The 100 Greatest Relief Seasons of All Time and the Ten Greatest Relievers

October 5, 2007

            There is no deep thenkin’ underlying this article, and I make no claims to the accuracy of my method.    I am more or less just messing around with the data, killing a quiet Saturday.  But I have this method for scoring seasons—the Season Scores method; I must have introduced it here somewhere—and this method makes it easy to generate a list of the 100 greatest relief seasons of all time, as it would make it easy to generate a list of the 100 greatest second base seasons of all time or the 100 greatest seasons of all time in which a pitcher walked between 57 and 59.4 batters.  

            So I was wondering where what the greatest seasons by a reliever were and where Dan Quisenberry would fit into the grand scheme of things, and I thought. ..well, why don’t I pull out the list and see what we have as a starting point for the discussion?   Somebody wants to argue that my list isn’t right, feel free; I might even agree with you.   But this is what the system says:


1.  Dick Radatz, 1964 (16-9, 29 saves, 181 strikeouts and a 2.29 ERA in 79 games, 157 innings.  Season score:  312).   Radatz, who was called “The Monster” because at that time the left field wall in Fenway was just called the left field wall, was a 6-foot-6, 265-pound right-hander with an intimidating fastball.   There had been hard-throwing relievers before Radatz—notably Ryne Duren--but Radatz may have been the first pitcher to discover what you could do as a reliever if you just threw as hard as you could for an inning or two.   They rode him so hard that it seems kind of crazy in retrospect, but it didn’t seem to effect him at the time, and logically, it’s a little hard to explain how this didn’t effect him at the time but ruined his career sometime over the winter.   Anyway, he struck out 181 batters, won 16 games and saved 29 others although he wasn’t particularly used in save situations—saves weren’t even an official stat then, and “saving games” didn’t become the relief pitcher’s sole function until more than ten years after the stat became official.  


2.  Dennis Eckersley, 1992 (7-1, 51 saves, 1.91 ERA, 93-11 K/W in 80 innings.  Season score:  296.)  Eckersley, of course, was the 1992 MVP and Cy Young Award winner, whereas Radatz was 11th in the MVP voting (playing for a bad team) and was not among the three pitchers mentioned in 1964 Cy Young voting.   At the same time, it is not immediately apparent that Eckersley was more valuable than Radatz.  Radatz pitched twice as many innings, essentially, and wasn’t substantially less effective.  (Eckersley’s ERA was 48% of the league norm, in a pitcher’s park; Radatz’ was 63% of the norm, in a hitter’s park.)

            My general philosophy is that groups of people always think that they understand the problem better than they really do.  We think we’ve got this relief thing figured out now.  Eckersley was limited to a specific role—saving games—whereas Radatz was used in any (and almost in every) close game.   We think of this as “saving Eckersley for the most important situations”, and maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.   Radatz’ had a huge workload and never had a good year after that.   We think of this now as “protecting” Eckersley’s future, and maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t.   A great many things have changed.  It does seem fair to say that the usage of Radatz was reckless and indiscriminate, and today’s usage pattern makes more sense.   But I wouldn’t want to be too confident that a pitcher couldn’t still do what Radatz did in ’64. 


3.  Dick Radatz, 1963 (66 games, 132 innings, 15-6 with 1.98 ERA, 25 saves.  Season Score:  296.)


4.  John (Ducks Unlimited) Wetteland, 1993 (70 games, 85 innings, 9-3 with 1.37 ERA, 43 saves.  Season Score;  286.)


5.  John Hiller, 1973 (65 games, 124 innings, 10-5 with 1.44 ERA, 38 saves.  Season Score:  282).   His 38 saves were a record at the time, and up until 1983.  Hiller had a heart attack on the mound in.  .was it ’70 or ’71.   He was a good pitcher every year from ’72 to ’76.


6.  Keith Foulke, 2003 (72 games, 86 innings, 9-1 with 2.08 ERA, 46 Saves.  Season Score:  281.)


7.   Eric Gagne, 2002 (77 games, 82 innings, 4-1 with 1.97 ERA, 52 Saves.  Season Score:  279.)


8.  Phil Regan, 1966 (65 games, 117 innings, 14-1 with 1.62 ERA, 21 Saves.  Season Score:  277.)   Regan was nicknamed “The Vulture” for picking up wins from departed starting pitchers.


9.  Eric Gagne, 2003 (77 games, 82 innings, 2-3 with 1.20 ERA, 55 Saves.  Season Score:  276.)  The Cy Young season among Gagne’s three super seasons, 2002-2004.   The only pitchers listed more than once among the top 25 are Eckersley (1990 and ’92), Radatz (’63-’64) and Gagne (2002 through 2004.)


10.  Jim Kern, 1979 (71 games, 143 innings, 13-5 with 1.57 ERA, 29 Saves.  Season Score:  275.)   Kern was really the last closer used in what could be called the Dick Radatz usage pattern. 


11.  Eric Gagne, 2004 (70 games, 82 innings, 7-3 with 2.19 ERA, 45 Saves.  Season Score:  270.)  An oddity about Gagne’s three big years is that he pitched 82.1 innings each year—the only pitcher ever to have exactly the same innings pitched three years in a row, pitching more than a few innings. 


