In yesterday’s Pinstriped Bible, I used BP’s list of wins added by relievers (WXRL) as a way of demonstrating the uniqueness of Mariano Rivera‘s career, this on the occasion of his 500th save. I picked an arbitrary cutoff, the top 200 seasons as ranked by that statistic, and counted how many times each pitcher appeared on the list, dropping those that only made it to the top 200 once or twice. Seventy-eight pitchers made the list just once, and another 24 got there twice. The list of the remaining 74:
3 Bruce Sutter 3 Eric Gagne 3 John Smoltz 3 Keith Foulke 3 Lee Smith 3 Lindy McDaniel 3 Randy Myers 3 Rollie Fingers 3 Stu Miller 4 Billy Wagner 4 Dan Quisenberry 4 Francisco Rodriguez 4 Joe Nathan 4 Trevor Hoffman 4 Troy Percival 4 Tug McGraw 5 Armando Benitez 5 Goose Gossage 9 Mariano Rivera
As you can see, Rivera appears almost twice as often as any other pitcher. In doing this bit of sorting, I became intrigued by some of the other seasons on the list. It’s no surprise to see Gossage, Fingers, and Quisenberry on a list like this, but there are several others whose work doesn’t see much chatter despite being of a kind and quality that is not often seen. Below, a quartet of the unremarked great relief seasons, if not always by great relievers.
John Hiller (1973: 9.6 WXRL, the best mark in MLB history)
According to WXRL, in 1973 Hiller had the greatest relief season of the last 55 years, which probably means it was also the greatest relief season of all time. No one ever talks about this season as the amazing thing it was. It was not only a great season, but also a spectacularly unlikely one, but not because Hiller wasn’t a good pitcher-he was. Through 1972, his career ERA in 179 games was 2.89, good even for the period in which he compiled it, 1965 to 1972. Rather, his season was so unlikely because he had missed all of 1971 and almost half of 1972 recovering from the massive heart attack he suffered in January of ’71. The Canadian was 27 at the time. That Hiller lived was a miracle; that he came back was extraordinary; that he had the season he did was, well, you can pick your own superlative. Thanks to manager Billy Martin, perhaps the only manager in history unlikely to coddle a pitcher after heart surgery, Hiller appeared in a league-leading 65 games. He was fine with the workload. “I rested long enough when I had the heart attack,” he said. He won 10 of them and saved another 38-the latter a major league record-and his ERA was 1.44. Using his good fastball to set up his changeup, he struck out 124 batters in 125
The next season, under manager Ralph Houk, Hiller went 17-14 in 150 innings, saving only 13 games (Houk was never very good at using his best relievers with an eye towards the saves rule, which was a mixed blessing). Many of the pitchers on the WXRL leader list are like Hiller, 1970s and ’80s relievers who thought nothing of working more than 100 innings in a season. In the decade of the 1960s there were 84 relief campaigns in which pen men threw over 100 IP, led by Eddie Fisher‘s 165
One-hundred-inning relief seasons have all but become extinct in our current century. Only six relievers have done the deed in the Aughties, with the great Steve Sparks leading the pack at 107 innings in 2003. The last pitcher to break the C-barrier was Joe Torre darling Scott Proctor in 2006. Unsurprisingly, the reliever most likely to dethrone Proctor’s place as the last C-achiever is current Torre pitcher Ramon Troncoso; the right-hander has pitched 50 innings through the Dodgers‘ 77th game. The lack of 100-inning seasons by top relievers prevents most of today’s relievers from touching the upper reaches of the list. Of the top ten WXRL seasons, five are by 100-inning pitchers, and 67 of the top 200 relief seasons were entered by such pitchers.
Despite recording another three seasons of over 100 innings, 1973 marks Hiller’s only appearance in the top 200. He was still quite good; in his first seven post-coronary seasons he pitched in 336 games (including 12 starts-Houk again) with an ERA of 2.42. At that point he reached his 36th birthday and pitched with declining effectiveness until the Tigers cut him loose in May of 1980.
Stu Miller (1965: 8.9 WXRL, 4th-best mark in MLB history; also 105th in 1963, 128th in 1961)
Call him Doug Jones 1.0. A little guy by the standards of pitchers-a teammate once described him as, “a skinny, anemic-looking feller who seems to need a blood transfusion”-Miller was famous for having a deceptive delivery that involved a head-fake and a stellar changeup which he tried to spot low and away. A swingman with the Cardinals and Giants through his 32nd birthday (going 14-26, 3.81 ERA), Miller led the National League of 1958 in ERA (2.47) while starting in 20 games (posting a 3.01 ERA in 137
When Miller’s ERA jumped from 2.66 to 4.12 in 1962, the Giants traded him to Baltimore, this after the Cardinals and the Phillies had previously given up on him. Thus the fourth-best relief season of all time, bolstered by a streak of 31 consecutive scoreless innings, took place on the Chesapeake.
