Every morning throughout the baseball season, we bring you the nastiest pitches from the previous night’s slate of games. Now that we’ve entered the offseason, we no longer have new pitches to bring you. To fill the void left in all of our hearts, every week we’re going to highlight one pitcher from the past and show off the pitches that made them great.
To kick off this series, I wanted to start with the inspiration for it all: Éric Gagné. He holds the major league record for consecutive saves, with the first coming on 8/28/2002 and the 84th and final one on 7/03/2004. That nearly two-year stretch of perfection for the Los Angeles Dodgers came smack dab in the middle of my junior high school years, so while I vaguely remember his dominance I never really appreciated it at the time. Growing up on the East Coast also meant he normally pitched well past my mother’s imposed bedtime (Hi Mom), so my only memories of him are from SportsCenter highlights.
Well, that’s what this series is going to be all about; Appreciating the filthiness of pitchers from a time when it wasn’t nearly as appreciated as it should have been. And Gagné was filthy – as you’ll see below, his Fastball-Changeup-Curveball mix was incredibly deadly in the ninth inning out in Los Angeles.
Now, onto Gagné himself, the man who entered the game with “Welcome To The Jungle” blaring in the background. The man who struck legitimate fear in opposing batters. The French-Canadian righty had a unique journey to the majors; He played both baseball and hockey while growing up near Montreal, but ended up choosing baseball and was the closer for Canada’s Junior World Championship team at one point. There were also personal issues he struggled with, including the divorce of his parents and an eating disorder that soon followed. He actually wrote a children’s book titled “Break Barriers“, where he discussed some of the issues he struggled with.
Then there were the eye issues, Gagné realized he was losing his sight but struggled to find a solution that would allow him to see while still maintaining the tough-guy persona he put out into the world. The fact that he overcame all of this to become the most dominant reliever of his generation is a lesson to us all, showing that struggles and hardships are only a temporary blip on our path to greatness.
Gagné also underwent Tommy John surgery in 1997, recovered, then came up to the majors and debuted as a starter in 1999. He started 48 games between 1999 and 2001, but the Dodgers quickly realized that his makeup and stamina were better suited as a reliever. In 2002, Gagne started the year in the bullpen, and he went on to save 52 games in 56 chances with a 1.97 ERA and a 0.862 WHIP. It was a phenomenal season for the young pitcher, especially considering the fact he was in the same division as the defending World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks, as well as Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.
Gagné’s best season was easily the 2003 season when he converted all 55 of his save chances. It’s arguably the best year a reliever has ever had; He had 137 strikeouts in 82.1 innings, allowed only 49 baserunners for a ridiculous WHIP if 0.692, and he finally ended Randy Johnson‘s reign of four consecutive Cy Young awards with one of his own. He became the first pitcher with more than 50 saves in two different seasons, and his only blown save came in the 2003 All-Star Game when he gave up a two-run home run to Texas Rangers 3rd baseman Hank Blalock. It’s absolutely wild that his only blown save that year was in a game that didn’t even count.
2004 was much of the same, though he hit a bit of a snag late in the season when the 84 game streak finally came to an end and he started to lose some of his touch in the last couple months of the year. The three year stretch of dominance resulted in 102 saves in 108 attempts with 365 strikeouts in 247 innings. Amazingly, he pitched exactly 82.1 innings in all three seasons, and he easily became the fastest pitcher ever to reach the 100-save mark.
The next few seasons weren’t nearly as dominant as he struggled with injuries and inconsistency, but in 2007 he had a bit of a revelation in Texas where he converted 16 of 17 saves with a 2.16 ERA before being traded to Boston at the deadline. That success didn’t carry over to the northeast, as he blew all three save opportunities he was given and had a 6.75 ERA to finish off the regular season. He was, however, a member of that 2007 World Champion Red Sox team and that’s something you’ll never be able to take away from him.
Éric Gagné converted 187 saves in his career, with a 91.7% conversion rate which is still a major league record for pitchers with 50 or more saves. His 2003 Cy Young is the last one awarded to a reliever, and his three years of dominance made him an easy election to three All-Star teams.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention Gagné’s inclusion in the Mitchell Report and his admitted use of HGH, something he’s on the record as saying he regrets. I’m a believer in the “time heals all wounds” mantra, and who really knows how many guys were up to something in that era, so as far as I’m concerned it’s merely a footnote that doesn’t really take away from the amazing story that is Éric Gagné.
So why was Gagné so dominant? What was so special about him? Well, since his best seasons were in the pre-PITCHf/x days, there isn’t really much data we can use to figure out what was going on. There’s no CSW records, no SwStr%, O-Contact%, or any of the other statistics we love to chirp about here at Pitcher List. In the early to mid 2000s, there was simply raw stuff, velocity, and the eye test. Éric Gagné had all three of those.
Gagné’s primary weapon was his devastating fastball. At his peak, he had a fastball that he could blow by any batter at will. His four-seamer hovered in the mid-to-upper ’90s with fantastic ride while occasionally touching 100 MPH. One of his best traits as a pitcher was his phenomenal command – as I looked back at footage of him, I was struck by how often he hit his spot with his fastball. Guys who throw in the upper 90s generally aren’t dotting them on the edges on a routine basis, but Gagné was exactly that kind of pitcher. Think Jacob deGrom, just not quite as consistently fast.
Gagné was an intimidating guy, and he was very animated on the mound. He would often jump-step toward the 3rd base line after he threw a pitch. I have to imagine that, as a batter trying to hit a baseball, seeing this big burly man jumping around in your peripherals definitely had an impact on your ability to hit a pitch. Notice the late ride this pitch gets as it darts back across the corner of the plate, and how the catcher literally doesn’t even have to move his glove. With all of the moving parts in that follow-through, Gagné’s command was absolutely incredible.