12.  Mark Eichhorn, 1986 (69 games, 157 innings, 14-6 with 1.72 ERA, 10 Saves.  Season Score:  263.)   The term “closer” is a 1980s term; the term used up until about 1980 was “relief ace”.   The term “closer” may reasonably be applied retroactively back to about 1950, even though the relievers of the fifties and sixties weren’t used exclusively to “close out” wins.  Eichhorn is the only reliever among the top 100 who really was not the team’s closer or relief ace or whatever you want to call it.   Tom Henke was the team’s closer—a really good one.  Eichhorn was a side-arming rookie who just soaked up all the middle innings he could find, and performed at a fairly phenomenal level, also striking out more than a batter an inning.  It is the greatest season ever by a rookie reliever. 


13.  Ron Perranoski, 1963 (69 games, 129 innings, 16-3 with 1.67 ERA, 21 Saves.   Season Score:  263.)   Perranoski was a fat-faced lefty with a big curve, a top reliever throughout the 1960s.


14.  Doug Jones, 1992 (80 games, 112 innings, 11-8 with 1.85 ERA, 36 Saves.  Season Score:  262.)  Jones was one of two pitchers I have ever seen, the other being Stu Miller, who could dominate hitters entirely with his changeup, throwing a changeup off a changeup, following the 72-MPH change with a 61-MPH change so that nobody could time anything.  


15.  Lindy McDaniel, 1960 (65 games, 116 innings, 12-4 with 2.09 ERA, 26 Saves.  Season Score:  261.)   At the start of the 1960 season the Cardinals had McDaniel in the starting rotation and Ernie Broglio in the bullpen.   McDaniel went 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA as a starter, moved to the bullpen and was 12-2 with a 1.29 ERA in 104 innings of relief.  Broglio was very good in what would now be called long relief (7-2 with 2.00 ERA, but no saves), moved into the rotation and finished 21-9, 2.74 ERA.   Vern Law won the Cy Young Award at 20-9, 3.08 ERA.   I think this may be the only time a pitcher has won the Cy Young Award when another pitcher had both a better record and a better ERA.   You can argue that Broglio should have won the Cy Young; you can argue that McDaniel should have.   McDaniel did finish ahead of Law in the MVP voting.  


16.  Trevor Hoffman, 1996 (70 games, 88 innings, 9-5 with 2.25 ERA, 42 Saves.  Season Score:  261.)  Hoffman, of course, lives off the changeup, too—but not the way Doug Jones and Stu Miller did.  Miller and Jones probably threw 80% of their pitches less than 75 miles an hour.  


17.  Luis Arroyo, 1961 (65 games, 119 innings, 15-5 with 2.19 ERA, 29 Saves.  Season Score:  258.)  The ’61 Yankees are one of the most famous baseball teams ever, of course, and Arroyo was one of the key players who made them hum.  He was a short, fat left-hander who threw a screwball, went down to the minors after one pretty good year as a starter in the National League, and was rescued from the minors in mid-1960 by Casey Stengel when Ryne Duren lost all track of home plate.   Ralph Houk took over the Yankees in ’61 and clarified everyone’s role, stopped rotating players around the middle infield and platooning outfielders and shifting pitchers back and forth between the bullpen and starting roles the way Casey always had.   Arroyo had one great year, but showed up fatter and with a sore arm in ’62. 


18.  Willie Hernandez, 1984 (80 games, 140 innings, 9-3 with 1.92 ERA, 32 Saves.  Season Score:  258.)   Hernandez won the MVP and Cy Young Awards for a team that won 104 games and could have won 120 if they had needed to.


19.  Bill Campbell, 1976 (78 games, 168 innings, 17-5 with 3.01 ERA, 20 Saves.  Season Score:  257.)    Gene Mauch, managing the Twins in ’76, was an absolute wizard with relievers.   Throughout his career he constantly had to face the need to find a new relief ace because of free agent losses, injuries, or because he was taking over a new team.  Time after time after time, almost every year without fail, he would pull some guy out of obscurity or off the refuse pile, and get outstanding production from him.   Campbell, his career going nowhere through 1975, had the huge year in ’76, left as a free agent that winter.


20.  Billy Koch, 2002 (84 games, 94 innings 11-4 with 3.27 ERA, 44 Saves.  Season Score:   256.)


21.  Stu Miller, 1965 (67 games, 119 innings, 14-7 with 1.89 ERA, 24 Saves.  Season Score:  255.)   Miller, a small, frail-looking man who pitched with a slow, labored delivery, was famous among other things for having been blown off the mound by a gust of wind during an All-Star game in San Francisco.   Almost all of the relief aces of the 1960s were off-speed pitchers, and most relied heavily on one pitch.   Wilhelm, of course, threw a knuckleball, Abernathy threw underhanded, Perranoski mixed it up some but used a big curve for strike three, McDaniel relied on a sinkerball, Elroy Face on a forkball, and Miller threw the ball so extraordinarily slow that the hitters could never quite time it just right.  Ron Kline (as a reliever) had a herky-jerky delivery that made it hard to pick up the ball.   The only top relievers of that era who threw hard were Radatz and John Wyatt. 


22.  Bruce Sutter, 1977 (62 games, 107 innings 7-3 with 1.34 ERA, 31 Saves.  Season Score:  254.)   The dividing line for relievers.  The way that modern relievers are used now essentially derives from the experience of Bruce Sutter in Chicago in ’77-’78, when he was dominating the first half of the season, but ordinary the second half.   The Cubs developed the practice of using him only in Save situations to try to get him through the year.   This spread like wildfire, and became the way that all relievers are used.


