Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The HoG25: The 25 Best Relief Pitchers of the Last 25 Years, Part II

(Editor's Note: For reasons I still cannot figure out, the image-upload feature is not working at the moment, so we will update when this technical error has been corrected.)

We're back for the sequel to relievers, and if you're just tuning in, there're two important things to catch you up to speed. The first is Old No. 7's reliever dissertation, which I implore you to both read, and filter out the parts in which he's right, or at least pretends to be. The second is part one to this installment, which, I promise, makes for decent reading material when consumed in between aforementioned dissertation, and the post-leap sequel.

In this series, prior to relief pitchers, we've covered NFL quarterbacks, American cinema, baseball hitters, readin' books, starting pitchers, television shows, wide receivers. Join us with a click, for the top 10.

10. Roberto Hernandez

bankmeister: I’d like to say that being only one of 11 guys in Major League Baseball history to appear in 1000 games warrants one’s place on a list like this one. I’d also like to say that I’m hung like a Clydesdale, that you should just take my word for it, but that isn’t gonna sell any papers. This fine Puerto Rican specimen debuted in the Majors as a September call-up in the 1991 season, and he didn’t do much then, but he did enough of something to earn himself a roster spot for the Chicago White Sox the following year, and it was in that season that Roberto Hernandez won seven games, earned a dozen saves, and did so with a 1.65 E.R.A., which, I’d imagine, earned some scout a bonus. He also struck out 68 dudes and surrendered a mere four home runs.

He turned into quite a work horse for the Sox after that, earning himself his first of two All-Star appearances, and leading the league in games finished for three straight seasons. Hernandez turned in pretty solid save numbers for more than half a decade, but then he turned into something else: a bit of a whore.

That’s right. After leaving the Windy City, Roberto Hernandez became a sort of pre-Lima Time Jose Lima, if you will, minus, of course the big-chested wife, and the raging case of Herpes. After his impressive stint on the South Side, Hernandez tossed baseballs for the San Francisco Giants for a minute, then signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, where his career saw a nice resurgence, and then, in 2001, Hernandez was part of a three-team trade. There are many aspects to the trade, but those worth mentioning involve the Kansas City Royals sending Johnny Damon to the Oakland A’s, the Oakland A’s sending Angel Berroa to the Kansas City Royals, and the Rays sending Hernandez to Kansas City. Hernandez would later become a Brave, a Phillie, a Met, a Pirate, a Met, and Indian, and alas, a Dodger.

Ultimately, I, as a Royals fan, should want to murder him for his affiliation with the Berroa-to-K.C. leg of that trade, but for the purposes of this feature, I must mention that he retired with 326 career saves, just under 1000 Ks, and an impressive 7.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched ratio. Roberto Hernandez: colossal reliever, major asshole.

9. Tom Henke

Cecil: Tom Henke was an excellent closer. He powered the bullpen for the great Blue Jays teams of the mid-to-late ‘80s (remember them? No one in Canada does, either), striking out nearly 10 batters per 9 innings over the course of his career -- of course, he did that in small chunks, not 9 inning stretches, because he was a relief pitcher and all, so, uh, yeah -- and walked away from the game after a hell of a year with the Cardinals. But I remember him chiefly for his oversized novelty eyewear.

Alright, so, maybe he actually needed them to see, but still. Those things looked like the BCGs that Charlie Sheen’s character in Major League ended up wearing, like the goggles on one of those caricatures of Harry Caray. Was this some sort of bizarre intimidation technique? I’m thinking so. Major league hitters dug in against Henke and thought, fuck, not only does this guy throw pure cheese BUT THOSE GLASSES AAAAAHH. Ol’ Specs Henke* had the battle half won before he ever threw a pitch.

It clearly worked. Dude was a two-time All Star, won the Most Important Award Any Relief Pitcher Can Ever Win, Ever (Rolaids, bitches!) and played an integral role in bringing World Series glory to Toronto: his career postseason ERA is under 2, and he saved a pair of games in the ’92 classic. All, we’re sure, because of those terrifying cheaters.