This 99 MPH pitch once again shows off the phenomenal ride Gagné could get on his fastball. I’ve read in a couple places that he would occasionally mix in a two seamer (Éric, if you’re reading this, can you confirm?), but if he did it was rare. This at bat against Barry Bonds is considered by many to be the greatest at-bat of all time; A duel between the league’s best hitter and best pitcher, with multiple rumors and stories swirling around that both seemingly ended up true. The legend of this at-bat has been confirmed in recent years, and that makes it even more legendary.
First, there were rumors that the Giants were juicing the radar gun in the stadium to try coercing Gagné into throwing more fastballs. If you watch the full at-bat, you can hear the announcers mentioning that Gagné is hitting 100 and 101 MPH consistently with his fastball. The next day, Gagné came out and said he didn’t throw that fast, and this tweet from Giants’ beat reporter Henry Schulman all but confirms the rumors.
An at-bat in which, before Statcast and standardized radar guns, the #SFGiants had their stadium folks add several mph to Gagne’s fastball on the scoreboard to convince him he was throwing harder than he was so he’d keep feeding Bonds fastballs and not go off speed. It worked. https://t.co/XExgmZw9p3
— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) December 18, 2019
The second, and I think the best, rumor swirling around this at-bat was that Gagné and Bonds came to an agreement that if the opportunity ever arose, Gagné would only throw him fastballs. It was the ultimate Man vs. Man showdown, two of the all time greats facing off in a test of pure strength and determination. Bonds ended up going deep on the 7th pitch of the at-bat, but watch Gagné tell the story of the agreement and ultimately the at-bat. This is the stuff of legends.
Eric Gagne. Barry Bonds. Is there a better at-bat out there than the match-up between these two in 2004?
— Momentum (@Watch_Momentum) October 3, 2020
Every great pitcher needs a great secondary pitch, and Gagné’s changeup is one of the best of all time. Dubbed the “Bugs Bunny Changeup” by former Dodgers outfielder Brian Jordan, the pitch looked like it was traveling at 60 MPH when compared to the heater. In reality, the pitch hovered in the mid-80s, with a velocity separation of 10-12 MPH between the fastball and changeup. With that context, it’s easy to understand why so many batters struck out against Gagné.
The pitch was also dubbed the Vulcan Changeup, thanks to its’ unique grip. Here’s Dodger Insider’s Cary Osborne, from a January 8, 2015 article, describing the pitch:
The pitch took on the name of “Vulcan changeup” because it was gripped with the forefinger and middle finger spread together from the ring finger and pinky together, which gave the appearance of “Star Trek” character Spock’s signature hand gesture.
The Vulcan Changeup has been used by other pitchers since then, including current reliever Ian Kennedy and former Astros great Roy Oswalt.
Another thing you’ll notice in this GIF is Gagné’s signature fist pump, which he did whenever he recorded a save. From “Welcome To The Jungle” to fist pump, opposing batters had little chance of success.
You might be looking at this GIF and thinking, “that pitch kinda looks more like a screwball”. If you weren’t, well, here’s an example of a recent screwball thanks to our own Ben Palmer.
Another piece of fun pitch trivia—the most recent pitcher to throw a screwball?
Hector Santiago, who threw 37 in 2018
Since 2008, 748 screwballs have been thrown
Santiago and Daniel Herrera are tied for the most thrown (399) followed by
Yoshinori Tateyama- 68
Alfredo Simon- 2 pic.twitter.com/f8ZjjGNNDC
— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) November 5, 2020
Looks pretty similar, eh? Well, former Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colburn actually called the pitch a screwball in that same article on Dodger Insider.
“His changeup was really a screwball,” said Colborn, who is now the senior advisor of Pacific Rim Operations for the Texas Rangers. “We were careful to never really call it a screwball because, with a hitter’s mentality, just by knowing that it was a screwball they could probably adjust to it better. By calling it a changeup, hitters have something in their toolbox, in their repertoire of hitting a changeup. And so they were trying to hit a screwball with a changeup toolbox, and that wasn’t the same thing. I think that screwball was the key pitch. It was something no one had in baseball at the time.”
I’m not going to argue with Colburn on this one, nor do I really care how the pitch is actually classified. It’s an absolutely filthy pitch regardless, and a lot of Gagné’s success can be credited to it.
As if the fastball and changeup weren’t enough, Gagné also had a mystifying slow-curve that he sometimes pulled out of his magic hat. The pitch hovered between 66-70 MPH, and he was also able to paint the corner with it nearly as well as he could with the fastball. I wasn’t able to find very many of them on video, but this pitch against Raul Mondesi on 5/14/2005 was a deadly way to end the game and earn the save. Imagine sitting fastball, worrying about the changeup, and then seeing this curve? No chance.
Éric Gagné’s incredible three-year stretch is one of the best performances in the history of baseball. Injuries and ineffectiveness ultimately derailed his career and, unfortunately, we didn’t get to see that stretch of prolonged greatness that would have catapulted him into the Hall of Fame. There is no doubt, however, that Gagné holds a special place in baseball history, and his story deserves a happy ending.
As it turns out, he’s been doing pretty well since his time in the majors. Yes, he attempted a few comebacks, pitched in some independent leagues, and pitched for the Canadian National Team all with varying levels of success. He also spent time as a coach in the Texas Rangers’ farm system in 2018, and for the French National Team in 2019. He’s a father, a golfer, and he also once made an appearance in a biopic about Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
For further reading about Gagné’s playing career, check out this great article by Daniel G. Habib over at Sports Illustrated. Gagné also did an interview with Ron Cervenka of ThinkBlueLA.com back in 2015, where Gagné looks back on his career and touches on his life after baseball.
Photo by Ed Wolfstein/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)