23.  Dennis Eckersely, 1990 (63 games, 73 innings, 4-2 with 0.61 ERA, 48 Saves.   Season Score:  254.)   Part of what is amazing about Eckersley is that he was tremendous in ’87 and ’88, gave up the famous home run to Kirk Gibson in the World Series in ’88—but came back from that to be even better.   His per-inning performance ratios from ’90 to ’92 are perhaps the greatest in the history of the game.


24.  Trevor Hoffman, 1998 (66 games, 73 innings, 4-2 with 1.48 ERA, 53 Saves.   Season Score:  254.)


25.  Mike Marshall, 1974 (106 games, 208 innings, 15-12 with 2.42 ERA, 21 Saves.  Season Score:  252.)   Marshall’s record of 106 games pitched in a season will be broken eventually, probably within a few years.   But it will be broken by some middle reliever pitching 110 games, 70 innings.   Marshall pitched 106 games, two innings a game.

            This was sort of a stunt, and he did kind of fall apart the next year.   This was the culmination of a 25-year cycle in which relievers had worked harder and harder, constantly breaking and re-breaking records for games pitched—and most of these pitchers did fall apart the next year.   This started managers looking for ways to define and limit the role of relief aces, which set the stage for the Bruce Sutter experiment in Chicago a few years later.


26.  Eddie Fisher, 1965 (82 games, 165 innings, 15-7 with 2.40 ERA, 24 Saves.  Season Score:  252.)  Fisher messed around with a knuckleball in the early ‘60s, was a spot starter in ’62-’63, moved to the bullpen fulltime and the knuckleball as a primary weapon in ’64 as a teammate of Wilhelm’s—and had a season in ’65 which is as good as any Wilhelm ever had. 


27.  Joe Nathan, 2006 (64 games, 68 innings, 7-0 with 1.58 ERA, 36 Saves.   Season Score:  251.)  Nathan and Jose Mesa (#77) are the only pitchers in the top 100 who were undefeated. 


28.  Roy Face, 1959 (57 games, 93 innings, 18-1 with 2.71 ERA, 10 Saves.  Season Score:  250.)   Face, who was generally regarded as one of the top relievers in baseball in the late fifties and throughout the sixties, has only this one season that ranks among the top 200.  Face, of course, still holds the single-season record for winning percentage with this 18-1 record—a fact that ironically causes the season to be overlooked by modern fans, who are trained to ignore a closer’s won-lost record.


29.  Mariano Rivera, 2005 (71 games, 78 innings, 7-4 with 1.38 ERA, 43 Saves.  Season Score:  246.)  Rivera has more seasons in the top 100 (five) than anyone else.   Eckersley, Nen and Quisenberry have four. 


30.  Goose Gossage, 1977 (72 games, 133 innings, 11-9 with 1.62 ERA, 26 Saves.  Season Score:  245.)   Gossage’ career, more notably than anyone else, straddles the lines that divide relievers.   He came up in the era when most relievers were junkmen, survived into the era—and thrived in the era—of the modern, flame-throwing closer.   He came up before closers were relegated to the ninth innings.   “Modern closers are used properly,” I have heard him say.  “We were abused.”  They may have been—but he survived it, and had good-if-not-great seasons in the post-Sutter bullpens.   This has hurt his Hall of Fame campaign, because in his best years nobody had the big save totals that he would have had if he had come along ten years later. 


31.  Billy Wagner, 2004 (74 games, 79 innings, 4-2 with 1.57 ERA, 39 Saves.  Season Score:  240.)   The hardest-throwing pitcher of his era—and one of the most consistent closers of all time.


32.  Mariano Rivera, 2004 (74 games, 79 innings, 4-2 with 1.94 ERA, 53 Saves.  Season Score:  240.)


33.  Lee Smith, 1991 (67 games, 73 inings, 6-3 with 2.34 ERA, 47 Saves.  Season Score:  239.)   Huge and formidable, he was a durable and consistent performer who held the career Saves record for several years.   There was something about him that people never warmed up to.  


34.  Al Hrabosky, 1975 (65 games, 97 innings, 13-3 with a 1.66 ERA, 22 Saves.  A small, handsome man, Hrabosky exploded as a star in 1975 when he developed “the Mad Hungarian” act.   Growing his hair long and letting it blow wild, he would stand behind the mound in a kind of trance, psyching himself up for his confrontation with the batter.  Finally he would explode out of the trance and stomp forcefully toward the mound, a look of panic and rage consuming his face, and fire fastballs at the hitter.   The fans and the media loved it. 

            In ’76 the Hrabosky had a fair year, the Cardinals a poor year, and in ’77 the Cardinals hired Vern Rapp to be their manager.  Rapp, an old-school disciplinarian, insisted that his players be clean-shaven.  This led to loud and angry confrontations with his players, and Hrabosky, whose effectiveness had left him with his hair, became the central figure in the controversy. 


35.  Sparky Lyle, 1977  (72 games, 137 innings, 13-5 with a 2.17 ERA, 26 Saves.  Season Score:  238.)  Won the Cy Young Award—and then lost his job that winter, when the Yankees signed Goose Gossage as a free agent.


