1988-Present Day: The Era of the One-Inning Closer

 

In this “History of Relief Pitching” series, we’ve talked a lot about the “Save,” a statistic first made official in 1969 but applied retroactively by Baseball Reference to every pitcher in history. During the glory years of relief pitching (the 1970’s and most of the ’80’s), bullpen stoppers were, more often than not, called upon to pitch multiple innings. That changed in the late 1980’s and we have Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa to thank for it. 1988 was the season that La Russa began to deploy Dennis Eckersley, more often than not, as a one-inning closer. Eckersley took to the role well, saving a MLB-high 45 games with a 2.35 ERA and a microscopic WHIP (walks + hits per inning) of 0.867. All told, in 29 of Eckersley’s 45 saves, he pitched one inning or less.

In truth, Eckersley wasn’t the first reliever to be used this way but he was by far the most famous because he did it better than anybody else. In 1987, Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly used closer Jeff Reardon for one inning or less in 40 of his 63 appearances; he logged a total of just 80.1 innings in those 63 games pitched. Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose used his closer, John Franco, the same way in ’87. Franco appeared in 68 games but threw just 82 innings. Houston Astros manager Hal Lanier (in 1986) started using closer Dave Smith in this manner. Smith pitched one inning or less in 43 out his 54 appearances.

OK, we’ve spread the blame around a bit now but the one-inning save has become the norm in baseball and it’s even infected the strategy of managers throughout the league. Helping the team’s ordained “closer” pile up saves has been used throughout the game as push-button strategy of when a team’s best relief pitcher is to be deployed.

Although this has started to change a little bit in 2017, managers have literally been managing to the save statistic itself for decades. You see this all the time: if a game is tied in the 9th inning, the home team manager will often use his closer in the top of the 9th, hoping his team will walk it off in the bottom of the frame. However, the visiting team manager will often avoid using his closer in the bottom of the 9th because it’s not a save situation. In essence, because the home team can’t have an extra inning save, the manager feels free to utilize his closer in a non-save situation but the visiting manager is waiting, hoping his team will take the lead in the top of an inning so his closer can come in to wrap it up in the bottom.

The “poster child” game for the folly of a manager blindly following the save rule occurred in the A.L. Wild Card game in 2016 when Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter used Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Brian Duensing and Ubaldo Jimenez in the 9th, 10th and 11th innings while Zach Britton, who had one of the greatest relief pitching seasons of all time, sat on the bench. Ultimately, Jimenez gave up a three-run walk-off home run to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion. Britton posted a regular season ERA of 0.54, nearly five runs better than Jimenez’ 5.44 but, in a “win or go come” contest, he was not used.

ESPN’s Keith Law, in his book Smart Baseball, has a chapter entitled “Holtzman’s Folly: How The Save Rule Has Ruined Baseball.” The chapter begins by recounting Showalter’s poor strategy in that Wild Card contest. Law invokes the name Holtzman because Jerome Holtzman was the Chicago Sun-Times columnist who invented the save statistic.

Here’s another thing that you see happen a lot: a team has a three run lead and the closer starts warming up. But then they score another run in the 8th inning and, all of a sudden, the closer sits down and option B gets ready. However, if option B allows two runners on, the closer is back in the game because the tying run is on deck and, therefore, a save is available to be earned.

Take a look at the number of times that the top closers of the past thirty years were deployed in tie games at home or on the road. As you can see, today’s managers universally “save” their best relief pitcher for an extra inning save (on the road) that may never occur. For home games, any win is by definition of the walk-off variety so the closer is freely deployed since there can no longer be a save situation.

Below you can see the usage pattern of several top relief pitchers. The chart shows how many times each pitcher (the top 10 in career saves plus Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter) was brought into a tie game in the 9th inning or in extra innings.

Times entered a tie game, 9th or laterYears pitchedHomeRoad% at home
Trevor Hoffman1993-20101183378%
Mariano Rivera1995-2013962381%
Billy Wagner1995-2010822378%
John Franco1984-2005765259%
Joe Nathan1999-201673989%
Francisco Rodriguez2002-201773989%
Lee Smith1980-1997663069%
Jonathan Papelbon2005-2016662077%
Dennis Eckersley1987-199852690%
Jeff Reardon1979-1994482566%
Goose Gossage1972-1994464451%
Rollie Fingers1968-1985462961%
Bruce Sutter1976-1988403851%

You can see plainly that, for the relievers of the 1990’s and beyond, there’s a heavy bias towards using the designated “closer” in a tie game only in home games, where there will not be a save chance forthcoming. The pattern started in the ’90’s and gotten worse in the 21st century. This is silly, if you think about it. There’s nothing more high leverage than a tie game on the road. You give up a run and you lose. Period. And yet managers throughout the game don’t deploy their top bullpen weapon in these situations, hoping their team will score in the top of an inning and create the save opportunity in the bottom.

Incidentally, the one purely 21st century closer with a less extreme usage pattern is Jonathan Papelbon, who has been used at home in 9th or extra inning games 20 times. Of those 20 games, 18 of them occurred in Boston when Terry Francona was managing. As we saw in the 2016 playoffs, Francona doesn’t quite toe the industry line when it comes to deciding when to utilize his best relievers.

 

The one-inning save concept wasn’t universally deployed right away in the late ’80’s but, slowly but surely, it has taken root in the sport. The chart below shows the average number of innings pitched in games saved for the cumulative efforts of the top 20 relief pitchers for each listed five-year period. The top 20 are determined by the MLB saves leaders for each five-year period in question.

Number of innings pitched in saved games for top 20 relief pitchers (ranked by saves).
YearsAverage IP per save% of Saves 1 IP or less% of Saves 2 IP or more
1970-741.6243%24%
1975-791.6842%28%
1980-841.6239%26%
1985-891.3552%21%
1990-941.1372%9%
1995-991.0386%2.3%
2000-041.0388%2.2%
2005-091.0192%0.9%
2010-140.9996%0.2%

As you can see, during the golden age of relief pitching (1970-1985), the top closers averaged about 5 outs per save (1.66 or 1.67 represents one and two thirds innings) and about one out of every four saves was for 6 outs or more. In today’s game, the one-inning save accounts for almost all of them and the 2+ inning save has become an endangered species.

In his career, Rollie Fingers had 135 saves of two innings or more. Bruce Sutter had 130; Goose Gossage had 125.

Mariano Rivera had a grand total of 11; Trevor Hoffman had just 7.

For the entire sport of Major League Baseball, there were 797 saves of 2 innings or longer over the first 17 full years of the 21st century (2000-2016). That’s 33 less than the total accumulated by just 7 pitchers of the 20th century (Fingers, Sutter, Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, Hoyt Wilhelm, Gene Garber and Mike Marshall). You read that correctly. Just seven men accumulated more career saves of 2+ innings than the entire sport in today’s game for a 17-year period.

To beat this dead horse a little more, in 1984 Quisenberry had 27 saves of 2 innings or more. In 2016, among all 30 MLB teams, there were a grand total of 29 saves of 2 innings or longer.

Because closers are pitching fewer innings than ever while, at the same time, starting pitchers are completing fewer games than ever, teams are forced to go much deeper into their bullpens. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, most pitching staffs had 9 to 10 members, four to five of whom were starters. In today’s game, it’s not uncommon for a team to carry a 13-man pitching staff (with eight designated relief pitchers). On a N.L. team, that means only four backup position players are available, with only three backups on A.L. rosters that carry 13 pitchers.

As we’ve done in the previous three parts of this series on the history of relief pitching, we track the percentage of all starts that resulted in complete games and the percentage of all pitching appearances that were made by relief pitchers.

