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The Best Relief Pitchers Ever

Jim JohnsonDid you remember that Jim Johnson led all of baseball in saves in both 2012 and 2013 coming out of the Baltimore bullpen? I was in an AL-only fantasy league at the time, one that used saves as a category, and when encountered with the last name “Johnson” while researching for yesterday’s post On Relievers, Saves, and Closers, I had to click through to remember who he was. And the guy is still in the game! And he had 20 saves just last season! For what it’s worth, Jim Johnson is tied for 78 on the all-time saves list with John Smoltz.

I’m either making a point about how age is catching up with me or about how relievers, even some of the best ones, are pretty fungible. I’m writing this post today in part because I was shocked by the number of yearly MLB saves leaders who aren’t as familiar to me as I might have guessed, and also because the HoME missed a post a couple of Fridays ago. I think we owe you one.

So who is the best reliever of all time? Let me think for a moment… Really, there are few exercises in baseball less useful than trying to determine the game’s best relief pitcher. Maybe trying to determine the best combination hitter/pitcher named George (Babe if I’m being too esoteric). Spoiler alert – Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher ever.

What might be of some use, especially when considering who should be elected to the Hall of Fame, is to try to rank those behind King Mo (I know that’s not his nickname, and I know retired athletes seldom acquire nicknames, but dammit, I’m going with it).

Through largely non-scientific means, I’m going to try to do just that. To start, I’ve come up with a list of the 25 best retired non-Mariano relievers ever. Or maybe I haven’t. It’s at least close though, and I’m certain the best ten ever are on my list. So here’s where we begin.

Dennis Eckersley    Ellis Kinder      Dan Quisenberry
Roy Face            Sparky Lyle       Dick Radatz
Rollie Fingers      Firpo Marberry    Jeff Reardon
Keith Foulke        Mike Marshall     Ron Reed
John Franco         Lindy McDaniel    Lee Smith
Goose Gossage       Stu Miller        Bruce Sutter
Tom Gordon          Randy Myers       Billy Wagner
John Hiller         Troy Percival     Hoyt Wilhelm
Trevor Hoffman

Because this is admittedly unscientific, I’m going to go through the process sort of survivor style, where I vote people off the list. And right off the top, we have to eliminate Dennis Eckersley. Don’t misunderstand. He was a great pitcher. And he was a great relief pitcher, but if we’re looking at a pitcher’s Hall case, we should look at the whole case. Fewer than 25% of Eck’s innings were in relief. More than that though, let’s consider Eck’s five seasons of 5+ WAR. Only one was in relief, and the other four were in the 1970s. For reference, Eck didn’t have his first excellent year closing until 1988. So he’s gone. Down to 24.

Roy Face            Ellis Kinder        Dan Quisenberry
Rollie Fingers      Sparky Lyle         Dick Radatz
Keith Foulke        Firpo Marberry      Jeff Reardon
John Franco         Mike Marshall       Ron Reed
Tom Gordon          Lindy McDaniel      Lee Smith
Goose Gossage       Stu Miller          Bruce Sutter
John Hiller         Randy Myers         Billy Wagner
Trevor Hoffman      Troy Percival       Hoyt Wilhelm

I don’t argue that ERA+ is the single best statistic. However, it can be telling. And it’s simple enough to understand. The league average is 100, and the stat adjusts for season and for ballpark. Mariano’s at 205. Basically, that means he’s 105% better than the leagues in which he played. I’m going to say that you need to be at least 20% better than the league in order to remain on our list. That means we lose seven pitchers: Reed, Face, McDaniel, Gordon, Miller, Marberry, and Marshall.

Hold on a moment. Aren’t we talking about many of the oldest relievers in our sample? Yes, yes we are. Basically, as outings get longer, ERA+ goes down. It’s harder to pitch when you’re less fresh, and it’s harder to face guys for a second time. Again though, these guys weren’t even 20% better than league average. They’re gone. These 17 remain.

Rollie Fingers      Ellis Kinder        Jeff Reardon
Keith Foulke        Sparky Lyle         Lee Smith
John Franco         Randy Myers         Bruce Sutter
Goose Gossage       Troy Percival       Billy Wagner
John Hiller         Dan Quisenberry     Hoyt Wilhelm
Trevor Hoffman      Dick Radatz

One of the most important jobs of a relief pitcher is to strand inherited runners. Each of our remaining relievers has strand rates above 65%, except one. That one is Dan Quisenberry, at just 61.6%. Plus, there are only two on the list who entered high leverage situations less frequently. Goodbye Quiz.

Rollie Fingers      Ellis Kinder      Jeff Reardon
Keith Foulke        Sparky Lyle       Lee Smith
John Franco         Randy Myers       Bruce Sutter
Goose Gossage       Troy Percival     Billy Wagner
John Hiller         Dick Radatz       Hoyt Wilhelm
Trevor Hoffman

For my next cut, I’m going to look at WAR, WAA (wins above average), and WAAadj (an adjustment to WAA to take leverage into account). Reardon, Percival, Radatz, and Myers are the four pitchers without 20 WAR. The four lowest in terms of WAA are Reardon, Lyle, Fingers, and Myers. And the bottom four plus ties in WAAadj are Foulke, Percival, Fingers, Myers, and Reardon. Since Reardon and Myers are on all three of those lists, they can go.