*This is a nickname I just gave him.

8. John Franco

Cecil: Let’s get to brass tacks, here: John Franco was a hell of a pitcher, and one of the best closers of his generation, but what really stood out about his career was not any particular defining moment of brilliance, but rather the fact that he pitched until he was 89 years old and died on the mound in a night game against the Phillies, upon which sad event his withered, greasy corpse was buried under home plate at the old Shea Stadium (Note: this might be a blatant untruth.)

Before that, though, he was practically the definition of a workhorse, if you conveniently throw out all of the definitions involving actual horses doing physical labor. He played for the Mets for longer than any single human being should, from 1989 to 2004. No prima donna, the son of a New York Sanitation worker (thanks, internet!) wore an orange Sanitation Department t-shirt under his game uniform to honor his blue-collar roots and didn’t fuss when asked to switch to the set-up role he played for the last several years of his career.

Also: Saves, lots of them, R-O-L-A-I-D-S, World Series, All Stars, more than 1,000 games pitched, rinse, lather, repeat. If your last name isn’t Fingers, Gossage, Rivera, Sutter or Hoffman, your place on this list is largely irrelevant. Of note, however: I always figured that the dude wore a shark’s tooth necklace and wayyyyy too much Drakkar Noir.

7. Lee Smith

Cecil: First things first: I'm a fan of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. When I was a kid, my two favorite players were Ryne Sandberg and Lee Smith.

It may be hard to justify the fandom (I WAS BORN THERE YOU ASSHOLES AND THEY DIDN'T HAVE MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL IN COLORADO WHEN I WAS A LAD), but it's still there, even if it ebbs and flows these days, what with my thousand mile remove from the epicenter of Cubbery. I like the Rockies fine, and if I hadn't held on to those golden memories of youth and vitality so stubbornly I might count them as #1; but I did, and so I don't. And some of the goldenest of said memories are the ones featuring a glowering, Jheri-curled Lee Smith blowing 98 mph heat past humiliated batters.

I've heard people say that Lee belongs in the Hall--and despite my fandom, my initial reaction to that was always, I dunno, really? But then I looked at the numbers: Smith had 478 saves, good for third all-time (and I believe he was first when he retired), led the league in that category on four occasions, was a seven-time All-Star, finished in the top 5 of Cy Young voting three times and led in games finished thrice. Those are beyond solid--they're Gossage-esque. Certainly beyond any lame-ass Bruce Sutter territory. How'd that fucking guy get in, anyway?

Lee Smith was undoubtedly one of the very few best closers of the last 25 seasons. And yet, somehow, he was still traded for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper. I hate you, Chicago Cubs.

(Editor's Note: It should be mentioned that our dear Cecil was so excited to write about Mr. Smith, that he did so twice.)

When I was a kid, my two favorite players were Ryne Sandberg and Lee Smith.

Given the fact that I've spent the majority of my life far, far away from the epicenter of Cubbery, I occasionally find it hard to justify the fandom to others (I WAS BORN THERE YOU ASSHOLES AND THEY DIDN'T HAVE MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL IN COLORADO WHEN I WAS A LAD). Yet it exists, even if it ebbs and flows these days, what with the Lou Piniella and the Carlos Zambrano and the century of crushing ineptitude. When I find myself growling in the corner over yet another failed campaign, I can always flip the memory dial back to 1987.

1987 was, like pretty much every year in Cubsville, sucky. I'm old now, and can't summon he suck-particulars the way I could have once, but you can go ahead and believe me. I think Don Zimmer was the manager. Or maybe he got fired before season's end? Can't remember. What I do remember: Andre Dawson's MVP season for a last-place team, the usual smooth criminal act at 2nd from Ryno and yet another dominant season for fireballing closer Lee Smith.