  • % G as CG = the percentage of all games started that ended in a complete game
  • % G as RP = the percentage of total games pitched that were in relief (for the decade)
  • All ERA = the collective ERA for all pitchers on all teams for the decade
Totals among all pitchers per decade
Decade% G as CG% G as RPAll ERA
1900-190979.0%19.4%2.84
1910-191956.9%36.7%2.94
1920-192949.6%44.3%4.04
1930-193944.6%47.5%4.28
1940-194942.6%50.1%3.76
1950-195933.5%56.5%3.97
1960-196925.2%60.8%3.57
1970-197925.3%59.4%3.70
1980-198915.6%63.2%3.87
1990-19997.4%70.0%4.29
2000-20093.6%73.4%4.43
2010-20162.6%74.9%3.97
Courtesy: Baseball Reference

As we know, complete games have become virtually non-existent while nearly 75% of all appearances today are by relief pitchers.

 

Now let’s take a look now at some of the top closers from the past 30 years.

Dennis Eckersley:

The story of relief pitching from 1988 to the present day starts with a pitcher who began his career 13 years prior to ’88.

There’s not one pitcher with a plaque in Cooperstown that had a career quite like that of Dennis Eckersley. He had a solid but not especially spectacular run as a starting pitcher for his first 12 seasons and then an often brilliant career as a bullpen specialist for the final 12. It’s the combined value of those two careers that made Eck a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2004. He’s the only pitcher in baseball history with over 150 wins and 200 saves (and he was way over both marks).

Cooperstown Cred: Dennis Eckersley (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004)

  • Career: 197-171, 3.50 ERA, 390 Saves
  • 1992 A.L. MVP and Cy Young Award winner: 7-1, 51 saves, 1.91 ERA
  • 6-time All-Star
  • 6 times in top 7 of Cy Young Award voting
  • 1988-’92: 220 saves, 1.90 ERA, 198 ERA+, 38 walks in 359.2 innings
  • Member of 1989 World Champion Oakland A’s
  • 1977: pitched 22.1 consecutive innings of no-hit ball (2nd longest streak at the time to Cy Young)
Photo File

Eckersley, an Oakland native, made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1975 at the tender age of 20. He started his career as he finished it, in the bullpen, but he wouldn’t stay there for long. After 10 scoreless appearances over 14.1 innings, manager Frank Robinson installed Eck into the starting rotation and all but seven of his appearances through the end of the ’86 campaign would be made as a starter.

The Indians of the late ’70’s were not a contending club but Eckersley was the best of their starting pitchers from ’75 to ’77. The young right-hander with the high leg kick (emulating his boyhood idol Juan Marichal) and long hair pitched a no-hitter and made his first All-Star team in ’77.

There was one notable statistical blemish on Eck’s ’77 season; he gave up 31 home runs, which was the third most in the American League. According to his bio on SABR (the Society of American Baseball Research), the Indians were concerned about his penchant for giving up the long ball, that he had a hard time holding runners on base, and that he struggled against left-handed hitters. In addition, the Tribe’s brass feared that his side-winding delivery would ultimately result in arm troubles.

It was true that, in Eck’s first three years, he struggled against lefty hitters, who hit .270 off him. But against right-handed batters, he was lights out, holding them to a collective .172 batting average.

Anyway, just before the 1978 season, Eckersley was traded to the Boston Red Sox for a package featuring pitcher Rick Wise and catcher Bo Diaz.

The change from a 2nd-division club to a contender suited Eckersley. He was the ace starter the Red Sox hoped he would be, winning 20 games while posting a 2.99 ERA, with 9 of his 20 wins coming after a Red Sox loss.

The ’78 BoSox famously blew a 10-game lead to the New York Yankees and Eck played his part, giving up 7 runs in 3.2 innings in the third game of the Yankees 4-game September sweep at Fenway Park, known as the Boston Massacre. Still, Eck also did his part in helping the Sox finish strong to force the famous one-game playoff, winning his final four starts with three complete games and a 0.80 ERA.

Eckersley had another solid campaign in 1979, going 17-10 with a 2.99 ERA but developed a sore arm which, along with back and shoulder injuries, would turn him into an average starting pitcher for his final four seasons in Beantown. From 1980-83, Eck went 43-48 with a 4.43 ERA (ballpark adjusted 96 ERA+).

After another mediocre start to the 1984 season, Eckersley was traded to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Bill Buckner, who of course would play a rather prominent role in Red Sox history. The move to Wrigley Field and the National League suited Eck; he went 10-8 with a 3.03 ERA in 24 starts with the ’84 Cubs, helping them to their first playoff appearance since 1945. Alas, his lone October start did not go well. With the Cubs up 2 games to none and a chance to advance to the World Series, Eck got bombed by the San Diego Padres in Game 3, giving up 5 runs in 5.1 innings. The Cubs, of course, would go on to lose the NLCS in 5 games to the Padres.

After a respectable ’85 campaign, Eck developed tendinitis in his shoulder and had a miserable ’86 season, posting a 4.57 ERA ERA in 201 innings.

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Shortly before the 1987 season, Eckersley’s professional career changed forever when he was traded to the Oakland A’s for three minor leaguers, none of whom ever appeared in the major leagues. Eck’s first season as a reliever went well; he posted a 3.03 ERA in 115.2 innings, saving 16 games along the way. His years as a 9th inning only closer were still a year away; in 7 of his 16 saves, he pitched 2 innings or more.

From 1988-1992, Eckersley was simply the best relief pitcher in baseball. He averaged 44 saves per season, all while sporting a 1.90 ERA and a WHIP of 0.792. The statistic WHIP (walks + hits per inning) is one that became known to baseball fans primarily through rotisserie (fantasy) baseball. A WHIP of 0.792 is ridiculously great.

Despite his brilliance in Oakland, Eckersley will be forever remembered most for that one night in 1988 in which his previous problems with the long ball returned. He had saved all four games of the A’s four-game sweep of the Red Sox in the ALCS but, in Game 1 of the World Series in Los Angeles, served up the most epic home run in the history of the sport, the game-winning swat by the Dodgers’ hobbled star, Kirk Gibson.

Although it was in 1992 that Eck won the MVP and Cy Young Award, his best season was in 1990. He saved 48 games while posting a 0.61 ERA over 73.1 innings. In the meantime, he walked just four batters (four) in those 73.1 innings and yielded just two home runs. The walk total was actually worse than the previous season, when he issued just three free passes in 57.2 innings.

As he got older, Eckersley’s greatness did start to fade. In his last three years in Oakland (1993-95), Eck still saved 84 games but did it with a mediocre 4.40 ERA. In his last three seasons (1996-98 in St. Louis and back in Boston), he saved an additional 67 games while posting a 3.89 ERA. His final game was on October 3rd, 1998, one day before his 44th birthday. It was Game 3 of the ALDS and, in one inning of work, he gave up a solo home run to Manny Ramirez.

Five years later, Eck appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot and easily gained election into the Hall with 83% of the vote.

 

As we’ve seen, Dennis Eckersley’s career can be divided into four phases: the young stud starting pitcher phase, the struggling starting pitcher phase, the lights-out closer phase and the aging relief pitcher phase.