36.  Rod Beck, 1993 (76 games, 79 innings, 3-1 with 2.16 ERA, 48 Saves.   Season Score:  238.)


37.  Dan Quisenberry, 1983 (69 games, 139 innings, 5-3 with 1.94 ERA, 45 Saves.  Season Score:   238.)   The 45 saves were a record at that time—but failed to earn him the Cy Young Award despite unusually weak competition.   Quisenberry, who threw sidearm and fairly softly, had fantastic command of his “fast”ball with excellent topspin, thus very good ground ball rates.  He was a gentle, quiet, self-deprecating man, brilliant and funny, most famous while active for his one-liners.   


38.  Robb Nen, 1998 (78 games, 89 innings, 7-7 with 1.52 ERA, 40 Saves.  Season Score:  238.)   I was a Cardinal fan in ’63, when Robb Nen’s father broke our back with his first major league hit.   I believe that Nen is the only second-generation player among those listed here.  Trevor Hoffman and Lindy McDaniel had brothers who played in the majors.


39.  Joe Nathan, 2005 (69 games, 70 innings, 7-4 with 2.70 ERA, 43 Saves.  Season Score:  238.)


40.  Byung-Hyun Kim, 2002 (72 games, 84 innings, 8-3 with 2.04 ERA, 36 Saves.  Season Score:  236.)


41.  Robb Nen, 2002 (68 games, 74 innings, 6-2 record with 2.20 ERA, 43 Saves.  Season Score:  236.)


42.  Joe Black, 1952 (56 games, 142 innings, 15-4 with a 2.15 ERA, 15 Saves.   Season Score:  236.)   There are four rookies in the top 100—Black and Wilhelm in ’52, Radatz in ’62, Eichhorn in ’86. Black won the 1952 Rookie of the Year Award over Wilhelm, although Wilhelm had a year which is essentially just as good, listed here at #51.  There were three outstanding rookie relievers in the NL that year; the top three teams each had one, and the teams finished in the same order as the relievers.  The third-place team was the Cardinals, who had a rookie named Eddie Yuhas, who finished 12-2 with a 2.73 ERA.   Wilhelm stayed around and wound up in the Hall of Fame.  Black, although he was injured and never had another good year, became a permanent part of the game of baseball, a visible and popular figure until his death in 2002.  Yuhas was never heard from again. 


43.  Tom Gordon, 1998 (73 games, 79 innings, 7-4 with 2.72 ERA, 46 Saves.  Season Score:  235.)   The best year ever by Red Sox reliever other than Radatz.


44.  John Smoltz, 2002 (75 games, 80 innings, 3-2 with 3.25 ERA, 55 Saves.  Season Score:  233.)    He’s a Hall of Famer to me.   Anybody who can win 15, 17 games every year, throw in a Cy Young season as a starter, dominate every year in post-season play, then move to the bullpen after an injury and turn in one of the 50 greatest seasons ever by a reliever. .. .that’s a Hall of Famer to me.


45.  Hoyt Wilhelm, 1964 (71 games, 131 innings, 12-9 with 1.99 ERA, 23 Saves.  Season Score:  233.)  

            This scores as Wilhelm’s best season, the only year better than his rookie season.  (His year as a starter, 1959, scores at 181.)   Getting ahead of my story, Wilhelm failed to make my list of the ten greatest relievers ever, coming in at eleventh.   I was surprised at that, as Wilhelm was the first reliever to make the Hall of Fame, and has often been listed—probably by me, I don’t know—as the game’s greatest reliever.

            But as I look at it now I can see the point, and I don’t think we can defend Wilhelm as the game’s greatest reliever anymore.   He was a marvellous pitcher; he’s a legitimate Hall of Famer—but in a few years there will be a dozen or more relievers in the Hall of  Fame, and I think it’s hard to argue that he is better than the other guys.   He was the first pitcher to pitch in a thousand games, but. . .so what?   Somebody else was the first to pitch in 900, somebody else the first to pitch in eleven hundred.   Wilhelm had two of the fifty best seasons ever by a reliever, and that’s a distinguished accomplishment—but it doesn’t stack up against Eckersley or Rivera or Hoffman or, for that matter, Dick Radatz.   Wilhelm had a string of quite outstanding ERAs—but he really doesn’t have a lot of big-impact seasons, does he?   The system I am using here doesn’t discriminate against the 1960s relievers; if anything, it discriminates in favor of them.   Wilhelm just doesn’t have big seasons. 

            Wilhelm had a 21-year big league career, but that includes one year as a starter, two years as a not-especially-impressive spot starter, and six other seasons when his value was close to zero.   The other dozen or so years he was good, but. . .how good?   He was better than Face, better than McDaniel or Perranoski or Ted Abernathy or Stu Miller.  Maybe he was better than Fingers.  But after Rivera, Hoffman, Lee Smith, Gossage, Sutter, I just don’t think you can argue anymore that he’s the best reliever there ever was. 


46.  Goose Gossage, 1983 (57 games, 87 innings, 13-5 with 2.27 ERA, 22 Saves.  Season Score:  233.)


47.  Mike Marshall, 1973 (92 games, 179 innings, 14-11 with 2.68 ERA, 31 Saves.  Season Score:  232.)   This was another of the Gene Mauch seasons, a year that was a prelude to Marshall’s record-setting Cy Young season in 1974.   Marshall’s career was spinning out of control until he hooked up with Mauch in Montreal in ’71.  Mauch made him his key reliever, and he had two wonderful seasons, then was traded to the Dodgers that winter for the aged and annoying Willie Davis (not that Marshall wasn’t equally annoying.  He could offend people with the best of them.)   Mauch replaced him with Chuck Taylor and Dale Murray, who between them pitched 178 innings with an ERA of 1.88.


