To put this in perspective, Mariano Rivera, the best closer in baseball history, has only thrown one season over 100 innings, and that was before he was the Yankees closer. In that same vein, Dennis Eckersley, who was the most dominant closer of the late 80’s-early 90’s, only threw one season like that, and once again, was not the A’s closer that season. So it is safe to say that Quisenberry was not only a lock once he came in the game, but he did it for more innings than the closers of the last twenty seasons. To add even more to how impressive that stretch is, he probably would have thrown over 100 innings all six seasons. So why didn’t he? Because of the strike in 1981. If not for that strike, there is a good chance the Quiz would have toppled 100 innings all six seasons.
Statistic wise, there is more. During that span, he posted an ERA of 2.42 and won the Rolaids Relief Man Award all of those years. Quisenberry was even able to finish in the top five of voting for the Cy Young Award. He was the first closer to have back to back seasons of over forty saves and in 1983 was briefly the holder of the single season saves record. Quisenberry’s highest walk total in a season was 27 in 1980, and finished over 60 games five times. He was a three time all-star, received Cy Young votes and even MVP votes in five seasons of the six year span(all but 1981). This from a guy who did not have an imposing fastball, but a sinking one that induced ground balls. He seldom walked batters or threw wild pitches. He was that pitcher who threw strikes and the deception of his motion was a big part of the key to his success. To say he was dominant in this era might be an understatement. Dan Quisenberry even has comparable numbers to Bruce Sutter, who was voted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. So why is Quisenberry not considered one of the best closers in baseball history?
The easy answer to that question is that it was only a six year period of dominance. In fact, it seems odd that Quisenberry wasn’t still the man the Royals went to late in the game after their World Series win of 1985. Quisenberry still put good numbers up in 1986 and 1987, but the Royals had brought Steve Farr in and he took over some of the closing duties. Quisenberry held an ERA those years of 2.77 and 2.76, but only had 12 saves in 1986 and 8 in 1987. Whatever had worked for him from 1980-1985 seemed to start slipping and in 1988, the Quiz was relegated to middle relief and mop up duty before being released right before the All-Star Break. Former Royals manager Whitey Herzog took a chance on Quiz, as he would spend a year in a half in St. Louis before ending his career in San Francisco. There is often talk about how Sandy Koufax, despite his era of dominance being very short, is remembered for how great he was, but it is safe to say we remember what happened when he left the game. Koufax went out on top, while Quisenberry’s career ended in a whimper. It’s hard to say why Quisenberry is barely mentioned anymore while one of his peers, Bruce Sutter, made it into the Hall of Fame. The best bet is that Sutter revolutionized the use of the split finger fastball, a pitch that has been used for years since. Maybe Sutter’s longevity figures into this equation. Longevity wasn’t kind to Quisenberry, as he only played twelve years in the big leagues, and was 37 when he finally retired in 1990. Whatever the reason, Dan Quisenberry isn’t mentioned much outside of Kansas City. But that doesn’t mean he is forgotten.
Quisenberry had just as an eventful career, post-baseball, as can be had. Quiz became a poet after he left the game, publishing three poems in 1995 and a book of poetry in 1998. He was also known for his gardening skills, and a sense of humor that is still fondly remembered today. Unfortunately, Quiz was diagnosed with brain cancer in December of 1997 and succumbed to it the following year. Quisenberry was the second member of the 1985 Royals to die from brain cancer, as manager Dick Howser did as well in 1987. Both men are remembered fondly all these years later, and it seems fitting to have them linked together. Both had more success than anyone ever thought they would. Both defied the odds and were part of a championship team that came from behind in two different series in the playoffs that year. Both are prominent at Kauffman Stadium, as Howser has his number retired and a statue, while Quisenberry is featured prominently in the Royals Hall of Fame, including being an inductee.
So how will I remember Dan Quisenberry? I’ve always been fond of the man. I loved his humor and remember him spraying fans in the outfield seats during the middle of the summer, as somehow they ended up with a water hose in the bullpen. I always knew he was good, but before this winter I don’t think I realized just how good he was. Sure, he isn’t a Hall of Famer. But, he does have impressive stats that show that he was no slouch on the mound. When you are 5th in ERA after 1920 and 8th in advanced ERA+, that is a healthy resume. I think he should be remembered not only for being THE dominant closer of the early 80’s, but also as one of the most steady and reliable relievers ever. I’ve long hoped that the Royals would bring in some flower beds, or some sort of gardening items in the outfield seats or the bullpen and dedicate it to the Quiz. In some way, it just feels like he should be acknowledged more in Royals history. After all the research, I wonder if he should be acknowledged more in baseball history. Not the best closer ever, but one who was groundbreaking. Dan Quisenberry, I wish I had given you more credit than I have over the years. You deserve it.