Courtesy Baseball Reference
Dennis EckersleyIPWLSVBSVSV%ERAERA+WHIPWAR
1975-19791148.177503175%3.121281.18428.0
1980-19861347.27478000%4.141001.23517.8
1987-1992475.130172363188%2.181780.84415.5
1993-1998314.116261513979%4.151041.2341.4

I’m generally not inclined to talk about WAR (Wins Above Replacement) when discussing relief pitchers because it’s a counting stat that does not properly take into account the high leverage situations a closer encounters on a nearly daily basis. But, in the case of Eckersley, it’s really interesting. He is most well known for (and mostly in the Hall of Fame because of) his role as a relief pitcher but his primary value (according to WAR) was as a starter.

  • His WAR from 1975-86 (as a starter) was 45.8
  • His WAR from 1987-1998 (as a reliever) was 16.9

Here are a couple of nuggets that will surprise you:

  • Eckersley’s 45.8 WAR from 1975-86 is 4th best among all MLB pitchers (behind Hall of Famers Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven and Tom Seaver)
  • Eckersley’s 12.5 WAR from 1988-92 (his five best as a closer) is only 3rd among relief pitchers (behind two Royals, Steve Farr and Jeff Montgomery)

How in the world is Eckersley (with his 1.90 ERA) rated behind Montgomery (2.39 ERA) and Farr (2.42 ERA) despite an ERA half a run better than both? The answer is that the metrics that make up WAR elevate Farr and Montgomery for doing well on a Royals team that played poor defense and Eck is “punished” by having a good defensive team behind him. Eck also benefited from pitching in Oakland but his ERA+ (198) takes that into account and it was significantly better than the others (167 for Montgomery, 164 for Farr).

(By the way, Eckersley himself frequently talks about what a benefit it was to pitch in Oakland with its spacious foul territory. As a broadcaster today for the Red Sox, he often makes note of the nearly non-existent foul territory in Fenway Park compared to what he enjoyed in his glory years in Oakland.)

Anyway, if you polled the 421 baseball writers who cast a Hall of Fame ballot for Eckersley and asked them if they were voting for him to the Hall of Fame because of what he did as a starter, a reliever or both, you would certainly get many saying “both” but I would hazard to guess that the significant number would say “reliever.” So it’s ironic that WAR says that his career value was dramatically higher as a starting pitcher.

Take a look at this another way. Let’s pretend for a minute that Eckersley only pitched 12 years (all as a relief pitcher).  Look at how Eck’s numbers stack up against others if you focus solely on his final 12 years, and compare him to other relievers who piled up over 300 saves but did it in less than 1,000 innings.

Remember that Eck saved 3 games in Cleveland early on in his career; the total below (of 387 saves) shows only his 12 years when he was used exclusively as reliever. 

Courtesy Baseball Reference (pitchers ranked by innings pitched)
PlayerYearsIPSVSV%ERAERA+WAR
Francisco Rodriguez2002-201797643785%2.8614724.0
Joe Nathan1999-2016923.137789%2.8715126.4
Billy Wagner1995-201090342286%2.3118727.7
Dennis Eckersley1987-1998789.238785%2.9613616.8
Tom Henke1982-1995789.231185%2.6715723.0
Jonathan Papelbon2005-2016725.236888%2.4417723.6
Troy Percival1995-2009708.235886%3.1714617.2

I think it’s pretty clear that, as good as he was, Dennis Eckersley’s career as a relief pitcher wasn’t itself good enough to merit a Hall of Fame plaque and, in totality, not quite as spectacular as we remember it.

Eck’s total numbers as a relief pitcher don’t look a whole lot different than those compiled by the others on this list. Particularly interesting are the numbers of Tom Henke, because he was a contemporary and because pitched the identical number of innings as Eckersley did in his 12 years as a reliever. Henke had far fewer saves (because his managers didn’t give him the opportunities that La Russa did for Eck) but performed at a higher level overall. On the list of these seven relief pitchers, Eckersley’s ERA is 2nd to last and his park-adjusted ERA is worst.

 

But, of course, the dissertation above is interesting and thought provoking but I now apologize for the rabbit hole I’ve taken you down. Eckersley did something that none of the other relievers on these lists did. He did have that first career as a starter and a very good one. The chart above shows Tom Henke’s entire career. Henke didn’t win 151 games as a starter, he didn’t throw a no-hitter, and he didn’t start an All-Star Game.

When you add up the totality of his accomplishments over 24 seasons on the mound, Dennis Eckersley richly deserves his place in Cooperstown. When he was inducted into the Hall, Eckersley’s 390 career saves were third most all time (behind Lee Smith and John Franco). Considering that he did all of that in his 30’s and 40’s, that in itself is an impressive feat.

John Smoltz:

The Hall of Fame pitcher most similar to Dennis Eckersley is John Smoltz. Like Eckersley, he had a career as both a starter and as a reliever. The difference is that Eckersley had a clear line of demarcation while Smoltz had an A-B-A career; he was mostly a starter but had a four-year interlude as a closer. Like Eck, Smoltzie was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee.

Cooperstown Cred: John Smoltz (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015)

  • Career: 213-155, 3.33 ERA, 154 Saves
  • 1996 Cy Young Award winner: 24-8, 2.94 ERA
  • 5 times in Top 7 of Cy Young vote
  • 8-time All-Star
  • Member of 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves
  • Career in postseason: 15-4, 2.67 ERA, 4 Saves
  • 2002: 55 Saves (tied for third most for single season in history)
sbnation.com

With the Atlanta Braves, Smoltz, along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, was part of one of the greatest pitching trios in the history of the game. He entered the Hall just one year after Maddux and Glavine got their Cooperstown plaques.

Smoltz grew up in Lansing, Michigan and was originally drafted by his home state Detroit Tigers in 1985. Two years later, he was a part of a trade that looked good for Detroit for about two months but was a disaster thereafter. He was dealt on August 12, 1987 to the Atlanta Braves for a journeyman starting pitcher, 36-year old Doyle Alexander. The right-handed veteran delivered results far beyond what even the most optimistic Tigers’ fans could have hoped for: in 11 starts he went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA. Considering that the Tigers won the A.L. East by just two games, it’s fair to say that Alexander’s acquisition delivered the division title. However, the Tigers were bounced by the Minnesota Twins in 5 games in the A.L.C.S.

So, Alexander was in part responsible for one division title in Detroit. The trade worked out a little better for both Smoltz and the Braves. While Alexander delivered that one division title, Smoltz was a key contributor to a Braves team that won 14 consecutive division titles, 5 pennants and the 1995 World Series.

Smoltz made his major league debut at the age of 21, in 1988, and got off to a slow start, posting a 5.48 ERA in 12 starts. He made his mark the next year, making his first All-Star team while recording a 2.94 ERA. His ’90 and ’91 campaigns were nearly identical (14 wins each year, ERAs of 3.85 and 3.80). While Smoltz had an average campaign, his young rotation mates (Glavine and Steve Avery) transformed into stars and the Braves went from 65 wins in 1990 to 94 wins in ’91.

In the post-season, Smoltz shined brighter than his young lefty counterparts. In the NLCS, Smoltz was the starter and winner in Game 3 and then tossed a complete game shutout in Game 7 to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates and send the Braves to their first World Series since moving to Atlanta.

Although the Braves would fall in the Fall Classic, Smoltz matched zero for zero in the epic Game 7 against Jack Morris. All told, in his first 19 starts in post-season baseball (through the ’97 NLDS), he went 13-6 with a 2.12 ERA. His October “cred” was well established. Despite all of the division titles, the Braves ultimately only won the World Series once, in 1995, ironically in the one post-season in which Smoltz did not pitch well.

After his Cy Young campaign of 1996, Smoltz battled pain in his elbow but still managed to pitch three seasons at a high level (with an ERA of 3.04). In spring training of 2000, his elbow gave out and he had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2000, came back in 2001, but only was able to start five games before another trip to the disabled list. When he returned, he and the organization decided that it was best for his elbow to pitch out of the bullpen.

