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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Relief Pitcher Championship Belt

But which reliever is the best and most reliable? And who, out of the thousands of relievers who have populated major league rosters, grabs that title from past seasons? There’s no better way to answer these questions than with a good old championship belt exercise, starting in 1969, the first official year for Jerome Holtzman’s save statistic. (Apologies to 1950 NL MVP Jim Konstanty.)

1996: Mariano Rivera, Yankees
5 saves, 26 holds, 2.09 ERA, 1.88 FIP

It’s strange to say this about the most decorated closer in history, but Rivera’s 1996 season—before he was the Yankees’ closer; before he had discovered the cutter that would propel him toward Cooperstown unanimity—might have been the best of his career.

Like with most pitchers in this exercise, Rivera moved to the bullpen as a last resort. As a 25-year-old rookie in 1995, he’d recorded a 5.94 ERA in 10 starts. And despite a strong showing in the pen that postseason—including 3 1/3 scoreless innings in his first playoff game, an extra-innings win—he still wasn’t viewed as a special player yet. Infamously, he was nearly traded to Seattle before the 1996 season for Felix Fermín; George Steinbrenner wanted a shortstop because he didn’t think that a 21-year-old named Derek Jeter could get the job done.

That dynasty-killing disaster averted, Rivera immediately demonstrated just how special he really was. As a setup man, Rivera occupied a sort of pseudo-fireman role, throwing an MLB-high 107 2/3 innings in relief in just 61 games, a near match for Sutter’s totals two decades earlier. And he didn’t just add length, but also recorded what would be the best strikeout rate of his career while allowing just one home run despite a leaguewide spike in homers.

By bWAR, Rivera’s ’96 season is tied for the most valuable season for any reliever since Eckersley redefined the closer role; by fWAR, it’s tied for second, behind just one season still to come.

And that was just in the regular season. In the playoffs, as the Yankees claimed their first title since 1978, Rivera allowed one run in 14 1/3 innings, going more than a single frame in all but one appearance.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: March 17, 2021 at 10:52 AM | 6 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: relievers

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   1. Rough Carrigan Posted: March 17, 2021 at 11:50 AM (#6008934)
Good article. I haven't read much from the Ringer before. Is this typical?
   2. JJ1986 Posted: March 17, 2021 at 12:36 PM (#6008943)
...or cummerbund.
   3. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: March 17, 2021 at 12:43 PM (#6008945)

Good article. I haven't read much from the Ringer before. Is this typical?

Baseball ranks below the NFL, NBA, college football, college basketball, The Bachelor, and 80s movies in their priority of things to write about, but yes, Zack Kram and Ben Lindbergh both do a great job writing about baseball.
   4. CFBF is Obsessed with Art Deco Posted: March 17, 2021 at 12:45 PM (#6008946)
Craig Kimbrel in 2012 was the closest thing I've ever seen to a real life Major League Baseball player look like he was playing a videogame on easy mode (well, Cyborg Bonds, of course, but still). Reliever stats have grown increasingly mind-boggling ever since, so his 2012 numbers aren't quite as stupefying as they were at the time, but in the moment it was the kind of season that actually made you giggle while you watched it.

Random fact I always enjoyed: over his career, Ian Desmond had 15 plate appearances against Kimbrel. He was 0-15 with 11 strikeouts.
   5. Howie Menckel Posted: March 17, 2021 at 01:10 PM (#6008950)
Eric Gagne 2003 wasn't bad - 1.20 ERA, 55 SV in 82 IP, 137 K vs 20 BB.

he saved 83 consecutive chances in a 24-month period from 2002-04.

The Brotherhood of Relief Pitchers union leaders aren't fans, however.

Gagne in 2001 had a 4.75 ERA in 152 IP including 24 starts, for an ERA+ of a replaceable 84.

then he gets moved to the bullpen the following year, and for 3 seasons he goes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.

what a coincidence!
   6. bfan Posted: March 17, 2021 at 01:41 PM (#6008956)
Good article. I haven't read much from the Ringer before. Is this typical?

The writing at the Ringer is excellent, and even more importantly, on topic. Writers there want to write about sports; they are not constantly on try-out for a position on the editorial desk at the New Yorker.

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