Happy Birthday Boy: Remembering Dan Quisenberry

Alex Remington
February 7, 2012

On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.

Dan Quisenberry, who would have turned 59 on Tuesday, was one of the unlikeliest dominant closers in baseball history. His unorthodox pitching motion was the stuff of legend.

As Joe Posnanski once wrote:

That funny little submarine-style delivery and very few strikeouts and a sinking fastball that probably did not qualify for the second-half of the title.

Quiz was a soft-tossing submariner who compensated for his lack of velocity by simply making the ball go exactly where he wanted it to go. Bill James ranked him as the best control pitcher of the 1980s, and wrote, "There has never been a pitcher who made fewer mistakes than Dan Quisenberry."

Not making mistakes doesn't pop the radar guns, and few people ever believed that Quisenberry could be a successful major leaguer. He didn't get selected in the amateur draft, but his college coach managed to convince the Royals to take a flier on him — so they signed him as an undrafted free agent for the princely sum of $500. (No, that figure is not missing any zeroes.) He spent the next four years in the minor leagues, where he had a tiny 2.00 ERA in 279 innings. The Royals finally gave him a cup of coffee in 1979, and he pitched 40 innings with a 3.15 ERA. He never returned to the minors, and in nine years in the Royals pen, he had a 2.52 ERA with 237 saves.

Not bad for an investment of five hundred dollars.

Quisenberry always had a sense of humor about his success, and was noted for his wry way with words. He once explained his method:

I lull them into a false sense of security by watching me pitch... If overconfidence can cause the Roman Empire to fall, I ought to be able to get a ground ball.

Best Year: 1980 Kansas City Royals: 12-7, 33 SV, 3.09 ERA, 128 1/3 IP, 3.34 FIP, 1.22 WHIP, 1.37 K/BB

It's actually really hard to pick Quisenberry's single-best season, because he was so similar in 1980 and 1982-1985. In each of those five seasons, he pitched at least 129 innings, led the league in saves, was at or near the top of the league in appearances, and was in the top five of the Cy Young balloting. He was a three-time All-Star from 1982-1984, and out of all of them, his 1980 season is the one when he posted the highest ERA.

But Royals super blogger Rany Jazayerli makes a convincing case that 1980 was his best season by using Win Probability Added (WPA) analysis:

The best relief season in Royals history is unequivocably Dan Quisenberry's 1980. I found this shocking, and I imagine many of you do too — in 1980, in his first year as the Royals' closer, Quiz had a 3.09 ERA. That would be his highest ERA until 1988, when he was released. He had a lower ERA and threw more innings in 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985.

But for these context-based stats, when the runs were allowed matters as much as how many runs were allowed. Fourteen of the 47 runs Quisenberry allowed that year came in three outings. In one of those games, the Royals were losing 3-1 when Quiz came in; in another, he was taken out with two outs in the ninth and the Royals leading 3-2, and the two runners on base scored after he departed. He pitched in high-leverage situations all season, and while he got burned a few times, his successes were far more common than his failures.

In 1979, Quisenberry was a 26-year-old rookie with a funny delivery who somehow kept a low ERA all year. In 1980, he established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball, which he would remain for most of the rest of the decade.

Worst Year: 1988: 2-1, 1 SV, 5.12 ERA, 63 1/3 IP, 3.23 FIP, 1.53 WHIP, 2.55 K/BB
In 1988, Quisenberry was 35, and he experienced his first sustained struggles as a professional baseball player. The Royals released him on July 4, when his ERA was just 3.55. But he had given up runs in three consecutive appearances in June and the Royals had moved him from closer to mop-up relief before they let him go. Whitey Herzog's St. Louis Cardinals picked him up 10 days later. And everything collapsed. He gave up 26 runs in 38 innings, for a 6.16 ERA.

Quisenberry recovered to pitch a strong year in St. Louis in 1989, but that was his last season. He only managed to pitch 6 2/3 innings in San Francisco in 1990 before tearing his rotator cuff. He retired soon after that. With the exception of those 6 2/3 innings, 1988 is the only bad season of his career. In fact, it's the only season that he had an earned run average higher than the 3.15 ERA he posted in his rookie year.

Off the Field: Ever the wordsmith, Quisenberry was also a published poet. His book, On Days Like This, was published in 1998, a year after his initial brain cancer diagnosis and just a few months before he died on Sept. 30, at the age of 45. In the poems, he wrote of God, baseball and memory. One of the poems, "Ode to Dick Howser," remembered his former Royals manager who had died of a brain tumor.

this small man
who fought big
now looked us in the eyes
just a man
who no longer talked of winning
but hinted at life beyond champagne

In Kansas City, they still talk fondly of "Quiz" and the legend that he created with the great Royals teams of the 1980s. Today is a sobering reminder that he'd still be on the younger side of 60 if he were still alive, but the memory of his dominance and character is sure to leave a smile on the faces of many baseball fans today.

Happy birthday, Dan Quisenberry.