According to his press conference after getting the call to the Hall of Fame, the off-season after the 2001 season was hellish. He was a free agent. The Braves wanted him to return, but only as a relief pitcher. Ultimately, he turned down multiple offers to be a starting pitcher again (including a lucrative one from the New York Yankees) in order to keep his family in Atlanta. And of course he got to remain with his teammates and golf buddies Glavine and Greg Maddux.

Remember, most of the top closers in baseball are failed starters. In John Smoltz, you had a closer who was a successful starter, and he showed what that meant by flourishing in the role of closing games. In three full seasons in the bullpen, Smoltzie averaged 48 saves per year (including a then-NL record 55 in 2002). All told, in 3+ seasons in the bullpen, Smoltz was successful in 91% of his save opportunities.

Although, like all closers during this era, he was mostly a 9th inning guy, Smoltz did have the most saves of four outs or more from 2001-2004 (35 out of his total of 154).

Smoltz was never really happy in the bullpen and, after the 2004 season, he convinced General Manager John Schuerholz to let him return to the rotation. For three seasons, he delivered over 200 innings per year, while posting a 3.22 ERA. In 2008, his age 41 season, shoulder woes limited him to 28 innings. His career in Atlanta was over and, as often happens with the great ones, Smoltz ended his career in unfamiliar ballparks, pitching 78 innings in 2009 for the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.

The Hall of Fame case for Smoltz is fascinating. I was frankly surprised that he was inducted on the first ballot. His career total of 213 wins is a bit low for a Hall of Fame starter. Curt Schilling’s 216 career wins has been cited as a factor dismissing his Hall of Fame candidacy. Mike Mussina, despite 270 wins, remains outside of the Hall. Clearly, the BBWAA gave Smoltz a pass for his relatively low career win total because of his four years as a relief pitcher. Essentially, the starter-to-reliever-to-starter arc of his career, while different, was viewed in the same light as Eckersley’s when it came time to cast Hall of Fame ballots.

Imagine for a moment that Smoltz only spent that one year in the bullpen, his first year (2001) when his surgically repaired elbow did not allow him to withstand the rigors of starting. Imagine that the Braves installed him back into the rotation in 2002 and that he performed at his career norms as a starter, which was at an average of 14 wins per season and 9 losses, while giving credit for his career 3.33 ERA and 1.176 WHIP even though, with three extra seasons as a starter rather than as a reliever, they likely would have been higher in real life.

This is what that hypothetical career would look like, compared to Schilling’s and Mussina’s actual careers.

Hypothetical career statistics for Smoltz, assuming a starting role from 2002-04.
WinsLossesWL %ERAWHIPWAR
John Smoltz (hypothetical)252177.5873.331.17672.4
Mike Mussina (actual)270153.6383.681.19282.7
Curt Schilling (actual)216146.5973.461.13780.7

Calculating a hypothetical park-adjusted ERA+ is beyond the capabilities of your humble author but, in their actual careers, Smoltz’s was 125, Mussina’s 123 and Schilling’s 127. So, while Smoltzie’s actual ERA is is better than Mussina’s or Schilling’s, he spent virtually his entire career in the National League while Moose spent his in the rugged A.L. East and Schilling spent several years in that division as well.

The point of this particular story is not to bring down John Smoltz, not at all. When you take the totality of his career (including his post-season record), he’s a Hall of Famer. The point is to acknowledge that his three years in the bullpen, as a reason to put him in the Hall ahead of Mussina and Schilling, is perhaps flawed.

Anyway, this example was just a hypothetical. In real life, Smoltz had a great career in totality and is worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown.

 

John Franco:

mlb.com

John Franco is not likely to ever get into the Hall of Fame but he merits discussion here because he does in fact sit in fifth place on the all-time list with 424 career saves which is. For whatever it’s worth, that’s the most ever for a left-handed relief pitcher.

Franco was drafted in the 5th round of the 1981 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers but never appeared in a Dodger uniform: in a regrettable trade for Los Angeles he was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds while still in the minor leagues. He came up to the major leagues with the Reds in 1984 and quickly became one of the premier set-up men in the league before taking over the closing responsibilities full time in ’86.

After the 1989 season, Franco was traded to the New York Mets in exchange for another lefty reliever, Randy Myers. For Franco it was a homecoming; he grew up in Brooklyn and pitched in college at St. John’s in Queens. Franco spent 14 seasons pitching at Shea Stadium, mostly as the closer but, later in his career, setting up for Armando Benitez.

Franco, standing at 5 feet, 10 inches, never started a game in the major leagues and was not your prototypical hard-throwing closer. Franco wasn’t a big strikeout guy; his best pitch was a change-up. He was a four-time All-Star, making the N.L. squad three times while he was with the Reds and in 1990, his first year in Queens.

If you just look at his career in terms of saves (424) and ERA (2.89) he looks like just as good a candidate as Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage or Bruce Sutter. But when you come to some of the peripheral numbers (WHIP, SO/9 and BAA), he suffers in comparison. In addition, because he was one of the progenitors of the one-inning closer concept, he lacks the multi-inning credentials of the others.

Career statisticsSVSV %SV more than 1 IPSV 2 IP or moreERAWHIPSO/9BAA
Lee Smith47882%169943.031.2568.7.236
John Franco42481%90372.891.3337.0.249
Eckersley (as RP)39085%106282.850.9988.8.225
Rollie Fingers34176%2011352.901.1566.9.235
Goose Gossage31074%1931253.011.2327.5.228
Bruce Sutter30075%1881302.831.1407.4.230
Courtesy Baseball Reference

As a reliever, Franco essentially had Eckersley’s career except that it lasted much longer (as a relief pitcher) because he didn’t have a 12-year record as a starter. Franco hit the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011 and fell three votes short of the 5% threshold necessary to remain on future ballots.

Trevor Hoffman:

Trevor Hoffman will be the next pure relief pitcher to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It will happen in a little over 12 months as he joins the Class of 2018. I’ve written extensively about Hoffman’s qualifications to join the elite club in Cooperstown. I’ll repeat some highlights here. The entire piece can be found by clicking here.

With 601 career saves, Hoffman is 2nd all-time to Mariano Rivera and, by being in the same statistical neighborhood as the great Mariano, is now on the cusp of a plaque in Cooperstown. In the vote this January, he earned 74% of the writers’ votes, just five votes shy of the magic number of 75% that triggers induction into the Hall. With history as a guide, it’s nearly certain that Hoffman will be a Hall of Fame inductee in 2018.

Cooperstown Cred: Trevor Hoffman

3rd year on the ballot (received 74% of the vote in 2017)

  • 602 career saves (2nd best in MLB history to Mariano Rivera)
  • Saved 40 or more games 9 times
  • Career 2.87 ERA (141 ERA+)
  • 2-time N.L. Cy Young runner up (1998 & 2006)
  • 7-time All-Star
CBS Sports

As a 25 year old rookie, in June of 1993, Trevor Hoffman was traded from the Florida Marlins to the San Diego Padres in a five-player deal that sent Gary Sheffield to the Sunshine State. Once in San Diego, Hoffman became the team’s closer in 1994 and would not relinquish the role (except for 2003 when he was injured) until after the 2008 season. At both Qualcomm Stadium (and later PetCo Park), Hoffman, when summoned from the bullpen, entered to the lyrics of AC-DC’s “Hell’s Bells.”  It was a tradition that started in July of 1998 and continued for the rest of his career in San Diego. Hoffman spent his last two seasons in Milwaukee before retiring after the 2010 season.