Smith was one of those guys that had the glower, the JuJu. And while he's got the stats, to be sure -- he held the all-time Saves record from '93 until 2006, when Trevor Hoffman passed him, led the NL twice and the AL once in that stat and, at the time of his retirement, owned the Major League career record for Games Finished -- the thing that this disillusioned former child recalls most is that ineffable Gossage-esque sense of menace. He stood 6'6", and with those big-ass sideburns and overflowing jheri curl, seemed to have walked through a door from the A's squads of the early '70s. His presence meant finality, a humiliating strikeout and, necessarily, a rare Cubs win. Naturally, he was traded soon after for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi.

It's no accident that his greatest career successes came elsewhere. Pitching for the Cubs will do that to you. The fact that he's made this list at all is reflective of the mental toughness needed to shake off a tenure, particularly one as lengthy as Smith's, spent pitching in the House of Fail. For that yeoman's work we salute you, Mr. Smith. Even though you did give up that homer to Steve Garvey in the '84 NLCS. Asshole.

6. Dan Quisenberry

Cecil: You know what I love? Sidearmers. Submariners. Dudes who, for lack of a better term, get loowwww. Goofy-ass Kent Tekulve, for instance, in his meaty goggles, right arm nearly scraping the mound. Walter Johnson, the Big Train himself, had a little sidearm in him, as did Dennis Eckersley. Shunsuke Watanabe, Japan's "Mr. Sub-Marine," wears gloves to avoid bloodying his knuckles on the dirt. Of 'em all, though, no one ever captured my imagination like Dan Quisenberry.

Quis just looked goofy -- he and Tekulve both went way down south, much more so than most of their fellows, and there's pretty much no way you can make that severe of a pitching motion look pretty -- and always appeared to be diving sideways off the mound. But that unnatural effort, and the bucketsful of grounders that it produced, led to some impressive results.

For the first part of the '80s, Quis was arguably the best reliever in the bigs. He led the AL in saves five out of six years, from '80-'85, with a high of 45 in '83, which was also best in the Majors. He led both circuits in games finished four times, and topped the junior thrice in games pitched. He was durable, he was reliable, and he threw a funky, slow-moving ball that tied hitters into half-hitches.

As a kid in the backyard I used to practice throwing sidearm, far down as I could go, because even a sprat like myself could see the value in such unorthodoxy. Dan Quisenberry rode that funny-looking delivery all the way from the University of La Verne (!?!) to a World Series Championship and 244 career saves; my guess is he didn't really care how silly it looked.

5. Billy Wagner

bankmeister: As we move into the upper echelon of reliever artistry, it’s important to note that I don’t know the first thing about Billy Wagner. That is, I drafted him solely for his numbers, and am learning most everything about him just prior to writing it. That said, he played 14 of his 15 professional seasons in the National League, and debuted the season I pretty much quit paying attention to baseball for most of six years. But he’s due his honors, so here goes:

Wagner was a first-round pick by the Houston Astros, and he actually played for the team that drafted him, so winner-winner, chicken dinner. I like the guy already. Three hundred eighty-five saves? Criminy. That’s impressive. Wagner made six All-Star Games and was twice in the close running for a Cy Young Award. If you pitch in Major League Baseball and do so for 15 years, tally 833 innings of work, log nearly 1100 Ks, and keep your career earned-run average under 2.40, you deserve to be in the Hall-of-Fame discussions. One of the most impressive stats for Wagner, however, is his strikeouts-per-nine-innings pitched. Most dudes are around the high sevens and low eights. Wagner’s career average for this category lands at a swollen 11.8, which is nothing shy of tremendous. Hell, it’s Ken Tremendous. Add to that his home runs-per-nine-innings pitched, which is 0.8, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a pitcher.

After his stint with Houston, Wagner drifted in and out of the Phillies, Mets, and Red Sox organizations before finally winding up with the Atlanta Braves. His numbers are down, and hey – the kid’s been pitching professionally for a decade and-a-half. He’s nearly three years older than me, which is old, I tell ya’. Just ask Old No. 7 about being old; that dude’s like 49. Anyway, of course careers are going to taper, but for a small-framed guy that taught himself to throw South Paw when his natural style was righty, I like the guy. Billy Wagner: Future Cooperstown inductee.

