>Random Thursday: Scott Sullivan

>The Common Man will recap his final visit to the Metrodome tomorrow (though the visit took place last weekend), in a final, teary farewell to a truly horrible stadium that is full of wonderful memories. But today is Thursday, which means randomness. Fortune smiled on us today, for it landed on quintessential right-handed reliever Scott Sullivan.

Sullivan, for those of you with short memories, pitched from 1995-2004, almost entirely with the Cincinnati Reds. From 1997-2001, he was one of the most reliable relievers in the National League, consistently posting ERAs in the low 3.00s (except for a hiccup in ’98) with good strikeout rates, average control, and a good ability to keep the ball on the ground (thanks, in large part, to his sidearm delivery). He also was terrifically durable during those years, topping 70 games pitched or 100 innings in all of them, except ’97, when he pitched 97.1 innings. Sullivan began running out of gas in 2002. His K/9 was still excellent (in fact, it ticked up slightly), but his HR/9 doubled and his H/9 jumped as well. Sullivan bounced back in 2003 in a split season between Cincinnati and the White Sox, but began experiencing back troubles that prompted him to raise his arm angle. Sullivan lost a great deal of his effectiveness with the Royals in 2004, and didn’t pitch after that (but he did spend a lot of time on the 60-day DL). While Rotoworld doesn’t have additional information, Sullivan never made it back from his injuries, and hasn’t pitched since 2005.

But this post isn’t about Sullivan, per se. Rather, it’s about one almost-great season. Sullivan was a part of three terrible Reds teams at the end of his career (otherwise known as the Bob Boone years), but was a mainstay of some pretty impressive squads during his stay. In fact, Sullivan was an important cog on the single best team of the post-wild card era to not make the postseason, the 1999 Reds. The Reds won 96 games that year, more than any other team to not make the playoffs since the San Francisco Giants won 103 and finished out of the money in the pre-wild card wilderness of 1993.

The ’99 Reds were cobbled together by Jim Bowden and Jack McKeon, who had a lot of talent come together at exactly the right time. 1B Sean Casey, then 24, enjoyed his best season (.332/.399/.539, 132 OPS+), Pokey Reese played stellar defense at 2B, and for the first time, hit enough to make him a productive player (.285/.330/.417). 3B Aaron Boone had a solid season in his first real opportunity to play regularly. Mike Cameron (acquired for Paul Konerko, who was redundant with Casey around) rebounded from a horrible season with the White Sox to hit a Cameron-ian .256/.357/.469 and play Gold Glove-ish defense in CF. Dmitri Young (.300/.352/.504) played well in a utility role, as did Jeffrey Hammonds (.279/.347/.523, starting down the road to what would become the Milwaukee Brewers’ long nightmare). Catcher Eddie Taubensee shined in his last full season (.311/.354/.521), and 35-year old, future Burt Blyleven-esque Hall of Fame-case Barry Larkin had his last good, uninterrupted season (.293/.390/.420, which was still off for him). And LF Greg Vaughn, acquired for Reggie Sanders and change, provided impressive power (.245/.347/.535, 45 HR 118 RBI) (though the deal actually didn’t end up working well for the Reds, as Sanders hit .285/.376/527, didn’t get injured in ’99, and was included in a deal for Bret Boone and Ryan Klesko that offseason, while Vaughn signed with Tampa during the offseason).

Pete Harnisch shined in the rotation (16-10, 3.68) in his last productive season, and 31 year old minor league veteran Steve Parris had 21 good starts (11-4, 3.50), but the rest of the rotation was really underwhelming and inconsistent. Juan Guzman (6-3, 3.03) only started 12 games after being acquired from the Orioles. Denny Naegle was moderately effective (9-4, 4.27), but only started 19. Ron Villone (9-7, 4.23) and Brett Tomko (5-7, 4.92) both got more than 20 starts, but weren’t anything special. No starter threw more than 200 innings (Steve Avery had just 96 IP in 19 starts, and Jason Bere had 43.1 in 10).

While the rotation was in flux, the bullpen shined. McKeon leveraged his bullpen extremely well, using Sullivan (79 G, 113.2 IP, 5-4, 3.01, 3 Sv), Danny Graves (75 G, 111 IP, 8-7. 3.08, 27 Sv), Scott Williamson (62 G, 93.1 IP, 12-7, 2.41, 19 Sv), and Dennys Reyes (65 G, 61.2 IP, 2-2, 3.79) with effectiveness. It was an extremely stable bullpen as well. In addition to those four, Gabe White pitched 50 games and 61 innings, and Stan Belinda got into 29 and 42.2, but no one else pitched more than 2 games of relief (except Villone and Tomko). Indeed, while The Nasty Boys bullpen of 1990 gets all the attention (a 2.93 cumulative ERA, 450 K in 472.2 innings), one wonders whether the ’99 Reds pen was actually more effective (3.36 cumulative ERA, 463 K in 530.1 innings in an extremely high-scoring environment). If we adjust the Reds’ pen performance in 1999 to the 1990 environment (in which 18 percent fewer runs were allowed by NL teams), their ERA drops to 2.85, and they have a significant advantage in innings pitched.

The Reds went into the final weekend of the season tied with the Astros for the NL Central lead, and with a two game lead over the Mets for the Wild Card. That weekend, they lost two of three to the Brewers, while the Mets won out and the ‘Stros took two of three from the Dodgers. This left the Reds and Mets tied for the Wild Card, and a one-game playoff was scheduled for the next day. Cincinnati ran into an absolute buzzsaw that day in Al Leiter, who tossed a two-hit shutout to eliminate the Redlegs. The Mets would advance to the NLCS, where they lost to the Braves.

That offseason, the Reds made their infamous trade for Ken Griffey and picked up Dante Bichette to play RF. Injuries to Larkin and Boone, and poor performance from Benito Santiago behind the plate dropped their offensive production by 40 runs, and their excellent bullpen masked an absolutely abysmal starting rotation that was often hurt. Injuries to Naegle and Harnisch forced the Reds to use Elmer Dessens and Williamson in the rotation, which forced them to use Manny Aybar, Mark Wohlers, and a cast of misfits. They gave up 45 more runs than in ’99, and finished with 85 wins and 10 games back of the Cardinals. By 2001, they were in full collapse and lost 96 games.

Because of their relatively small market and short peak, and because they ultimately failed to make the playoffs, no one really remembers the ’99 Reds today. And that’s a shame. Jack McKeon put players in positions where they would succeed and did not ask more of them than they could deliver. Jim Bowden, for all his failings, had a talented group that gelled at just the right moment, and could have been (for the want of a little starting pitching) a force in the NL Central for years to come. If they had managed to win one more game in 1999, who knows how that club’s offseason, and its next decade, might have unfolded.