Hoffman, the brother of former player and manager Glenn Hoffman, was an icon in San Diego second only to the late Tony Gwynn. As a pitcher, Hoffman featured an incredible change-up. Like Rivera’s cutter, the change was Hoffman’s signature pitch. Hoffman rode that change to 601 career saves. He was not in Mariano’s class but that is not an insult. Rivera was the Babe Ruth of relief pitchers.

When it came to thinking about Trevor Hoffman as a Hall of Famer, I always held it against him that he had multiple “big game” failures. There was the 1998 World Series blown save when he gave up a home run to Scott Brosius and there was, most notably, the blown save in the 2007 one-game playoff in Colorado, which sent the Padres home for October and the Rockies, ultimately, to the World Series.

Fair or not, the five already enshrined quintet of Hall of Fame relief pitchers all celebrated World Series titles. Hoffman did not. Certainly that is a product of opportunity (or lack thereof). Would Hoffman have won five rings if he had been a Yankee in the late 1990’s instead of a Padre? I’m inclined to think not but he likely would have had three or four.

I’ve always felt that a relief pitcher has to have an overwhelming regular season resume if they did not contribute to any championships for their teams.

So, is the body of Hoffman’s regular season work overwhelming? Well, flawed as the save statistic is, he does have the 2nd most saves in the history of the game, and he’s 123 ahead of the man (Lee Smith) in 3rd place.

Next, although Hoffman pitched in the era of the one-inning closer, he had a superb record of pitching when entering the game in the middle of an inning with runners on base. In his career, he inherited 367 runners and only allowed 20% of them to score. For anyone tossing a minimum of 750 innings and with at least 100 inherited runners, that number is the best in baseball history.

Hoffman’s stranded runner success rate of 20% translates into another statistic that elevates him as a stopper and partially puts him into the “fireman” category and not just a “show up in the 9th inning” closer.  The chart below shows eight relief aces in their career success of saving games when entering the game with runners on base:

Now, this chart is not meant to slam the existing Hall of Famers (Gossage, Sutter, Fingers) who have low save percentages when entering with runners on base. They all entered many, many games with runners on base in the 6th, 7th or 8th innings, when they had to not only put out a fire but keep the fire out until the end of the game. But Hoffman’s numbers again are significantly better than his contemporaries Rivera and Wagner and near-contemporary Eckersley.

A few more nuggets about how Hoffman ranks among relief pitchers with at least 1,000 career innings pitched:

  • 141 career ERA+ is 4th best in history (behind Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm and Dan Quisenberry)
  • 1.058 career WHIP (walks + hits per 9 innings) is 2nd best in history (to Rivera)
  • .211 career BAA (batting average against) is 2nd best in history (to Rivera)
  • 3.69 career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2nd best in history (to Rivera)

When you combine the fact that his raw save total is 2nd best all-time to Rivera and that he’s 2nd best to the Great Mariano in three different ratio metrics, its pretty clear why Trevor Hoffman is on the doorstep of the Hall of Fame.

Now, many of Hoffman’s “2nd bests” are based on a 1,000 innings minimum (the standard applied by Baseball Reference). If you employ a lower innings standard, a flame throwing lefty enters the Cooperstown conversation.

 

Billy Wagner:

Billy Wagner, like Hoffman, retired after the 2010 season and joined the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot in the same year. I’ve also written a separate piece about Wagner, some highlights of which are repeated below. If you’d like to sample the entire piece, you can do so by clicking here.

Cooperstown Cred: Billy Wagner

3rd year on the ballot (received 10% of the vote in 2017)

  • 422 career saves (6th most all-time) in 903 IP
  • Career: 2.31 ERA (2nd best in last 100 years to Mariano Rivera) (min 750 IP)
  • Career: 187 adjusted ERA+ (2nd best in all MLB history to Rivera) (min 750 IP)
  • 4 seasons with ERA under 2.00
  • Career: 11.9 strikeouts per 9 innings (best in MLB history)
  • Career: 0.998 WHIP (2nd best in MLB history to Addie Joss)
  • 7-time All-Star

Let’s take a look at how Wagner stacks up with the best closers (Hoffman and Mariano Rivera) of his generation and how all three match up with all relief pitchers in history who have tossed at least 750 innings out of the pen.

All-Time ranks among all RP with minimum 750 IP
CareerBilly WagnerRankTrevor HoffmanRankMariano RiveraRank
Saves422660126521
ERA2.3122.87162.211
WHIP0.99811.05831.0002
SO/9 IP11.919.4118.221
BAA.1871.2118.2117
Courtesy: Baseball Reference
Houston Chronicle

Wagner’s career ERA of 2.31 is the second best (to Rivera) in the history of baseball for any pitcher who has tossed at least 750 innings. His .187 BAA (batting average against) and 11.9 strikeouts per 9 innings are the best ever.

As a pitcher, your job is to prevent runs. In order to prevent runs, it’s useful to not give up a lot of hits. In any situation but especially if you’re pitching with runners on base, striking out the batter can be a helpful thing as well.

So, it’s fair to ask, if we have a pitcher who (among those with at least 750 innings pitched) is the second best in the last 100 years at run prevention (ERA), the best ever at striking out batters (K per 9 IP), and the best ever at keeping batters from getting hits (BAA), you might think that would be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

If you thought that, you would be wrong.

In two years on the BBWAA, Billy Wagner received 10.5% and then 10.2% of the vote in an election that requires 75% to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. At the same time, Trevor Hoffman received 74% of the vote and is almost certain to get a phone call next January to find out he’s going to have a plaque with his name on it in Cooperstown.

With the assumption that Rivera, in 2019, will be a near-unanimous first ballot of Hall of Famer, it would appear that, based on this chart, there’s one reason and one reason only why Hoffman is on the doorstep of Cooperstown induction while Wagner is mired in the 10% range of the vote. It’s the total career number of saves, pure and simple. Hoffman is in range of the great Rivera while Wagner is in 6th, behind Lee Smith, John Franco and Francisco Rodriguez.

Is that fair to Wags? Does Hoffman deserve a plaque in Cooperstown over Wagner simply because he piled up more appearances and total saves, even though (based on hit and run prevention), Wagner was the superior pitcher?

Besides being perennial All-Stars, elite closers and retiring at the same time, Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman also share a bond that represents a blemish on their Cooperstown resumes. Both pitchers lack the October success and World titles that are prominent in the careers of Hall of Fame stoppers Fingers, Gossage, Sutter and Eckersley.

Wagner retired at the age of 39 despite the fact that he was still at the top of his game. In 2010, his final season, Wags saved 37 games and posted a career-best 1.43 ERA. Billy the Kid, no longer young, retired because he wanted to spend more time with his family. However, by retiring when he did, he may have severely hampered his Cooperstown chances by not piling up a higher raw save total.

The list below shows the all-time saves leaders through their age 38 seasons (defined as your age at midnight on June 30th of that year). Wagner turned 39 on July 25th, 2010.

"Age season" determined by player's age on June 30th
Career SavesThrough Age 38 SeasonAge 39 Season and LaterCareer Total
Mariano Rivera482170652
Trevor Hoffman482119601
Lee Smith4735478
Francisco Rodriguez4370437
Billy Wagner4220422
Courtesy: Baseball Reference

Rivera’s 170 saves after his 38th birthday are the most ever and Hoffman’s 119 are 3rd best.