48.  Phil Regan, 1966 (73 games, 135 innings, 12-5 with 2.27 ERA, 25 Saves.  Season Score:  230.) 


49.  Brad Lidge, 2004 (80 games, 95 innings, 6-5 with 1.90 ERA, 29 Saves.   Season Score:  230.)   Lidge struck out 157 batters in 95 innings—a strikeout rate 2.21 times the league norm. The highest strikeout rates on this list, relative to league norms:


            1.  Billy Wagner, 1999  2.23

            2.  Brad Lidge, 2004                2.21

            3.  Eric Gagne, 2003                2.19

            4.  Bill Caudill, 1986                 2.16

            5.  Goose Gossage, 1980         2.04

            6.  Bryan Harvey, 2001            2.02

            7.  John Wetteland, 1993          2.01

            8.   Bruce Sutter, 1977 2.01

            9.  Tom Henke, 1986               2.00

            10.  Brad Lidge, 2005              2.00


50.  Dave Righetti, 1986 (74 games, 107 innings, 8-8 with 2.45 ERA, 46 Saves.   Season Score:  229.)    Ellis Kinder (and Gentler) went 23-6 for the Red Sox in 1949—as a starter, obviously—and then was decent for the Red Sox as a starter in 1950, finishing 14-12.  Nonetheless, after Joe McCarthy left as manager the Red Sox moved Kinder into the bullpen. 

            He was also very good as a reliever, not quite making the top 100 in his best season, but my point is:  This is very unusual.   It was very unusual then; it is very unusual now.   Kinder was moved from the starting rotation into the bullpen even though he was successful as a starting pitcher, and Dave Righetti was, and Hoyt Wilhelm was, and. . .who else?   I’m sure there is somebody else, but I can’t come up with another one.  

            It is common to move starting pitchers to the bullpen when they reach the major leagues.   It is common to move them to the bullpen when they fail as starters.  It is common to move them to the bullpen when they can’t quite to handle the starting job anymore or when they are coming back from an injury.   But to say that “this guy is a pretty good starter, but I think he would be better as a reliever; I’m going to move him to the bullpen”, that just doesn’t happen very often.


51.  Hoyt Wilhelm, 1952 (71 games, 159 innings, 15-3 with 2.43 ERA, 11 Saves.  Season Score:  228.)   Wilhelm, because his knuckleball often got away from the catcher, gave up 17 un-earned runs in 1952—by far the highest number of any pitcher on this list (nobody else over 10.)  If a normal percentage of his runs had been scored as earned, his ERA for that season would have been over 3.00.


52.  Sparky Lyle, 1972 (59 games, 108 innings, 9-5 with 1.92 ERA, 35 Saves.  Season Score:  228.)


53.   Jeff Montgomery, 1993 (69 games, 87 innings, 7-5 record, 2.27 ERA, 45 Saves.  Season Score:  228.)  Montgomery worked with four pitches—Fastball, Slider, Curve and Change—and threw all of them a lot.  At the time this seemed to me to be quite unusual, to have a closer working with four pitches.   Generally speaking they like to know what they have when they get to the mound.  

            As I think back about it I think this may have been less remarkable than I thought at the time—or else the game has changed, I’m not sure which.  I have a lot better understanding of this area of the game now than I did then, because

            1)  I wrote the book with Neyer about pitcher’s repertoires,

            2)  In my work with the Red Sox I have daily contact with people who know much more about this than I do, and I pick up some from them, and

            3)  I work with Baseball Info Solutions, which systematically charts pitches and provides solid data about pitch selections.

            Anyway, there are other closers now who work with an extended repertoire.  I’m not sure to what extent this is a change in the game, and to what extent it is a change in my perception of the game.  


54.  Mariano Rivera, 2001 (71 games, 81 innings, 4-6 record with 2.34 ERA, 50 Saves.  Season Score:  227.) 


55.  Bobby Thigpen, 1990 (77 games, 89 innings, 4-6 record with 1.83 ERA, 57 Saves.  Season Score:  227.)  Thigpen, of course, still holds the single-season Save record, which is a surprise to me. ..I would have thought somebody would have broken that by now.  Just based on the stat summary I have been giving it seems inexplicable that Rivera in 2001 would score even or an inch ahead of Thigpen, since they have the same won-lost record, but Thigpen had more Saves and pitched more innings with a better ERA.   But Rivera’s strikeout/walk ratio was 83-12.  Thigpen’s was 70-32.   What weight do you put on that, and what weight do you put on a Save? 

            I don’t know; I just picked a number and went with it.   Some smart young sabermetrician in a few years will figure out a better answer than that, and more power to him.  The value of a Save in this system is 3 points, so Saves account for the lion’s share of Thigpen’s value.   If we increased the value of a Save to 4 points, Thigpen would jump to 27th on the list.  If we decreased the value of a Save to 2 points, Thigpen would drop to 124th, behind guys like Joe Page, Ugueth Urbina and Aurelio Lopez.  It just seems to me that this is about where he deserves to rate.   


