Before we get into the final group, I want to say how much I’ve enjoyed this series. It began as a desperate attempt to give us something to talk about while the lockout basically brought all contemporary baseball discussion to a halt. But I’ve found it fascinating to delve into baseball history and learn a little more about some of the best ever to have played the game in the major leagues. I’ve particularly appreciated discovering the Negro League greats, but even for names I knew something about e.g. Babe Ruth, I still know a signifcant amount more than I did when we started three months or so ago. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to that!
There have always been relief pitchers. Just, in the early days of the game, not very many of them. Arguably, the earlier was Clark Griffith, who in 1905 became the first man to relieve more than twice as many games as he started, for the New York Highlanders (he was also their manager at the time). The following season, 15 of his 17 appearances were out of their bullpen, and that same year, Cecil Ferguson of the cross-town rival Giants became the first pitcher with 20 relief appearances in a season. But few teams of the time would have more than one or two bullpen arms, and it wasn’t until well after the end of the dead-ball era, in 1930, that the majority of games saw a reliever at all.
The save did not become an official baseball statistic until 1969, but it has been retrofitted to older box-scores. The first pitcher to record 10+ saves in a season was Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown, who notched 13 in 1911 for the Cubs - though he also started 27 games for them. Perhaps the original closer was Firpo Marberry of the Washington Nationals. From 1924-26, he saved 53 games, including 16 in 1925 when he didn’t make a single start, followed by a then-record 22 saves the following year. That would remain the high-water mark for more than two decades, until Joe Page racked up 27 for the 1949 Yankees. It would not be until the sixties before anyone would surpass him.
Figuring our an objective measure for ranking relief pitchers is also not easy. However, let’s still go with bWAR as the approved metric. There does appear to be a glitch on the tools for B-R.com when you sort relievers by career bWAR, but I worked around that by sorting by WAA (Wins Above Average) instead. The numbers are pretty similar, though WAA seems to benefit pitchers with shorter, high-success careers over those with longer, less successful ones. Here’s the full list, by WAA. That includes active relievers like Craig Kimbrel, who are not eligible here. The table below excludes him, sorts by bWAR instead, and is just the top ten. As ever, the names go over to their Baseball Reference page.
Best relievers ever
As you would expect, the modern era dominates, with none of the pitchers having appeared in the majors before 1952. Then again, using the ‘80% of games in relief’ rule, there were very few “relievers” in the early days of baseball. The first qualifier with even 50 career appearances was Lou North, who didn’t reach the majors until 1913. Again using the 80% rule, only one pitcher reached fifty career saves entirely in the pre-integration era: Joe Heying, who got 65 saves between 1930 and 1945. Again, saves didn’t officially exist at the time, so were a lot less common. As discussed above, only one player (Marberry) saved twenty games in a season through the end of World War II.
As with starters, we do see that previous generations or relievers tended to be less dominating, but throw more pitches. To illustrate this, Hoyt Wilhelm averaged 1.84 innings per relief outing, and his K-rate out of the pen was 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings. At the other end, Billy Wagner averaged 1.06 innings, but struck out 11.9/9 IP. Even Mariano Rivera, who had a reputation for getting more than three outs, averaged only 1.12 innings per career bullpen appearance: 21.8% of his games in relief were more than an inning. Though that number shot up to more than 60% when it came to the postseason, including three of four in the 2001 World Series, of course.
This will be an interesting category, since there’s no obvious definition that determines the “best” reliever. Saves are one measure, but are dependent on a number of other factors outside the pitcher’s control, so feel like using RBI to measure a hitter’s effectiveness. ERA is also dependent on things like inherited runners, I don’t feel there’s one particularly “correct” answer here, and consequently, the good news is, there’s no particularly “wrong” ones either! So, make your case in the comments and we’ll see where we end up!
Back to a single winner here, and I’m not splitting this into LH and RH (not least because we now have actual baseball to discuss!). So usual rules apply again, i.e. one nomination per comment. As normal this will be done largely on the basis of recs in the comments, though the decision of the judging committee i.e. me, will be final in this regard. Just identify the player in the subject line, and make your case in the body of the comment. If you agree with a choice already made, give it a rec. If you don’t see your choice, post a new comment. I will delete subsequent top-level comments about the same player. Poll to follow on Friday!