(In 2nd place on the 39 and over list, Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm pitched until 16 days shy of his 50th birthday and accumulated 144 of his 228 saves between his age 39 and age 49 seasons. Fourth on the list is Dennis Eckersley: he saved 115 games after his 38th birthday).

There are two big factors that weigh against Billy Wagner as a potential Hall of Famer. First, his 903 career innings pitched would be the fewest for any pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown (the fewest currently is 1,042 innings, pitched by Bruce Sutter, a controversial candidate who needed 13 tries on the ballot to get into the Hall). The second beef against Billy the Kid is that he was just a one-inning wonder, that his raw save total of 422 is less impressive than, for instance, Sutter’s 300, Gossage’s 310 or Fingers’ 341 because the closers of the 1970’s and ’80’s often came into games with runners on base and tossed multiple innings when called on to put out fires.

Wagner had an extraordinarily high number of what is now the norm, the one-inning save. A full 86% of his career saves occurred in which he he started an inning and was asked to get just three outs. In the chart from the previous player comment we saw that Hoffman was significantly superior in getting the “tougher” saves, the ones in which he entered with runners on base.

In totality, the “one inning wonder” rap is legitimate. In his entire career, Wagner only inherited 166 base-runners. That’s less than half of those inherited by Hoffman, Rivera, Eckerslsey or Sutter and less than a quarter than those inherited by Gossage or Fingers.

Now, I still think that Billy the Kid deserves a longer look by the voters. I worried last year that he wouldn’t even get 5% of the vote (and thus would get booted off future ballots) and I still worry about that happening to him in the near future. He deserves to have a longer presence on the ballot and get the kind of 9-year look that Gossage had.

Let me explain: as highlighted earlier, Wagner’s dominant peripheral numbers (ERA, ERA+, Batting Average Against, strikeouts/9 innings and Walk+Hits per 9 innings) are among the best in the history of the game. That’s meaningful, to be sure, but the question that remains unanswered is how meaningful, given the smaller sample size (903 career innings).

Regarding Wagner’s fantastic run-prevention numbers, the question I have on my mind is whether those numbers will still look quite so uniquely extraordinary five to six years from now. In this new era of one-inning closers, we’re seeing more dominant relief pitchers posting microscopic ERA’s, BAA’s and prolific strikeout rates. Three of the current crop of dominant closers (Craig KimbrelAroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen) all have numbers similar to and in many cases better than Wagner’s. All three are 29 or 30 years old and have only pitched around 450 innings each so it remains to be seen whether any of them will remain productive and approach the 903 innings that Wagner tossed. Another 5-to-6 years of perspective is warranted to see whether Wagner deserves to be in Cooperstown.

 

Mariano Rivera:

When it comes to discussing the Cooperstown credentials of relief pitchers in the history of the game, there is nobody easier to write about than Mariano Rivera. The Great Rivera will be eligible for the Hall of Fame on next year’s ballot, the one voted on in December 2018 and will unquestionably be inducted into the Hall in the summer of 2019, probably with a nearly unanimous vote.

Cooperstown Cred: Mariano Rivera (eligible for Hall in 2019)

  • Career: 82-60, 2.21 ERA, 652 Saves
  • 652 career saves are the most in MLB history
  • 2.21 career ERA is best in MLB (min. 500 IP) in last 100 years
  • Career 205 ERA+ is best in the entire MLB history (min. 500 IP)
  • 13-time All-Star
  • 5 times in top 5 of Cy Young Award voting
  • Member of 5 World Series championship teams with New York Yankees
  • Career in post-season: 141 IP, 8-1, 42 saves (out of 47 chances), 0.70 ERA
New York Times

Mariano Rivera, born in Panama City on November 29, 1969, didn’t start pitching until he was 19 years old. He took to it well, however, because the New York Yankees signed him at the age of 20, on February 17, 1990. At the time, Rivera didn’t speak a word of English and didn’t even consider himself a pitcher yet. In a twist of historic karma, his first pitching coach was Hoyt Wilhelm, who was at the time the only relief pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame.

In his first season in the minor leagues (rookie ball), he was used almost exclusively as a reliever and seemed to take to the role: in 52 innings, he gave up one earned run (for an ERA of 0.17), struck out 58 and walked 7. In 1991, in A Ball, Rivera was used as both a starter and reliever and posted a 2.75 ERA, with a still impressive 123 strikeouts in 114.2 innings.

Rivera only pitched 22 times in 1992-93 due to surgery on his ulnar collateral ligament. It wasn’t a full Tommy John surgery, just a “clean-up” so he was able to return to the mound less than a year after the operation. By May 23, 1995, Rivera was on the mound in the major leagues, as a starting pitcher. His career didn’t begin well: in four starts, he managed just 15 innings while serving up a 10.20 ERA.

Mariano was demoted back to AAA Columbus after his fourth start, on June 11th. 23 days later he was back in the majors and pitched eight innings of scoreless, two-hit ball, with eleven strikeouts. What happened in the intervening 23 days is truly the stuff of legend. His fastball suddenly rose in velocity from about 90 miles per hour to 95. Rivera has publicly credited God for the sudden increase in his fastball velocity; it occurred just as the team was contemplating trading him to the Detroit Tigers for David Wells.

The rest of the ’95 season did not go quite according to what you would expect in the tale of a legend but he did open a lot of eyes in the ALDS against Seattle, in which he threw 5.1 innings of scoreless ball. In the decisive 5th game (which the Yankees would go on to lose), Rivera was summoned in the bottom of the 8th inning with the bases loaded. He struck out Mike Blowers on three pitches.

True story: shortly before the ’96 season, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was worried about having a rookie (some guy named Derek Jeter) open the season as the team’s starting shortstop. As a result of the Boss’ unease, General Manager Bob Watson explored the possibility of trading Rivera to Seattle for the legendary Felix Fermin. Fortunately for the Yankees, Watson, assistant GM Brian Cashman, former GM Gene Michael, third base coach Willie Randolph and new manager Joe Torre all talked Steinbrenner out of the idea, mostly as a vote of confidence in Jeter and not because of the potential loss of Rivera. Imagine how baseball history might have been different if Mariano Rivera had joined a franchise with Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson.

(Thanks to this piece on Sports Illustrated’s website, this New York Post piece this New York Magazine piece and this New York Times piece for some of these biographical nuggets).

Anyway, Rivera remained a Yankee and the man who would become the greatest closer in the history of the sport had perhaps his finest season in that sophomore campaign of ’96 in which he was the set-up man for John Wetteland. In 61 games (and 107.2 innings), he posted a 2.09 ERA (park-adjusted for a 240 ERA+) and struck out 130 batters. The season earned him a 3rd place finish in the A.L. Cy Young Award vote. Although Wetteland was getting the saves and the glory in October, Mo’s post-season magic continued; he gave up just one run in 14.1 innings for a 0.63 ERA, earning one win and 4 “holds.”

Rivera was anointed as the official closer in 1997 which, in his era, meant that he was mostly a 9th-inning only pitcher. It was in ’97 that Rivera discovered his famous cutter, pretty much by accident or, as he tells the story, by “divine intervention.”

In seventeen seasons as the anointed closer in the Bronx (one season of which, 2012, was cut short by injury), Super Mariano entered 723 games with the opportunity to collect a save and he succeeded in 89% of those opportunities, closing his career with 652 saves overall. Add in 42 saves in the post-season and 4 more in the All-Star Game and Rivera finished his career with 698 saves overall. (Yes, it’s not as famous as his post-season record, but Rivera pitched 9 innings in the Mid-Summer Classic and yielded just five hits with no walks and one unearned run).