56.  Dick Radatz, 1962 (62 games, 125 innings, 9-6 with 2.23 ERA, 24 Saves.  Season Score:  226.)


57.  Dan Quisenberry, 1984 (72 games, 129 innings, 6-3 with 2.64 ERA, 44 Saves.  Season Score:  226.)  Among the top 100 seasons by a reliever, the four lowest strikeout rates (relative to the league) are the four Dan Quisenberry seasons.   His strikeout rates in his four outstanding seasons range from 56% of the league norm to 64%.  Every other pitcher on the list is at least 77%. 


58.  Bill Campbell, 1977 (69 games, 140 innings, 13-9 with 2.96 ERA, 31 Saves.  Season Score:  226.)


59.  Bruce Sutter, 1984 (71 games, 123 innings, 5-7 with 1.54 ERA, 45 Saves.  Season Score:  225.)


60.   Dennis Eckersley, 1991 (67 games, 76 innings, 5-4 with 2.96 ERA, 43 Saves.  Season Score:  225.) 


61.  Ugly Derrick Turnbow, 2005 (69 games, 67 innings, 7-1 record with 1.74 ERA, 39 Saves.  Season Score:  225.)    The only pitchers on the list who pitched less than one inning per appearance were Turnbow, Rod Beck in 1998 and Robb Nen in 2000.   But if I re-did the list in twenty years there would be a bunch of them.

            The most innings per outing, by far, were by Joe Black in 1952. 


62.  J.J. Putz, 2006 (72 games, 78 innings, 4-1 with 2.30 ERA, 36 Saves.  Season Score:  223.)   Of the pitchers on my list:

            4 were from the 1950s

            13 were from the 1960s

            18 were from the 1970s

            20 were from the 1980s

            23 were from the 1990s

            22 were from the years 2000 to 2006.

            But if you remember that there were only 16 teams in 1960 and 30 teams in 1999, the number of top relievers per team is fairly level from 1960 to the present. 

            If you split the list chronologically, the early pitchers (1950-1985) averaged 70 games, 126 innings, 12-6 record with a 2.26 ERA, 28 Saves and 96 strikeouts.   The pitchers in the later group (1986-2006) averaged 71 games, 82 innings, 6-3 record with a 2.09 ERA, 43 saves and 91 strikeouts.


63.  Trevor Hoffman, 1997 (70 games, 81 innings, 6-4 with 2.66 ERA, 37 Saves.  Season Score:  222.)


64.  Dennis Eckersley, 1988 (60 games, 73 innings, 4-2 with 2.35 ERA, 45 Saves.  Season Score:  222.)


65.  Jeff Shaw, 1997 (78 games, 95 innings, 4-2 with 2.38 ERA, 42 Saves.  Season Score:   221.)


66.  Lindy McDaniel, 1970 (62 games, 112 innings, 9-5 with 2.01 ERA, 29 Saves.  Season Score:  220.)


67.  Bill Caudill, 1982 (70 games, 96 innings, 12-9 with 2.35 ERA, 26 Saves.  Season Score:  220.)


68.  Stu Miller, 1961 (63 games, 122 innings, 14-5 with 2.66 ERA, 17 Saves.  Season Score:   220.)


69.  Mark Davis, 1989 (70 games, 93 innings, 4-3 with 1.85 ERA, 44 Saves.  Season Score:  220.)   Seven pitchers on this list won the Cy Young Award—Eckersley in 1992 (#2), Eric Gagne in 2003 (#9), Willie Hernandez in 1984 (#18), Mike Marshall in 1974 (#25), Sparky Lyle in 1977 (#35), Mark Davis in 1989, and Bruce Sutter in 1979 (#85).   Jim Konstanty in 1950 (#74) won the MVP Award in the years before the Cy Young Award was given.   The only relief pitchers who won the Cy Young Award and didn’t make this list were Steve Bedrosian in 1987, who ranked 134th, and Rollie Fingers in the strike-shortened 1981 season (162nd.)


70.  Mariano Rivera, 1997 (66 games, 72 innings, 6-4 with 1.88 ERA, 43 Saves.  Season Score:  219.) 


71.  Robb Nen, 1996 (75 games, 83 innings, 5-1 with 1.95 ERA, 35 Saves.  Season Score:  218.) 


72.  Mariano Rivera, 2003 (64 games, 71 innings, 5-2 with 1.66 ERA, 40 Saves.  Season Score:  218.)


73.  Bryan Harvey, 1991 (67 games, 79 innings, 2-4 with 1.60 ERA, 46 Saves.  Season Score:  218.)


74.  Jim Konstanty, 1950 (74 games, 152 innings, 16-7 with 2.66 ERA, 22 Saves.  Season Score:  218.)   Konstanty had a breakthrough season for relievers in 1950, and is the first pitcher on this list chronologically.  (The highest score before Konstanty was Joe Page in 1949, scoring at 198.)   Konstanty, like Page, like most of the relievers before him, was a guy who had knocked around the minors for years as a starting pitcher, had made the team as the last guy on the staff and backed into a key role by getting people out. 

            Konstanty, however, won the MVP Award, as the Phillies won their first National League championship in generations.  This had a huge impact on the game.   Before Konstanty some teams had a reliever that they would rely on to an extent, but many teams used the bullpen only to finish out losses.  75% of major league teams had twenty saves or less for the season.