4. Rich "Goose" Gossage

Cecil: There are a ton of historical factors that need to be weighed as part of any argument about the efficacy of closers -- saves didn't exist as an official stat until 1969, to begin with, and the firemen of previous eras were frequently asked to work two and three innings. Comparisons about who was best when are thus difficult and subject to the inclusion of (as you'll soon discover) personal favorites. So, when people tell me that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time, I only have two words for them: Goose Gossage.

Please don't cite me any of Rivera's stats. I've seen them. I'm no stat-suspicious baseball Luddite, either, so don't go all FJM on me. I have really only one cogent point, here, and even though I've already made it in my first graph, I'm about to do again because I think it's important and I need to take up some real estate in this post: Gossage was the most dominant closer in an era when closers had to do more. Rivera has made an entire career out of getting three -- and often, fewer -- outs. Sure, he's been great at it, but how good would Goose's numbers look if he'd spent his looooong career with that kinda workload?

Yes, yes, that's projection, and we must deal instead with cold, unforgiving reality. Fair enough. Goose's numbers by themselves are good enough to keep him in this argument: he led his league in saves three times (the majors, twice) but more impressively, the guy didn't finish with an ERA over 3 from 1977 through 1985, including a surreal 0.77 in '81. In '77, he struck out 151 batters in 133 innings. He won more games in relief than anyone not named Hoyt Wilhelm -- who, it should be mentioned, is one of the old school dudes who never benefited from the save, so his win totals are pretty high -- and finished his career second in career saves to Rollie Fingers. He recorded the out to clinch a division, league or Series title seven times. Until Rivera broke it, he held the record for most All-Star appearances as a reliever.

And he did it all pitching three, sometimes four times as long as the guy everyone anoints as the best evs. I call bullshit. You want Greatest, you go Goose.

3. Dennis Eckersley

bankmeister: I am still partially in shock that Old No. 7 is the proud son-in-law of that jersey-tuckin’ s.o.b. Dennis Eckersley, but I guess smaller things’ve surprised me. Eckersley is another one of those dudes that I associate with nationally televised (especially post-season) baseball, coming in out of the bullpen, and taking care of business. Dude never looked pretty, and his work wasn’t shiny, but boy did he, and it, deliver.

Having tried to tap into the well of memory, I’ve come up with two things: The first is that I was confused when, several years into my baseball-viewing life, Dennis Eckersley was suddenly coming out of the bullpen instead of starting games. As Dave Chapelle once never said, I didn’t know dudes could do that. The second thing was that I, for most of the 1980s, simply could not keep track of Dennis Eckersley. When I first saw his greezy self take the hill, he was a Red Sock. And then he seemed to disappear. I mean, I know he was still around; I simply lost him. But then, there he was again, appearing in Major League games, this time in an Oakland uniform. Then he was gone. And then he was a Red Sock again.

Couldn’t keep track. It’s worth mentioning that in those periods, he also logged time with the Cubs and the Cardinals, was originally an Indian, and, in fact, closed his career out in Boston. And some career it was. Though we’re focusing on relief efforts, it’s certainly noteworthy that, as a starter, Old No. 7’s father-in-law earned himself two All-Star-Game appearances, some Cy Young consideration, as well as some MVP chatter. He also won 197 games before making the transition, which, I might add, he was successful at to the tune of 390 career saves, good for sixth all-time if you’re keepin’ score at home.

As a closer, he earned himself four more All-Star appearances, and upped the frequency of Cy Young/MVP conversations, ultimately earning both in 1992. Eckersley struck out 2400 guys in his career, and that’s no small hill of beans. For the purposes of discussions of great pitchers, Dennis Eckersley definitely earned his place in the conversation. He may have demonstrated the strongest balance of starter/closer dominance of anyone in the game. He gets props for going the distance early, and points for closing contests out with fury in the second half of his career. For the purposes of this specific entry, he’s certainly top-three worthy. His stats might not be the prettiest out there, but that’s just fine, ‘cause across the board, I don’t think Dennis Eckersley was ever campaigning for style points.