Mo’s career post-season record (in which he posted a 0.70 ERA over 141 innings) is so other-worldly that it’s hard to describe in words and even harder to quantify as to the relative impact he had in procuring five rings for the Bombers in comparison to his illustrious teammates. His October record was so impeccable that, when starting to write this piece, I was actually able to remember four out of his five post-season blown saves. They are the walk-off home run to the Indians’ Sandy Alomar in the 1997 ALDS, the bloop game-winning single by the D’Backs’ Luis Gonzalez in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and his Game 4 and 5 blown saves in the 2004 ALCS against Boston. The fifth, which I had forgotten, was in Game 2 of the 2004 ALDS against Minnesota, a game in which the Yankees eventually won anyway. When events are this rare, like an eclipse of the sun, you tend to remember them.

Yankees fans will prefer the memories of the four times Rivera was on the mound for the final, clinching out of a World Series title (which he did in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009).

Obiter Dicta

So many of the top relief aces in the last fifty years have done it was flair, style and facial hair. Whether its Eckersley’s finger-point or Fernando Rodney’s shooting arrow, many closers punctuate their final outs. Rivera’s style was unqualified grace. While the Yankee Stadium loudspeakers blared the Metallica song “Enter Sandman” (the team’s answer to Trevor Hoffman’s “Hells Bells” entrance), Rivera calmly jogged in from the bullpen. For the Sandman, each relief appearance was just another day at the office.

A humble, God-fearing man, Rivera didn’t intimidate with a 100 mile per hour fastball or a mustachioed scowl, he intimidated with one un-hittable pitch, his signature cutter than jammed left-handed batters and broke away from right-handers. (In his career, his record against lefty hitters is actually slightly better than against righties). I don’t think there is a stat for this but if there is, I have no doubt that no pitch in baseball history broke more hitters’ bats than Rivera’s cutter.

James Traub, in the excellent afore-mentioned New York Times piece, described his lean physique as if he was “built like a cheetah, an impression reinforced by his smooth skin, his high, sharp cheekbones and his glittering teeth.”

Because of the good fortune of having matured into the magnificent pitcher that he was at the same time that Jeter arrived in the Bronx along with a parade of many other proficient major leaguers, Rivera was able to make a great lasting impression on the collective body of the baseball universe, an impression that earned him nearly universal respect. I grew up a fan of the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox in the 1970’s and have never actually “liked” the Yankees. But even without liking them, there was respect for the great players they had and the titles they won.

No player was respected more by their opponents and, more importantly, by the fans of their opponents, than Rivera. This is a subjective argument but I place Rivera in a class one rung above his long-time teammate Jeter when it comes to the respect and adoration he felt from other players in the game. It’s close, and the two will be inextricably linked, but I always felt that Rivera was in a different class simply because of his extraordinary October numbers. Jeter was also great in October (and in November, as Michael Kay’s famous 2001 World Series call reminds us) but his overall post-season statistics were a mirror of his regular season numbers. Rivera’s were in a different stratosphere.

In Rivera’s final season (2013), the respect he had earned was shown throughout the game of baseball by nearly non-stop tributes and appreciations. Even as a fan who never rooted for his team, I had to fight back tears three different times in his “victory tour.” The first was when he entered the All-Star Game at Citi Field (the home of the cross-town Mets) and all of the other American League players retreated to the dugout to give Mariano center stage, allowing him to take a final nationally televised bow by himself.

Sports Illustrated and the New York Daily News
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The second was in his final appearance at Fenway Park. Despite his overall October greatness, Rivera had that notable blemish when he entered the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS with a chance to send the Yankees back to the World Series. As we all remember, Kevin Millar walked, Dave Roberts pinch-ran, stole second base, and scored on a Bill Mueller single.

In Game 5, Joe Torre summoned Super Mariano in the bottom of the 8th with runners on the corners and nobody out. That’s a tough Houdini Act for any closer and Mo was credited with another blown save when Jason Varitek hit a run-scoring sacrifice fly. (The Red Sox, of course, won both extra inning affairs on walk-offs by David Ortiz and wound up winning the series in 7 games).

Anyway, despite the long history of an often bitter rivalry, on that night at Fenway we saw how highly regarded and admired Rivera was by both the Red Sox players and Fenway faithful.

And, of course, there was the final game of his career at Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t exactly a storybook ending (the Yankees lost the game 4-0) but Rivera still pitched flawlessly; he entered the game with two runners on base in the 8th and got two outs to end the inning. Then, after recording two outs in the 9th, long-time teammates Jeter and Andy Pettitte came out to the mound to take the ball and give Mo his moment alone with the adoring Stadium crowd.

In Part Six of this series on the History of Relief Pitching, we’ll go a little bit deeper in how Rivera’s career should be reviewed in comparison to other Hall of Famers who were starting pitchers or position players. It is not a subject without a little controversy. Remember that relief pitchers are specialists who pitch only a small fraction of the innings expected from starting players. For some, there is a bias against closers, especially against the modern one-inning variety. Although I haven’t seen anyone doubt the Cooperstown credentials of Super Mariano, we’ll attempt to properly compare him to those who played every day or pitched four to five times as many innings.

Three Recently “Retired” Stoppers

In the last twelve months, the Washington Nationals, a team that has issues with its bullpen, released three relief pitchers who are in the top 9 of the all-time saves list: on August 13, 2016, the Nats parted ways with Jonathan Papelbon (368 career saves, 9th best all-time). This spring, they offered a tryout to 42-year-old Joe Nathan (8th on the list with 377 saves). He was released at the end of spring training, re-signed and then released again at the end of May; he did not make an appearance in the major leagues. Then, shortly after his release from the Detroit Tigers, Washington took a look at Francisco Rodriguez (4th all-time with 437 saves) but released him after a few minor league appearances.

And thus, in a twelve-month period, the careers of three great closers from the first decade of the 20th century came to unceremonious ends, with, because they’re both in their mid 30’s, the possibility remaining that two of them (K-Rod and Pap) will make comebacks. The chances of either doing so, however are complicated by negative personal factors. Rodriguez has a couple of domestic battery incidents in his past and Papelbon famously clashed with teammates during his tenure in Washington, epitomized by his choke-hold on star Bryce Harper.

The highlights for each:

  • Francisco Rodriguez: 437 saves, 85% save conversion percentage, 6-time All-Star, holds the single-season record with 62 saves in 2008, top 4 in the A.L. Cy Young Award voting three times, member of 2002 Anaheim Angels World Champions.
  • Joe Nathan: 377 saves, 89% save conversion percentage, 6-time All-Star, twice in top 5 in the A.L. Cy Young voting,
  • Jonathan Papelbon: 368 saves, 88% save conversion percentage, 6-time-All Star, 2.44 career ERA (3rd best all-time for relief pitchers with at least 700 IP), member of 2007 Boston Red Sox World Champions.

If you make two somewhat arbitrary lines of demarcation (the beginning of the 21st century and a minimum of 700 innings pitched), it’s pretty clear that these three have been the 2nd, 3rd and 4th best closers in the new century, with the important caveat that there are several active bullpen aces who can and likely will surpass them. In the meantime, see how K-Rod, Nathan and Pap rank with Mariano Rivera for those who have logged 700 innings since 2000).

Ranks in certain categories among relief pitchers with at least 700 innings pitched.
From 2000-2017SVSV%ERAWHIPBAAWAR
Mariano Rivera111131
Francisco Rodriguez244424
Joe Nathan323312
Jonathan Papelbon432243
Courtesy Baseball Reference

Remember, because I’ve arbitrarily started these rankings at the turn of the century and put a 700 inning limit on it, the rankings don’t include Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner or the top closers of today’s game. Wagner dominates when it comes to rate stats like ERA or BAA, Hoffman of course with the sheer volume of his 601 career saves.