Rollie Fingers     Trevor Hoffman     Lee Smith
Keith Foulke       Ellis Kinder       Bruce Sutter
John Franco        Sparky Lyle        Billy Wagner
Goose Gossage      Troy Percival      Hoyt Wilhelm
John Hiller        Dick Radatz

There are only four men on our list with fewer than 1000 innings. Billy Wagner had 903 and was 87% better than the leagues in which he pitched. Keith Foulke had 782.2 and was 40% better. Troy Percival threw 708.2 and was 46% better. And Dick Radatz threw the fewest at 693.2 and was only 23% better. He can go.

Rollie Fingers      Trevor Hoffman    Lee Smith
Keith Foulke        Ellis Kinder      Bruce Sutter
John Franco         Sparky Lyle       Billy Wagner
Goose Gossage       Troy Percival     Hoyt Wilhelm
John Hiller

The next thing I chose to do was to examine the percentage of innings that were high leverage. There were two clear trailers, Hoyt Wilhelm and Keith Foulke. Since Wilhelm threw more than three times as many innings as Foulke overall, so he had to pitch some low leverage frames, I think it’s fair to separate the two. Wilhelm stays. Foulke is gone.

Rollie Fingers      Trevor Hoffman     Lee Smith
John Franco         Ellis Kinder       Bruce Sutter
Goose Gossage       Sparky Lyle        Billy Wagner
John Hiller         Troy Percival      Hoyt Wilhelm

Even though there’s been very little science behind my elimination of candidates, I feel good because all who remain on the list are guys I’ve charted for the HoME, except for Percival. Among the remaining pitchers, he’s last in WAR, last in WAA, last in WAAadj, last in IP, last in games where he retired more than three batters, last in FIP, last in B/9, and last in outs per game. That’s enough for me. Eleven remain.

Rollie Fingers      Trevor Hoffman    Bruce Sutter
John Franco         Ellis Kinder      Billy Wagner
Goose Gossage       Sparky Lyle       Hoyt Wilhelm
John Hiller         Lee Smith

I think it is very possible we’ve identified the best retired pitchers who aren’t Mariano. Among them are the Hall of Famers – Fingers, Gossage, Sutter and Wilhelm. And then the near Hall of Famers – Hoffman and Smith. So the voters aren’t doing an absolutely awful job. Since they believe some relievers belong in the Hall, at least they’re getting those who are generally right. But let’s see how close.

Before we do, however, there’s one more name we should drop. Ellis Kinder was essentially a starter from 1947-1950. During that time he threw more than half of his innings and accumulated more than a third of his WAR. Maybe we should have done away with him sooner. Yeah, we probably should have.

So who are the top-ten retired non-Mariano relievers ever?

#1 Goose Gossage

By MAPES, my mathematical, WAR-based system for ranking players, Gossage is far and away the top dog. He’s the only reliever in the HoME, and he’s properly enshrined in the Hall.

#2 Hoyt Wilhelm

He’s second on my list to Gossage, he’s in the Hall, and he’s absolutely the next relief backlogger I’d add to the HoME if we needed to add one.

#3 Trevor Hoffman

I must admit that I’m a tad surprised by this ranking. He has the best stretch of four consecutive years of anyone on this list other than Gossage. And his five consecutive number is in a virtual tie with Sutter behind Goose.

#4 Billy Wagner

There’s something to be said about being only two things for your entire career: excellent or injured. It’s nice that Wagner will hang on the Hall ballot for a few years. He deserves the recognition. Of course, he’s not deserving of the Hall, yet there are two guys in the Coop who are behind him on this list.

#5 Rollie Fingers

I’m going to depart from my numbers here just a little. Fingers is last on my list, due in part to an aberrant -3.5 WPA from his 1979 campaign in San Diego. The real reason he jumps this high is the role he played as bullpen anchor on the 1972-1974 champion A’s. Without him, their dynasty may not have been.

#6 Lee Smith

I’m going back to my list for this one. Smith gets all sorts of extra credit among Hall voters because of the saves, which he shouldn’t. But I think he also loses some credit because we can’t really identify him with one team. For example, although Fingers had a fine run as a Padre and won an MVP and Cy as a Brewer, he’s an Oakland Athletic. As for Smith, sure, he played eight years with the Cubs. But he had only 20 fewer saves in four fewer years with the Cards. He made All-Star teams for the Angels and Orioles, and he’s in the top-10 in saves for the Red Sox.

#7 John Franco

Is it possible that being a lefty hurt our perception of Franco? I don’t know. What I do know is that he was elite for an extended period of time, putting up 400 saves with a 2.70 ERA from 1986-1999. We remember him as a guy who hung on as a bit of a LOOGY, but he was great when he was great.

