The former Cubs, Cardinals and Braves pitcher could be the first sole reliever to enter the Hall of Fame.
NEW YORK -- Bruce Sutter could become the first pitcher with no career starts elected to the Hall of Fame when results of 2006 balloting are released today.
With no strong first-year candidates, Sutter, fellow reliever Rich Gossage and outfielder Jim Rice appear to be the players most likely to gain election among the 29 on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot.
Only three pitchers who spent a large part of their careers as relievers are in the Hall: Hoyt Wilhelm (52 starts), Rollie Fingers (37 starts) and Dennis Eckersley (361 starts). Wilhelm was elected to the Hall in 1985, Fingers in 1992 and Eckersley in 2004.
"Lee Smith, Sutter, Goose Gossage. I'd like to see more closers," Ryne Sandberg said after he was elected last year, "There's nothing better on a team than a big closer."
Cy Young Award winners Orel Hershiser and Dwight Gooden were among the 14 first-time eligibles on the ballot, a group that also included Albert Belle, Will Clark and Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.
Pete Rose was not on the ballot because he remains on the permanently suspended list, and under current rules his 15 years of eligibility for BBWAA voters expired with this election. Baseball's career hits leader, who agreed in 1989 to a lifetime ban after betting on the Cincinnati Reds while he managed the team, received nine write-in votes last year, his lowest total. He has been written in on 239 of 6,687 ballots (3.6 percent) over 14 years.
Sutter, who popularized the split-finger fastball, is 19th on the career list with 300 saves. Gossage, like Fingers known for his mustache, is 16th with 310 saves -- he also made 37 starts, all in his first six seasons.
Rice's 382 homers placed him in a tie for 26th place on the career list when he retired but he has dropped to a tie for 51st.
Sutter fell 43 votes shy last year in his 12th appearance on the ballot, receiving 344 votes (66.7 percent), up from 301 in 2004. Rice had 307 in his 11th appearance, up from 276, and Gossage got 285 in his sixth time on the ballot, an increase from 206. Smith, the career saves leader with 478, received 200 votes in his third try, up from 185.
The ballot next year will for the first time include Mark McGwire, which most likely means the focus will shift from the bullpen to whether statistics compiled by players in the steroid era should be evaluated differently. Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn also are on next year's ballot for the first time.
When he was elected last year along with Sandberg, Wade Boggs campaigned for Rice, his former Boston teammate.
"In my opinion, there was not a more feared hitter in baseball," Boggs said. "When he walked to the plate and stared at the pitcher, you knew he was going to hit the ball hard and drive in important runs for us."
There have only been seven BBWAA elections that failed to produce a Hall of Famer -- and only one since 1971. That was in 1996, when Phil Niekro (68.3 percent) fell 32 votes short, followed by Tony Perez (65.7 percent) and Don Sutton (63.8 percent). Niekro was elected the following year, Sutton in 1998 and Perez in 2000.
Fingers, Gossage and Sutter pitched far more innings in games than today's closers. Fingers averaged 1.65 innings when he had a game finished, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, with Gossage averaging 1.64 and Sutter 1.52.
Eckersley averaged 1.11 innings, while the Yankees' Mariano Rivera is averaging 1.08 and the Dodgers' Eric Gagne is at 1.06.
Jerome Holtzman, who as a baseball writer invented the save statistic in the 1960s, credits the late Dick Howser and Tony La Russa for developing the modern closer.
"There has been an evolution. The managers did it," Holtzman said Monday. "I remember one day I was in Baltimore and Johnny Oates was the manager of the Orioles, and he found out I helped create the save and so forth. He said, 'You're responsible for the ninth-inning pitcher.' And I said, 'No the managers were. They're the ones who started holding out their best relief pitcher for the ninth inning."'
The last player elected on the 12th ballot or later was Bob Lemon in 1976 and the last elected on the 13th or later was Ralph Kiner in 1975.
While the Veterans Committee doesn't vote this year, a special Negro leagues and pre-Negro leagues selection committee meets Feb. 27 in Tampa, Fla. Inductions are scheduled for July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y.