Bobby Thigpen doesn’t stomp around the mound like Al Hrabosky, or glare down at hitters like Goose Gossage. Never will the Chicago White Sox right-hander be seen pumping his fist and exhorting the crowd, like Tug McGraw.
Unlike many renowned relievers, Thigpen has no gimmicks, no act, just a darting fastball, a nasty slider and an outstanding changeup that have brought him within three saves of the major league record of 46 set in 1986 by Dave Righetti of the New York Yankees.
“Obviously, I don’t intimidate anybody with my looks, like Hrabosky or Gossage, and I don’t have Lee Smith’s physique. Tom Henke is another guy like that,” said Thigpen, a lean and clean-cut, 6-foot-3, 195-pounder who would be dwarfed by the Cardinals’ 6-6, 250-pound Smith or Toronto’s 6-5, 225-pound Henke.
“By the time guys like Smith and Henke release the ball, they’ve cut six to eight feet off the distance to the hitter. I just go out and try to do my job without having to resort to any of that. If I can make the pitches I’m supposed to make, whatever Carlton (Fisk) or Karko (Ron Karkovice) put down, I’ll be successful.”
The 27-year-old Floridian is having his best season, keeping the White Sox in the American League West race as he chases Righetti’s save record.
Thigpen, whose 34 saves in 1989 were second in the AL to the 38 recorded by Jeff Russell of Texas, got his 40th save this season on Aug. 19, the earliest any reliever reached that mark. He earned No. 40 in Chicago’s 118th game, 23 games--and 21 days--earlier than Bruce Sutter picked up his 40th with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984, when Sutter recorded 45 saves. When Righetti set the record, he earned his 40th save on Sept. 15. Righetti set his record in 76 appearances, 68 of which he finished; Thigpen has finished 57 of the 61 games he has entered.
“The record and all those numbers mean nothing to me,” Thigpen said. “If we win every game from here on out by four runs and I end the season with (43), that would be fine.”
Thigpen is the leader of a relief corps composed of left-handers Ken Patterson and Scott Radinsky--whose four saves rank him second on the club--and right-handers Barry Jones, Donn Pall and Adam Peterson.
“If I do get the record, unless it’s the last game of the season, I don’t think I’ll really appreciate it until the season’s over and I have time to sit down and think back on it. I still have a job to do.”
And he’s doing it quite well.
In a 13-day span beginning on Aug. 13, Thigpen made eight appearances and earned five saves for 10 innings of work. He reduced his earned-run average to 1.97 before being charged with two of the three runs driven in by Angel first baseman Lee Stevens Saturday, raising his ERA to 2.20. It was only the seventh time he failed to convert in 50 save opportunities. He leads the American League with his 61 appearances, covering 69 2/3 innings.
“I enjoy working,” he said. “I pitched in four games in a row twice this year and I felt better in the fourth than the first. Say I have two or three days off. When I get out there again, I feel so strong physically, I tend to overthrow the ball, and my fastball straightens out. When I pitch a lot and I’m a little tired, I slow myself down mechanically and I let my arm do the work and I pitch better.”
He’s pitching better because he’s pitching more often, he believes, and he’s pitching more often because the White Sox are still in a race no one expected them to be running. Chicago was 6 1/2 games behind the AL West-leading A’s going into Wednesday’s games. “To me, my stats are just a reflection of the team,” Thigpen said. “The fact that we’re in so many games means there’s more chances for saves. Our style of play is another reason I get in so many games. We don’t blow people out. Most games we win are going to be close. I’m not that much different a person or a pitcher than before. I have the slider, but I still get guys out with what I got them out with before.
“Each year before this, I faltered in something, my ERA or something else because we weren’t in a lot of games and I’d go in after not pitching for four or five days. I wouldn’t go out with the same approach mentally and I’d give up four or five runs. This year, I’ve been trying to stay more focused and intense.”
The improvement of his slider, a pitch he used to throw only early in the count, has also been crucial to his success this season. Not only is it more effective, it also makes his dancing fastball--which can reach 90 to 93 m.p.h.--even tougher to hit.
“I’ve thrown it at 3 and 2, 2 and 1, whenever it’s called for, and Carlton’s not afraid to call it,” Thigpen said. “I can throw it more consistently for strikes and I’m not just showing it to hitters. It’s an out pitch for me.”
Almost every pitch seems like an out pitch for him this season.
“He had been very successful with just his fastball for a couple of years, but last year he started plugging in his slider a little bit and he started working on his changeup in the pen,” said White Sox bullpen coach Dave LaRoche, a reliever for most of his 14-year career, including three with the Angels. La Roche has the Angels’ career save record with 65.
“I never said, ‘You have to have the slider,’ but more like, ‘Let’s tinker with it. If a hitter gives you trouble, why not try it?’ Now he’s got confidence in all three pitches, although I think to most hitters in the league, if one pitch is going to make the difference in the game, (they) are still going to get the fastball. That’s still his bread and butter.”
Said White Sox Manager Jeff Torborg, the Yankees’ bullpen coach when Gossage pitched in New York: “He reminds me of Goose. I used to give Goose the ball just like you would feed an animal, just put it in my palm and let him grab it. All the good ones are the same with the stomach. When the (bullpen) phone rings, they want to go into the game.”
LaRoche also sees similarities between Thigpen and Gossage.
“He’s a lot like Goose in that he’s laid-back and gentle, but once he gets to the mound he’s mean,” LaRoche said. “Goose had that Fu Manchu (mustache) and looked mean. Bobby gets revved up inside--he just gives a normal appearance. . . . He has the perfect temperament for anything in life. He’s laid-back and easygoing.
“He’ll have a good time as much as anybody, but he doesn’t get crazy and loud and he’s not wild and flaky like the left-handers,” said LaRoche, who serves as a sort of camp counselor to Chicago’s young and talented relief corps. “He’s perfect for me as a coach. I think the ace of your bullpen should set an example for everyone out there, and if I had to control him, I’d have to control the whole pen.”
Thigpen knows the A’s control the AL West race. “They’ve proven they can win. We’re unproven, and people are still learning what kind of team we’re capable of having,” Thigpen said. “We’re confident in what we can do, even though it seems like everyone is waiting for us to crack, waiting for us to fold. . . .
“This year has been great. At this time last year, it still seemed like June, it was going so slow. This year is flying by. It’s fun to come to the park. Guys are starting to understand what it is to win and getting the feeling of winning. It’s a great attitude to have and it’s great to get this type of experience. If we don’t win it this year, I guarantee that next year, we’ll be picked for second, not seventh, like we were before this year. . . .
“I hope this isn’t a dream season. Shoot, I’d like to do this again next year. I don’t think this is a fluke, a fake. As young as we are, we can do this for a number of years and we should get even better.”
THE 40-SAVE CLUB
NAME TEAM SEASON NUMBER DAVE RIGHETTI New York Yankees 1986 46 DENNIS ECKERSLEY Oakland Athletics 1988 45 DAN QUISENBERRY Kansas City Royals 1983 45 BRUCE SUTTER St. Louis Cardinals 1984 45 MARK DAVIS San Diego Padres 1989 44 DAN QUISENBERRY Kansas City Royals 1984 44 BOBBY THIGPEN Chicago White Sox 1990 43 JEFF REARDON Minnesota Twins 1988 42 JEFF REARDON Montreal Expos 1985 41 STEVE BEDROSIAN Philadelphia Phillies 1987 40