Thigpen's past success will help relievers in the present
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The phone rang in the visitors' bullpen at Fenway Park midway through a 9-0 White Sox loss on Aug. 6, 1986, and Bobby Thigpen -- who begins his first year as Chicago's bullpen coach when pitchers and catchers report to Camelback Ranch on Tuesday -- didn't know what to expect.
Thigpen had just been called up from Double-A Birmingham, where the 23-year-old converted college outfielder started all 25 games in which he had appeared. But White Sox closer Bob James was out of action due to injury, and Thigpen thought he had been temporarily promoted to take his spot.
Floyd Bannister was knocked out in the first inning without retiring a Red Sox hitter, and Billy Dawley had just finished pitching five innings in relief. So the veteran relievers also stationed in the bullpen knew the call was for Thigpen.
"All of a sudden, we are in Fenway Park, the getaway day, and that was '86, when they went to the World Series. The place was packed and going crazy," said Thigpen of his first big league appearance. "And here I am, a 23-year-old, scared to death, and not knowing exactly when I was going to be pitching."
Giving up two runs on five hits over three innings at Fenway that day officially marked the Major League debut of the man who still stands as the White Sox career saves leader, with 201. He followed that inaugural effort with 7 1/3 innings of relief over his next three outings before recording his first save, on Aug. 17 against Milwaukee. That particular save covered 1 2/3 innings; five of his first seven career saves went beyond one inning.
That kind of workload for a regular-season closer is almost unheard of in the present due to bullpen specialization. Addison Reed set the franchise single-season rookie record, with 29 saves in 2012, but a mere two of those covered greater than one inning. In Reed's last three saves, he needed to retire just five batters in total.
Nate Jones, who could work anywhere from the sixth to potentially challenge Reed for closing opportunities in 2013, had a slightly different rookie indoctrination last year. The hard-throwing right-hander and surprise addition to the Opening Day roster worked two innings or more in four of his first 10 big league outings, as he traveled the same middle-relief route taken by Thigpen.
Manager Robin Ventura felt more comfortable working Jones into late-inning situations as the 2012 season progressed, with the 27-year-old eventually picking up eight victories without a loss to go with his sterling 2.39 ERA. Teammates joked with Jones about "vulturing a victory," much like Barry Jones did with his 11 wins as setup man in front of Thigpen's then-single-season Major League record of 57 saves in 1990.
According to Thigpen, those wins are a by-product of pitchers fulfilling their specific roles.
"That's part of it. That's the situation," he said. "You hold them, and all of a sudden, good things happen when you come in and do your job."
Thigpen's single-season record withstood 55-save efforts from Eric Gagne in 2003 and John Smoltz in 2002 before Francisco Rodriguez shattered it in 2008 by posting 62. Thigpen readily admits that it was disappointing to lose the record, but he also understands that with the way closers are used nowadays, it was a mark he figured would be broken.
"The only thing about that year, it went by so fast because we were battling Oakland from the start: The playoff system was totally different," Thigpen said of his 57-save effort. "Just one winner out of each division, two from each side. No Interleague Play, nothing like that.
"You just played whoever. We were battling them from the get-go. Even when I broke the record, at the time we were a game apart from Oakland and trying to get to the finish line. It was kind of overlooked a little bit, but I liked it that way because the emphasis wasn't on me. It was on us winning. You don't really go out there for your numbers, you go out for your team."
Those days of recording the final three outs or even the final seven or eight outs have long since been replaced by Thigpen's move into coaching. He managed Bristol of the Advanced Rookie League within the White Sox system in 2007 and 2008, served as the pitching coach for Class A Winston-Salem from 2009 to 2011, and held the same job for Birmingham last year.
When the phone rings in the bullpen this year at U.S. Cellular Field, or any other big league ballpark where the White Sox are playing, Thigpen will know exactly what to do -- get Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain or Reed prepared to go into action, depending on the game situation.
Thigpen will be an added source of information beyond the young players who have previously worked with him, such as Hector Santiago, Nate Jones and Reed, based on the knowledge gained from his vast body of successful relief work.
"Well, hopefully it works for them," said Thigpen of infusing his knowledge. "I hope I have something to offer."
"He's helped me out a lot, and I owe a lot to him," said Jones of Thigpen. "He knows everything about the relief corps as such a great reliever himself. Going to him with any questions about any situation, he's been there, done that."