Francisco Rodriguez:

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Francisco Rodriguez burst on the scene at the age of 20 during the 2002 playoffs and was a significant contributor to the Anaheim Angels’ World Series championship, winning five games out of the bullpen. After two years of setting up for Troy Percival, K-Rod became the Angels’ designated closer, setting a MLB record with 62 saves in 2008. The Venezuelan righty then signed a free agent contract with the New York Mets and never seemed to be quite the dominant pitcher that he was in Anaheim. K-Rod had a 2.35 ERA in his seven years in California but just a 3.30 ERA in the nine years since, with the Mets, Brewers, Orioles and Tigers.

K-Rod is still young (35 years old) so, if he somehow rediscovers his form and piles up another 100 or so saves in his career, it would change the conversation. But he doesn’t look like a pitcher anymore that could be entrusted with getting the final outs of a game. Of the four pitchers on the grid above, I would rank Rodriguez fourth out of four.

 

Joe Nathan:

Baseball Essential

Nathan, a 6’4″, 230 pound right-hander, was a late bloomer. After two mediocre seasons as a starting pitcher with the San Francisco Giants (in 1999-2000), Nathan emerged as a solid middle reliever in 2003 (going 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA) at the age of 28. After the season, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins along with a 19-year old lefty named Francisco Liriano in exchange for catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who played just one mediocre season in the City by the Bay. Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire immediately anointed Nathan his 9th inning guy and the big righty delivered big time.

From 2004-2009, his first six seasons in the Twin Cities, Nathan was arguably the best closer in the game. He had the most saves (246), the lowest ERA (1.87), the lowest WHIP (0.934) and the second lowest batting average against (.182). Unfortunately, shortly before the 2010 season was to begin, Nathan had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He came back to Minnesota in 2011 and had a mediocre campaign (4.84 ERA). After 2011, he signed with Texas and had one good season (2.80 ERA) and one superb season (1.39 ERA) with the Rangers. Now 39, he signed with Detroit after the 2012 season, had a mediocre campaign in 2013 (4.81 ERA) and then had to have a second Tommy John in April 2014.

If you take the wider view of a 10-year run (2004-2013), Nathan’s numbers are, across the board, second only to Mariano Rivera’s. If you’re second best to a first-ballot Hall of Famer at any “position” for a 10-year period, that’s a strong case of peak performance for a Cooperstown plaque.

But Nathan has two problems. The first is that, far more than any of his contemporaries, he was the ultimate one-inning pony, recording 3 outs or less in 366 of his 377 career saves. The second is that his post-season performance (with a 8.10 ERA, a loss and two blown saves) was pretty awful, albeit with a small sample size of 10 games.

 

Jonathan Papelbon

The Starting Nine

I was surprised in researching this series how good Jonathan Papelbon’s numbers are in comparison to the best closers of the past 30 years. As a Boston Red Sox fan, while I remember his superlative 2007 campaign when Boston claimed its second title in five years, I also have the painful memory of his role in the great September collapse of 2011 that ultimately cost manager Terry Francona his job. There were a great many goats in the Sox’ 7-19 September but it was Pap who, with the season on the line, blew a 3-2 lead in Baltimore, his second blown saves against the Orioles in a span of eight days.

After bursting onto the scene in 2006 (35 saves and a 0.92 ERA, finishing 2nd in the Rookie of the Year balloting to Justin Verlander), the Red Sox intended to put the young flame-thrower into the starting rotation for 2007. Before the season started, however, Papelbon said he would rather be the team’s closer; he wanted to be Boston’s Rivera. He got his wish, doing his best Mariano impression with a 1.85 ERA in the regular season while tossing 10.2 scoreless innings (with four saves) in October.

The 6’5″ right-hander continued his superlative work in 2008 and 2009 and, by ERA or ERA+, only Craig Kimbrel had a better first five years as a closer in the history of baseball. In 2010, however, Papelbon wasn’t quite the same guy. You could spend an hour going through his Fan Graphs profile to see what happened but the bottom line is that his fastball was less effective and he threw it only 70% of the time (compared to 81% the previous season). He posted a 3.90 ERA, more than a run higher than his previous high.

Papelbon recovered a bit in 2011 (with a 2.94 ERA) but, after the team’s September meltdown, he was let go and signed a lucrative four-year, $50 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Unfortunately for Papelbon, his dreams of multiple World Series appearances would not be fulfilled in Philly as the team was exiting its dominant phase. After 3 1/2 seasons, he was traded to the Washington Nationals in July 2015 and immediately supplanted closer Drew Storen, who did not appreciate the demotion. In the meantime, at the time of the trade, Pap was still hoping to pitch long enough to catch Rivera on the all-time saves list.

The Nationals had a one-game lead in the N.L. East when Papelbon was acquired but went just 31-33 the rest of the way, finishing seven games behind the New York Mets. Papelbon did well initially but faded with two blown saves, two losses and a 5.19 ERA in his last eight appearances. And, of course, as the wasted season was ending, there was the choking incident with team star Bryce Harper. In 2016, Papelbon had the worst season of his career, logging a 4.37 ERA in 37 games. At the trading deadline, the Nats did to Papelbon what they had done to Storen the previous year; they demoted him in favor of a new closer, this time Mark Melancon. The enigmatic Papelbon was released a couple of weeks later, did not hook up with another team during the season or the ensuing off-season and seems to be finished.

 

Andrew Miller: the Prototype of a New (or Retro) Era of Stoppers?

USA Today

Is it possible that the nearly 30-year era of the designated 9th inning-only closer is starting to come to an end?

Although his team fell a game short of the 2016 World Series title to the Chicago Cubs, the way Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona utilized Andrew Miller in both the regular season and in the playoffs may portend a shift back to the way bullpen aces were used in the ’70’s. Most “designated closers” of today like to “know their role.” Most want to know in advance, “am I pitching in the 8th inning or the 9th inning?” Miller, a team-first guy, embraced the role of bullpen wild card. In ten post-season appearances (spanning 19.1 innings in which he posted a 1.40 ERA), Miller entered the game once in the 6th inning, three times in the 7th, five times in the 8th and just once in the 9th. In all ten appearances, Francona asked him to get at least four outs in all 10 appearances and he went at least 2 innings in 7 of those 10 outings.

Andrew Miller was the 6th pick overall (by the Detroit Tigers) in the 2006 player draft. In the following December, the 6’7″ left-hander was one of the featured players in the package that the Tigers put together to wrestle Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins. Miller, however, never lived up to his first-round potential. He went up and down from the majors to the minors from 2006 to 2011, posting a 5.79 ERA in 96 MLB appearances. In 2012, now with the Boston Red Sox, he was moved to the bullpen in a set-up role and, as it has been with many failed starters, he has flourished in the bullpen.

From 2012 until August 15, 2017, Miller has appeared in 340 games out of the bullpen and has logged a 2.06 ERA (park-adjusted for a superb 208 ERA+). Miller turned 32 this May so it seems unlikely that he started a Hall of Fame path with his conversion to the bullpen. But baseball writers love good narratives and, if Miller is the prototype of the new kind of reliever, the jack of all innings, not just the one-inning closer that’s been the staple of the game for the past 30 years, you never know.

In Part Five of this series on the history of relief pitching, we’ll look at the month of October, celebrating the bullpen heroes and, yes, some goats, of post-season baseball.

Click here to read Part Five

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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