The Relief Pitcher: A Lack in Conversations

Relief Pitcher
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There are two words that signify a special type of baseball player. Those words are relief pitcher One that is, at once, dependent and reliable, while in another sense, very fragile. Other types of players have multiple chances at both adulation when things go right and redemption when they don’t. For the relief pitcher, oftentimes, there is only the one chance. A moment is the difference between glory and disaster, and they cannot get that chance back. Once the manager pulls the plug, the relief pitcher must leave the game, never to return. It must haunt his mind while sitting on the bench, or in the showers in the aftermath. That said, if the game goes well, it’s a moment of stardom unmatched by any other, and it must carry him to his next performance.

Relief Pitchers in the JAWS Top Ten Not in Cooperstown

Either way, the relief pitcher is an integral part of any team. However, it is also becoming increasingly apparent that appreciation for the position is dying out. We, as fans, expect these guys to act like machines, churning out one or two inning performances, and then being forgotten about. The truth is that there are a disturbing lack of relief pitchers in Cooperstown, or even in the general annals of great baseball players. In fact, only five of the top ten relief pitchers on Baseball Reference’s JAWS chart are in the Hall. This article examines those who are not and, perhaps, offers some argument as to why they should be remembered a little more frequently.

Jonathan Papelbon

Jonathan Papelbon exploded onto the relief pitcher scene in 2006 with the Boston Red Sox. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, saving 35 games with an ERA below one and a mind boggling 517 ERA+. He’d go on to have 368 career saves and make six All-Star appearances. His consistency speaks for itself. From 2006-2012, he did not have fewer than 30 saves in any one season. While he never led the league in the category, his place as perhaps the most dominant relief pitcher of that period cannot be understated. He retired after 2016, and made his debut on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. Unfortunately, after garnering a dismal 1.3% of the vote, he will be removed.

Tom Gordon

Tom Gordon is kind of like the Julio Franco of pitchers, in terms of longevity. His career began with the Kansas City Royals in 1988 and ended in 2009 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He began as a starter, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1989. After some average seasons, he signed with Boston, who put him in the bullpen mid-way through 1997. There, he flourished, putting up 46 saves in 1998 and making his first All-Star appearance. Despite missing the entirety of 2000 thanks to Tommy John surgery, he came back and saved 27 contests for the 2001 Chicago Cubs. He’d go on to make two more All-Star teams.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan, The relief pitcher with two first names and a killer arsenal. He had a rough time in his first two seasons as a starter with the San Francisco Giants. Then, in 2002, he was called back to the big leagues as a bullpen guy. From there, his career took off. He’d go on to have a massive seven year run with the Minnesota Twins (260 SV, 2.16 ERA, 204 ERA+). His 377 career saves are eighth all-time and his ERA+ of 151 ranks ahead of Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Trevor Hoffman. He boasts six All-Star nods and four seasons of 40 or more saves. Much like Papelbon, Nathan also made his debut on this year’s Hall ballot. He only picked up 4.3% of the vote, however, and will also be removed.

Firpo Marberry

Next on the list is Firpo Marberry, a man who had both an interesting name and a penchant for relieving when it wasn’t in style. Marberry pitched from 1924-1936, a time when a lot of starters finished what they’d begun. In fact, Marberry was a starter, picking up a respectable 148 wins in his career. When he wasn’t starting, he was finishing, an aspect that makes him unique to this list. He allowed a miniscule 0.4 HR/9, while leading the league in WHIP twice. His best season was with the Washington Senators in 1929 (19–12, 3.06 ERA, 9 SV, 121 K, 139 ERA+).

Billy Wagner

The final relief pitcher for this portion of the article is Billy Wagner. The seven-time All-Star ranks as one of the best to ever close a game. His 422 saves are sixth all-time and, from 1996-2010, he only posted an ERA+ below 140 once. He broke into the Majors in 1996 with the Houston Astros, pitching to a 2.44 ERA and picking up his first nine career saves. In 1997, he put up 23 saves, and things just kept increasing from there. 2000 was his only blemish, but he quickly recovered, going on to post 30 or more saves in six of the next eight seasons. He wrapped it up nicely in 2010 with the Atlanta Braves, retiring after going 7–2 with a sub-two ERA and 37 saves.

The Relief Pitcher: Those Within Striking Distance of The Hall

Those are the members of the relief pitcher category in the top-ten on the JAWS chart, but not in the Hall of Fame. Whether or not they deserve such an honor is up to the individual. Facts are facts, however, and this is what they are telling us. Now, let’s discuss a couple of names outside the top-ten that could possibly receive more clout, if not in Cooperstown, than at least in the mind of the average fan. Certainly, there are current era players that fit this bill. However, we’re here to look more at the past than the present.

John Franco

One name that populates the category of “terrific relief pitchers of yore” is John Franco. He currently ranks fifth on the All-Time saves list with 424. Posting 15 consecutive double digit save seasons, Franco found his way onto four All-Star teams. He began his career by saving 148 games for the Cincinnati Reds, and positioning himself as one of the league’s premier closers. During the 1989 offseason, he was traded to the New York Mets. Once there, he continued to be reliable, saving 276 contests in 14 seasons. While he did suffer his fair share of blown saves, the positives far outweigh the negatives here. Franco was definitely one of the best relief pitchers of the 1980’s and 90’s.

Dan Quisenberry

For our last relief pitcher saga, we turn to Royals great Dan Quisenberry. He saved 244 games in his career, which is nothing to sneeze at. However, it was his massive dominance during his heyday that puts him here. From 1982-85, very few were as good as Quisenberry. During that time, he saved 161 games, pitching to a 2.38 ERA and a 172 ERA+. He was very good at keeping the ball in the park as well (0.6 HR/9, 36 HR in 534 IP). The mid-80’s Royals are often thought of with great gusto by fans of the team. However, without Quisenberry, the team would have been lacking one of their key tools.

Credit Where It’s Due

All of these stories prove one thing: being a relief pitcher is hard work. In fact, they might be the most underappreciated players out of the entire spectrum. They receive a lot of blame when things go wrong, yet rarely get praised when they go right. Hopefully, these tales of terrific bullpen mainstays will help generate new conversations about them. They certainly deserve it.

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Players Mentioned:

Jonathan Papelbon, Tom GordonJulio Franco, Joe Nathan, Hoyt WilhelmTrevor Hoffman, Firpo Marberry, Billy Wagner, John Franco, Dan Quisenberry