            After Konstanty, teams started scrambling to fill the bullpen.   Ellis Kinder was jerked out of the rotation to be Boston’s relief ace.  Brooklyn, New York and St. Louis in ’52 came up with Black, Wilhelm and Yuhas. 

            And yet, rather bizarrely, Konstanty was used by the Phillies in the 1950 World Series—as a starting pitcher.  He started the first game of the World Series, pitched six innings, pitched a third of an inning of relief two days later, and pitched 6 and two-thirds innings the day after that, relieving in the first inning.   He pitched well; the Phillies were swept anyway.   The inexplicable usage of Konstanty in that World Series reflects how sort of primitive and disorganized the thinking about relief pitchers was in that era, sort of as if a player had a really good year as a shortstop, so the team decided to use him in the World Series as their center fielder.  As late as 1976, the aging manager Paul Richards reflected this same kind of thinking when he tried to make a starter out of Goose Gossage, with disastrous results.  In Richards’ mind, the bullpen was for washed-up guys and pitchers with no fastball.  The pitchers with the great arms belonged in the starting rotation.

            One thing I had never noticed about Konstanty until today is how remarkably good his hits/innings ratio really was that one year.  He gave up only 108 hits in 152 innings—6.39 hits per nine innings.   In 1949 and 1951, with essentially the same strikeout rate, he allowed more than nine hits per nine innings both years.  


75.  Rawly Eastwick, 1976 (71 games, 108 innings, 11-5 with 2.09 ERA, 26 Saves.  Season Score:  217.) 


76.  Roberto Hernandez, 1997 (74 games, 81 innings, 10-3 with 2.45 ERA, 31 Saves.  Season Score:  217.)   I saw Hernandez a lot with the Royals in 2002 and 2003.  He was in his late thirties by then, but he still threw 98 like clockwork, and once in awhile he would hit triple digits.   He’s had one of the longest careers of any reliever, and occasionally he’s been really good.   But Bill Lajoie had the perfect line to describe him.  “It’s puzzled me for years how they hit him,” Lajoie said.   “But they do.” 


77.  Jose Mesa, 1995 (62 games, 64 innings, 3-0 with 1.13 ERA, 46 Saves.  Season Score:  217.) 


78.  Billy Koch, 2000 (68 games, 79 innings, 9-3 with 2.63 ERA, 33 Saves.   Season Score:  217.)


79.  Robb Nen, 2000 (68 games, 66 innings, 4-3 with 1.50 ERA, 41 Saves.  Season Score:  216.)


80.  Bill Caudill, 1984 (68 games, 96 innings, 9-7 with 2.71 ERA, 36 Saves.  Season Score:  216.)


81.  Dan Quisenberry, 1982 (72 games, 137 innings, 9-7 with 2.57 ERA, 35 Saves.  Season Score:  216.)


82.  Dave Righetti, 1985 (74 games, 107 innings, 12-7 with 2.78 ERA, 29 Saves.  Season Score:  215.)


83.  Rod Beck, 1998 (81 games, 80 innings, 3-4 with 3.02 ERA, 51 Saves.  Season Score:  215.)


84.  Rollie Fingers, 1975 (75 games, 127 innings, 10-6 with 2.98 ERA, 24 Saves.  Season Score:  214.)    The wise and wizened scribes who voted Fingers into the Hall of Fame were prone to admire his great consistency, which. know, it was better than saying “we knew about him because he was in the World Series a lot.”   There is something there, though.  In our method Fingers has no single season in top 80—but will rank as the third greatest reliever of all time.


85.  Bruce Sutter, 1979 (62 games, 101 innings, 6-6 with 2.22 ERA, 37 Saves.  Season Score:  214.)


86.  Jason Isringhausen, 2004 (74 games, 75 innings, 4-2 with 2.87 ERA, 47 Saves.  Season Score:  213.)   Another study that I did showed that the 2004 Cardinals, led by Isringhausen, had the greatest bullpen of all time.  Isringhausen wasn’t truly great, but they had six really good relievers.  


87.  Lee Smith, 1985 (65 games, 98 innings, 7-4 with 3.04 ERA, 33 Saves.  Season Score:  213.)


88.  Brad Lidge, 2005 (70 games, 71 innings, 4-4 with 2.29 ERA, 42 Saves.  Season Score:  213.) 


89.  Mike Marshall, 1972 (65 games, 116 innings, 14-8 with 1.78 ERA, 18 Saves.  Season Score:  212.)


90.  Bob James, 1985 (69 games, 110 innings, 8-7 with 2.13 ERA, 32 Saves.  Season Score:  212.)


91.  Tom Johnson, 1977 (71 games, 147 innings, 16-7 with 3.12 ERA, 15 Saves.  Season Score:  212.)    Another Gene Mauch special.  When Bill Campbell left as a free agent after the 1976 season Mauch needed a relief ace again, and came up with Johnson.   When Johnson got hurt after a year he replaced him with a minor leaguer named Brad Corbett, who pitched 136 innings in 1980 with a 1.98 ERA.  


92.  Jack Aker, 1966 (66 games, 113 innings, 8-4 with 1.99 ERA, 32 Saves.  Season Score:   211.)   The average performance of the top ten pitchers listed here is 71 games, 109 innings, 10-4 record, 124 strikeouts, 1.74 ERA, 39 Saves.