#8 John Hiller

It’s possible that Hiller had the best season ever recorded by a relief pitcher in 1973. He threw 125.1 innings, posted 38 saves, 10 wins, and a 1.44 ERA. With all of my adjustments, I give him 10.5 wins for that season. The next season he put up 17 wins in relief. Overall, we’re looking at the amazing ’73 campaign and five other years with 2+ WAR.

#9 Bruce Sutter

The Hall of Fame royally messed up on this one. I suppose you could say Sutter is as high as the sixth best retired reliever. He was truly excellent for four years and useful for two more. But that’s it. Billy Wagner, Lee Smith, and John Franco, to name three, have more bulk to their careers and would be better Hall selections, though not good ones.

#10 Sparky Lyle

There are a bunch of guys who could fall into this tenth spot. I could see four or five of the above falling to tenth. And I could imagine a few not on the list reaching this level. Lyle was excellent for three seasons, all with the Yankees between 1972 and 1977. His excellence was based on big inning totals, which might be the reason he had his last good season at age 32.




9 thoughts on “The Best Relief Pitchers Ever

  1. No love for Johnny Murphy. He’d fit in with Marberry, Face, Miller, Don MacMahon (who also didn’t make the list) as guys who pitched way before “closers” became a thing and thus pitched a lot of innings that weren’t the end of games It was gratifying to see that pointed out.
    I’m never sure what I think of “closers” (as opposed to “relievers”). By definition the ninth inning is important, but sometimes the critical inning is the seventh, or sixth and you want your best man in right then to stop the bleeding or the surge or whatever it is that’s happening. Older relievers like Face, Marberry, Miller, Murphy, Joe Page (Larry Sherry in the ’59 World Series) did that. Modern ones frequently don’t. I’ve never been sure if that’s a good thing or not.
    So that’s something of a short complaint. But your list is top notch and without complaint. Nice to see Wilhelm get a little love.

    Posted by verdun2 | March 30, 2017, 8:51 am
    • Good point about Murphy. There is a conundrum about earlier relievers. Many were great at what they did, no doubt, but because they were less specialized, their numbers (thinking ERA+ here) look inferior. This post, I admit, dealt in less than rigorous analysis.

      I’d love to see Murphy or a Murphy type pitch today. I think the way to use great relievers is still being discovered by major league managers and executives. Perhaps Andrew Miller 2016 will be a model moving forward.

      We’ll begin to see in a few days. Can’t wait for the season to get started!

      Posted by Miller | March 30, 2017, 9:29 am
  2. Surprised Tekulve didn’t get a mention.

    Posted by layson | March 30, 2017, 11:12 am
    • Thanks for reading, Layson! Maybe Tekulve did deserve mention. He had a nice run of being quite good and quite durable. Not reaching the majors until 27 didn’t help him. But what a wonderfully memorable delivery and look.

      Posted by Miller | March 30, 2017, 11:54 am
  3. Nice article, I agree with your WAR eliminations section.
    5 to boot: Randy Myers, Troy Percival, Dick Radatz, Jeff Reardon, Ron Reed (previously eliminated).

    5 replacements: Doug Jones, Tom Henke, Joe Nathan, Jonathon Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez.

    Agree with layson on Kent Tekulve, boot Face?

    You can mix and match, but Rivera + top 5 are probably my personal top 6
    6-10 have pluses and blemishes, I would find a way to move Joe Nathan and Lindy McDaniel into a top 10, remove Sparky Lyle and John Franco?

    Posted by Ryan | April 2, 2017, 10:29 am
    • Thanks for the comment, Ryan! As for Nathan, Papelbon, and Rodriguez, you have to be retired to make the list. I like your Henke call a lot. As far as McDaniel, he had a few excellent years but a number of clunkers along the way. With a smarter model, I think he could have been among the top-10, certainly near it.

      Posted by Miller | April 2, 2017, 11:32 am
      • I see the retired part now (doh!)…thanks for the response and consideration.

        McDaniel’s career evens out much better with a FIP approach.
        His ERA- is worse than 100 8x, his FIP- 3x…but, his ERA- is lower than 80 6x, his FIP- 5x.
        Was Lindy hurt more than average by his defenses, or worse than average in stranding runners?

        Posted by Ryan | April 2, 2017, 12:51 pm
    • Hmm, I don’t know about the defense/stranding question. Lindy allowed 36% of inherited runners to score. For comparison, John Hiller was at 32%, and Ron Reed was at 34%. He also allowed a lot of ground balls, which is generally good. On the other hand, his defense didn’t turn so many double plays, which may or may not speak to the defense behind him. He also allowed more guys to score from third with less than two outs than a ground ball guy should. Again, that might say more about him or about his defense. I don’t know.

      My answer is likely unsatisfying, but it’s honest. I don’t think I know.

      Posted by Miller | April 2, 2017, 1:41 pm
      • Thanks Miller, there isn’t really a definitive answer available on relievers, I just enjoy the discussion.

        Posted by Ryan | April 2, 2017, 2:28 pm

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