Bruce Sutter, who passed away today at sixty-nine years of age, is something of an anomaly among St. Louis Cardinals players whose numbers have been retired by the club. Setting aside the fairly necessary caveat that his uniform number of 42 was already retired when the Cardinals officially honored Sutter in 2006, via the MLB-wide retiring of Jackie Robinson’s number in 1997 (though honoring Sutter was consistent with the club’s tradition of retiring the numbers of players who enter Cooperstown with a Cardinals hat on their plaque), Sutter spent by far less time on the Cardinals–four seasons–than any of the other honorees. But Bruce Sutter was nothing if not a breaker of the mold, in ways far more meaningful to baseball than St. Louis Cardinals number retirement trivia.
Bruce Sutter was the first pitcher inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame without having ever started a Major League game–to this date, only one other pitcher, Trevor Hoffman, has joined him. Most of the esteemed relief pitchers in baseball history started off as starting pitchers–Dennis Eckersley was on a Hall of Fame track into his thirties as a committed starting pitcher, Hoyt Wilhelm and Rich Gossage had full seasons as starting pitchers on their resumes, and Rollie Fingers, Lee Smith, and Mariano Rivera each made their share of starts as well. Bruce Sutter began and ended his career as a relief pitcher, and given this context, it should be unsurprising that his 1,042 innings as a Major League pitcher are the fewest of any Cooperstown inductee.
Despite entering the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal, it was the Chicago Cubs with whom Sutter began his career, reached his highest individual peaks, and pitched the most. Although originally drafted in the 21st round of the 1970 MLB Draft by the Washington Senators, he opted instead to attend Old Dominion University and signed with the Cubs in 1971 as an amateur free agent. After arm surgery at age 19 rendered him ineffective on the mound, Sutter adopted his pitching trademark–a wicked split-finger fastball that looked like it was coming from an alien when a batter didn’t have a chance to adjust to seeing it, a thing which rarely happened given Sutter’s short inning usage. Sutter joined the Cubs in 1976 and was immediately effective, and notably, early managers Jim Marshall and Herman Franks were quite content with what they had–an effective shutdown closer, a decade before Tony LaRussa and his disciplines turned the role into a position of its own in baseball parlance–rather than trying to push the envelope and convert Sutter to the starting rotation.
Could Bruce Sutter have succeeded as a starter? Maybe. But it was as a closer that he thrived. In his final two seasons as the Cubs’ closer, Sutter led the National League in saves each year. His peak came in 1979, when his 37 saves and 2.22 ERA, along with a 1.89 FIP, earned Sutter the National League Cy Young Award. Although modern sabermetricians tend to scoff at the notion of giving the award of the league’s best pitcher to a reliever, he actually finished the season with more Wins Above Replacement than runner-up Joe Niekro despite throwing 162 1/3 fewer innings. Two years prior, Sutter had out-WARed Steve Carlton, who took home the award.
In 1980, the St. Louis Cardinals made a blockbuster deal to acquire Sutter from their rivals up north on I-55, sending Leon Durham, Ken Reitz, and player-to-be-named-later Ty Waller to the Cubs. Sutter was instantly effective–in 1981, he once again led the NL in saves and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. But 1982 will always be the season with which Sutter is most synonymous in St. Louis, securing another NL saves title, another top-three Cy Young finish, but most significantly, the most iconic moment of his career–striking out Gorman Thomas of the Milwaukee Brewers to end Game 7 of the 1982 World Series and give the Cardinals their ninth World Series title.
The winner pitchers of three of the four games the Cardinals won that series are now deceased–Sutter for one, Joaquín Andújar for two (John Stuper is thankfully still with us)–as is the bespectacled man who emerged from home plate to leap into Sutter’s arms, World Series MVP Darrell Porter. Sutter was able to make it to the team’s 40th anniversary celebration last summer–sadly, the next reunion will have a major absence.
The next season, Sutter was, by all metrics, diminished, but in 1984, Sutter had the best season of his Cardinals career. In a career-high 122 2/3 innings, Sutter had a career-high 45 saves (for a team that won just 84 games) with a 1.54 ERA–once again, he finished in the top three in Cy Young voting (and once again, had more WAR than the starting pitcher who actually won the award, Chicago Cub Rick Sutcliffe). That off-season, Sutter became a free agent.
That Bruce Sutter cashed in on his brilliant 1984 by signing with the Atlanta Braves is, in hindsight, a brilliant move. Sutter was never the same with the Braves, turning in three lackluster seasons in Atlanta before injuries forced him to retire, but Sutter was able to sign a major long-term contract–six years for $9.1 million–the year before widespread owner-initiated collusion suppressed salaries for free agents across the sport. But not only did Sutter secure his bag, he agreed to a deferred contract that instead paid him $1.12 million for thirty years, with a $9.1 million payment that was paid on July 1, 2022 (with all due respect to Cardinals legend Bobby Bonilla, once you remove the constant desire of New York Mets fans to make everything about themselves, it should rightfully be referred to as Bruce Sutter Day)–in the end, Sutter made $42.7 million on the contract, and even accounting for inflation, it was a terrific deal for Sutter. In a decade marked by enormous losses for the MLB Players Association, this was a distinct victory. God bless him.
Bruce Sutter had an unconventional career–he was an innovator at the role in which he spent his career to such an extent that by the end of his life, the role was generally regarded as a position thanks in no small part to his contributions. He managed to out-fox Ted Turner, who is notably and famously extremely rich, out of life-changing money. And for Cardinals fans, he gave the Cardinals one of the franchise’s all-time great moments and one of Jack Buck’s all-time legendary calls. Bruce Sutter may not be as conventional of a Cardinals legend as those we have eulogized over the last few years, such as Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock, or Bob Gibson, but he did things in his own unique way and we should be forever grateful that we got to experience watching it.