2. Trevor Hoffman

Old No. 7: Like many, I lament the loss of the bullpen car. When I was a little kid watching NBC’s Game Of The Week, relievers were ferried from the bullpen to the mound in funny little cars shaped like baseballs, ballcaps or mascots. That bit of whimsy is long gone, and we now have to wait interminably while fat closers trudge in.

The upside is that closers now come on to a song, and they try to make it a badass one. At least they did try, until douchebags like Brian Wilson and Ryan Franklin forced us to listen to Nickelback. The best closer song, of course, is heard when Mariano Rivera comes into a game and “Enter Sandman” is played over the PA. It’s ominous, creepy and makes you want your blanky and nightlight.

Trevor Hoffman uses “Hell’s Bells,” which is pretty good. Nothing wrong with getting some AC/DC up in here. But it’s a blatant ripoff of Rivera, which is fitting, since playing second fiddle to Rivera is basically Hoffman’s lot in life.

Hoffman recorded his 600th save in 2010, and will almost certainly retire this offseason with 601, the all-time record. But Rivera has 559, and he’ll eclipse Hoffman in either 2011 or 2012. Anything Hoffman can do, Rivera can do better, which is far from the worst thing you can say about a guy. Shannon Sharpe is the second-best tight end to ever play the game, which means he wasn’t quite as good as Tony Gonzalez but still towers over everyone else at the position. And Hoffman’s career has simply been outrageously successful. Other than 2003, when he missed most of the year following two operations, he saved 30 or more games for the Padres from 1995 through 2008. He did it again for the Brewers in 2009. His last hurrah in Milwaukee was ugly, as he lost his job to John Axford and was given token appearances solely to get to 600. Then again, most great players’ careers do not end gracefully…(cough) Brett Favre.

Hoffman came into professional baseball as an infielder who had a good arm but couldn’t hit. He’s hardly the first guy with a story like this -- Troy Percival, Carlos Marmol and Keith Foulke were converted from catcher, Tim Wakefield was once a prospect at third base, and Rafael Soriano gave it a try in the outfield before sticking as a big league reliever. It seems like many of the converted position players who go on to pitch end up in the bullpen. Some have funky deliveries, weird pitches or a limited repertoire, and exposing them to a lineup only once per game is the best approach.

(Editor's Note: Having brought you from 25 on down to two, I'd guess that you've guessed who gets the one spot.)

1. Mariano Rivera

Old No. 7: I don’t know how else to say it: Mariano Rivera is simply the best relief pitcher of all time. By any measure, he is. If you want to go by bulk saves, he’s second to Trevor Hoffman and will certainly pass him in the next eight to 14 months. If you want to go by post-season success, Rivera is so far ahead of his competition it’s embarrassing to even point it out. He’s won five World Series, one as a setup man and four as a closer. His playoff numbers are disgusting: In 139 innings over 94 innings, he has a 0.71 ERA, 109 strikeouts against 21 walks, and he’s allowed two home runs.

By all of the traditional measures, he is the best. And if you dig on the sabermetrics even a tiny, weensy little bit, Rivera’s dominance is shocking. ERA+ is a terrific stat that encapsulates all aspects of a pitcher’s efficiency and weighs it against his league, historical era, and ballpark. Pedro Martinez has the second-highest in history at 154 (league average is set at 100, everyone over 100 is above average, everyone below is below), as Pedro put up fantastic numbers in hitters’ parks during an overwhelmingly offensive era. A few other Hall of Fame-level arms in the top 20 of ERA+ are Lefty Grove (148), Walter Johnson (147), Roger Clemens (143), Cy Young (138) and Roy Halladay (136).

Mariano Rivera’s ERA+ is 205, which is so much better than any other pitcher to have ever played the game, starter or reliever, that it looks stupid on the printed page.

You may not know or care about ERA+, and you may be skeptical about advanced metrics like it. That’s fine, I once was as well. But just look at the season-by-season destruction that Rivera has delivered to batters, good batters in a good division in a good league, for 15 years. Against baseball’s finest, throwing one pitch, he simply doesn’t allow anyone to make solid contact. He baffles and breaks bats, and he records out after out after out with greater efficiency than anyone who’s ever pitched.