            The average performance of the middle ten (46-55) is 72 games, 113 innings, 9-6 record, 92 strikeouts, 2.23 ERA, 35 Saves.

            The average performance of the bottom ten listed here is 70 games, 107 innings, 9-5 record, 85 strikeouts, 2.50 ERA, 32 Saves. 

            The average performance of the relievers ranked 901 to 1000 all time is 57 games, 87 innings, 7-5 record, 2.86 ERA, 52 strikeouts, 13 Saves. 


93.  Goose Gossage, 1980 (64 games, 99 innings, 6-2 with 2.27 ERA, 33 Saves.  Season Score:  211.)


94.  Doug Jones, 1997 (75 games, 80 innings, 6-6 with 2.02 ERA, 36 Saves.  Season Score:  210.)


95.  Greg Minton, 1982 (78 games, 123 innings, 10-4 with 1.83 ERA, 30 Saves.  Season Score:  210.)


96.  Francisco Rodriguez, 2006 (69 games, 73 innings, 2-3 with 1.73 ERA, 47 Saves.  Season Score:  210.)


97.  Tom Henke, 1986 (63 games, 91 innings, 9-5 with 3.35 ERA, 27 Saves.  Season Score:  209.)


98.  Jesse Orosco, 1984 (60 games, 87 innings, 10-6 with 2.59 ERA, 31 Saves.  Season Score:  209.)   Here’s a case where I have to disagree with my own method.   I would regard Orosco’s best season as 1983, when he pitched 110 innings with a sharp 1.47 ERA.   Because he saved only 17 games that year, 31 in ’84, 1984 scores as his best season by this method.   The other season scores at 207—the 106th best season by a reliever.


99.  Dan Quisenberry, 1980 (75 games, 128 innings, 12-7 with 3.09 ERA, 33 Saves.  Season Score: 209.)   Thirty strikeouts, thirty saves, thirty great plays by Frank White.


100.  Rollie Fingers, 1977 (78 games, 132 innings, 8-9 with 2.99 ERA, 35 Saves.  Season Score:  209.)  Fingers also had seasons ranking at 101, 120, 162 and 195—six seasons among the top 200. 



            By the way, the worst season ever by a reliever, not counting John Rocker’s magazine interviews and Jose Mesa’s bad dates, was by Dick Welteroth of the Washington Senators in 1949.   Welteroth pitched 52 times including two starts, finishing 2-5 with 2 saves and a 7.39 ERA.  He struck out 37 hitters and walked 89, also giving up 107 hits in 95 innings—more than two baserunners per inning.   Season Score:  -89. 

            The best season ever by a pitcher with 57 to 59.4 walks was by Sandy Koufax in 1963—25-5, 1.88 ERA, 306 strikeouts and 58 walks.   Unless you count the 19th century, which I don’t, but in the 19th century Bob Caruthers won 40 games with 57 walks. 





The Ten Greatest Relievers


            Obviously, the relievers who the most great seasons were the greatest relievers.  My first thought was that I could rank the relievers all-time by crediting points to the 100 seasons above—100 points to Radatz in 1964, 99 to Eckersley in ’92, 1 point to Rollie Fingers in 1977, etc.

            But this method obviously did not work, because it ignored everything less than a super season and counted a top-ten super season as worth more than a half-dozen bottom-thirty super seasons.  Keith Foulke’s season with the A’s in 2003 counted more than three seasons like Mark Davis’ season in 1989, for which Davis won the Cy Young Award.   Foulke’s season may be better, but nobody reasonably would trade it in for three Cy Young seasons.   Tom Johnson’s one good season in 1977 counted more than all of Rick Aguilera’s career or all of John Franco’s career, since Aguilera and Franco, while they had many fine seasons, never quite broke into the top 100.  

            So then I switched to doing the same thing, but counting the number one season (Radatz in ’64) as 500 points, the number two season as 499, etc.    That worked a lot better, but I still had a little bit of the same problem, so I backed off even further, making Radatz’ season 1000 points, Eckersley’s 999, etc. 

            By this method, the ten greatest relievers of all time are:


1.  Trevor Hoffman (8817 points)

2.  Mariano Rivera (8623)

3.  Rollie Fingers (7956)

4.  Lee Smith (7910)

5.  Goose Gossage (7060)

6.  Billy Wagner (7023)

7.  Dennis Eckersley (6263)

8.  John Wetteland (6185)

9.  Robb Nenn (5940)

10.  John Franco (5816)


            Which seems to be a reasonable list.     My guy Quiz would rank as the 17th greatest reliever ever, behind Rick Aguilera, ahead of Sparky Lyle (and, to my disappointment, behind Bruce Sutter, who was 14th).


COMMENTS (2 Comments, most recent shown first)

A bit late on this comment as a new subscriber. Sure would have thought Ted Abernathy in '65 would have made the list. To save 30 games in a season is a highlight in itself. To pitch in 84 and finish 62 games (both also # 1 in NL) are also formidable accomplishments.
10:12 AM Feb 6th
The only problem I have is that your top 10 only considers regular season. I wouldn't have a problem with that if we were talking about, say, first basemen. But, for relief pitchers (who's numbers are usually so small, and roles are generally limited to "important" situations), I think playoffs need to be considered.
11:31 AM Apr 28th
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