Miller’s career had any number of strange notes in it. In the minors he was once ejected in the seventh inning of a no-hit game. He was the pitcher blown off the mound in the 1961 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park, he gave up Mickey Mantle‘s 500th home run, and he headed up the bullpen for the champion 1966 Orioles, but didn’t pitch in the World Series as manager Hank Bauer used just four pitchers in his club’s four-game sweep of the Dodgers.
Aurelio Lopez (1979: 7.9 WXRL, 13th-best in MLB history)
A rotund Mexican, “Señor Smoke” began pitching in the Mexican League at 18; the majors called him seven years later. His first stint (with the Royals) didn’t work out, so he headed back to the Mexico City Reds. In 1977, the 29-year-old Lopez threw 157 innings in 73 games, posting a 2.01 ERA and striking out 165. He won 19 games and saved 30 more, and major league scouts figured he might be worth another look. This time the Cardinals bit, but Lopez failed to excite them in 59 games split between Springfield and the majors, and that winter they dealt him with outfielder Jerry Morales to the Tigers in exchange for pitchers Bob Sykes and Jack Murphy. The trade worked out for everyone, sort of-Murphy never made it out of the minors, but the Cards later suckered the Yankees into giving up Willie McGee for Sykes. On the Detroit side, Morales was a disaster (.211/.260/.364 in everyday play, a -19.5 VORP ), but Lopez proved to be a keeper. He stayed with the Tigers for seven seasons, doing a little bit of everything; closing, setting up, and even starting four games. He pitched over 100 innings out of the pen four times, and was in double-figures for wins three times, most famously in 1984, when he set up and occasionally closed behind AL Cy Young and MVP winner Willie Hernandez. With his durability, Lopez allowed Sparky Anderson to make his “Captain Hook” tendencies into an asset. Four-inning appearances were not unusual. Arms like Lopez’s still exist, but teams are no longer looking for them, or are afraid of using them that way.
Ken Tatum (1969: 5.8 WXRL, 96th-best in MLB histor)
Drafted in the second round out of Mississippi State University in 1966, Tatum made it to the majors in 1969, becoming the Angels‘ closer in his rookie season, taking over the closer’s role from 46-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm. He had come out of the bullpen in all of 15 minor league games, having started until just before he was called up. Tatum had an ERA of 1.36 and provided some needed uplift to a miserable team that overachieved in going 71-91. Normally, ERA is not a good indicator for a reliever, but in this case it’s a useful guidepost for what happened next. He started his sophomore season, and as of May 31, 1970, he had allowed just three runs in 27 innings. That day he pitched four innings of relief against the Orioles for the save. With one out in the third of those four innings, Tatum got wild. He hit Boog Powell, which was no big deal, but then he hit the next batter, Paul Blair, as well. The problem was that Blair was hit in the ear.
In his book The Umpire Strikes Back, Ron Luciano, who was working the plate that night, described the incident. “Blair was wearing a metal helmet without an earflap, and the ball hit him solidly just below the helmet. It made a ‘splat’ sound, like someone slapping jello. It was the worst sound I’ve ever heard. He went down hard. Blood started trickling out of his nose and mouth and ears into the dirt. I thought he was dead.”
It has often been said that Blair was never the same hitter after that. It is also true that Tatum was never the same pitcher. He began to worry about coming inside, and his control vanished. His ERA for the rest of the season was close to 4.00. The next year it was four. By that time he was with the Red Sox, the Angels having included him in a trade for Tony Conigliaro, who was having his own “never the same player” issues after having been hit in the eye by Jack Hamilton in 1967. The trade failed to help Tatum, and he was done as a regular by 1971, and out of the majors altogether after 1974.
Let us part with a question, based on the top 200: is it possible that we must reassess the career of the much-derided Armando Benitez? He appears on this list five times, with the 80th-, 91st-, 92nd-, 107th-, and 126th-best relief seasons of all time. These represent his 1999-2004 period with the exception of 2003, when the Mets became so frustrated with him that they not only pulled him from the closer’s role, but they then dumped him on the Yankees for three non-prospects, who subsequently dumped him on the Mariners for the ghost of Jeff Nelson. The next year, Benitez led the National League in saves. Home run-prone for a closer, Benitez never seemed the ideal closer, but during this period he was better than he was given credit for being at the time.