And yet still, there are those who choose to disregard the greatness of Rivera and name someone else as the greatest of all time. Specifically, the two other writers on this blog prefer Goose Gossage. Now I’m not here to disparage these men, they’re my friends and I love them and doing that would make me a major dick. I do question their reasoning here, though, because they’d like you to believe that Goose was better than Rivera because his saves came while pitching multiple innings. Meanwhile Rivera (and every closer in this day and age) starts work only in the ninth, and only with the bases free of hostile combatants.

It’s true that Gossage and Rivera have operated under different working conditions. Closers in Goose’s day were asked to get more than three outs (although Goose had plenty of saves that were three outs or less), and closers today are almost never asked the same, except in the playoffs and must-win games (although Rivera is the modern exception, he notched five saves of more than three outs in 2010 while no other closer had more than one).

To my comrades, this difference in expectations makes Goose tougher and therefore better. I’m not sure if I buy “tougher,” but for the sake of argument I’ll concede it. As he’s reminded us in every single public appearance for the last 20 years, a campaign that finally led to Goose’s enshrinement in Cooperstown, Goose was one tough son-of-a-bitch. Look at the game log from his 1975 season with the White Sox. Goose threw 141 innings, which is double what closers throw today. He’d come in to games in the third and fourth inning and close them out. Of his 26 saves that year, only seven met the modern condition of recording three outs or less, while 12 required seven outs or more. This is truly epic, laudable, and it started the legend of Goose Gossage.

The problem is, for all Goose’s toughness, he simply wasn’t as good a pitcher as Rivera. His ERA was three-quarters of a run higher, his WHIP far higher (1.23 to 1.00), his K/9 rate lower (7.5 to 8.2), his K/BB rate lower as well (2.05 to 3.94). By every measure you can find, every tangible statistic, Rivera is superior.

Which is where Goose’s mythical toughness is inserted into the argument, as an intangible trump card of subjectivity. Rivera’s numbers were created in a vacuum, he couldn’t handle the crucible in which Goose thrived. Goose would have pitched just as well as Rivera throwing one inning at a time, if not better. And Rivera would have wilted if asked to pitch like Goose did. This is the argument.

The problem with this is that it just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Look at Goose’s numbers again. As his career went on, he was asked to go more than two innings less and less -- BECAUSE HE WAS FAR LESS EFFECTIVE WHEN HE DID. Tough as he was, Goose still got tired and wore down, and having him throw multiple innings each outing was simply bad for business.

Goose’s last year as a top closer was 1986, when he played for the Padres. He saved 21 games that year, and in only nine did he record three or fewer outs. Same old tough Goose. But what’s telling is that he was not asked to get more than six outs once. His manager knew that doing so hurt the team, and that the less Goose threw the better he was. Goose had proven his toughness, but he was dramatically less effective at the limits of his endurance, as we all are.

Beyond that, saying that modern players can not be compared to their forefathers on the grounds of toughness means that the old-time players can never be topped. Forget the luxury of only pitching the ninth -- that’s nothing compared to air travel in chartered jets, advanced medical science, state-of-the-art stadiums and clubhouses, and how easy it is to score pussy on the road with cell phones, the Internet and Twitter. Of course today’s players have it easier and aren’t as tough, that doesn’t mean a great player today is automatically inferior to a great player from yesteryear. You can indeed compare Albert Pujols to Stan Musial, no matter how soft you think Pujols is in relation to Stan The Man. Aaron, Mays, and Gibson had it made compared to black players in the '20s and '30s (as they were allowed to play in the bigs), we don’t downgrade their greatness due to the comparative ease in which they lived.

And there you have it, boys and girls. The 25 best relief pitchers of the last 25 years. Or so say we anyway. We've got three categories left in this installment. No tellin' when we'll get 'em up, but by Jove, we'll get 'em up.