Relievers. Apparently, they matter to the modern baseball world.
Yeah, I know that’s hardly an original observation, but I’m stuck for a jumping-off point in this column. So let’s just dive into it. If relievers matters (and yeah, they kinda do), who are the relievers that mattered most?
There are various ways to figure this out—saves for the traditionalists, Wins Above Replacement for some of the sabermetrically-inclined, to name two examples. I’ve been fiddling around with something different. Saves are wildly overrated. With WAR, well, what if you have a person that started any games? While most great relievers work full-time out of the bullpen, they can be called on as spot starters or swingmen.
I want to look just at how they did in relief. Fortunately, Baseball-Reference’s Play Index makes this a lot easier. It got even better this year by adding a Splits Finder, so I have season relief stats for every pitcher since 1916.
So how should we determine who are the best relievers? What makes a great relief season? There are two key components: quantity and quality. Innings pitched can give you quantity, and ERA can give you quality, but how do you combine these things?
Here is my simple, if unoriginal, solution. Take the number of earned runs a pitcher allowed in his actual innings pitched and compare that to how many runs a pitcher with a league-average ERA would allow. Take the difference, adjust for park and league, and there are your answers. These are the best relief seasons ever.
If you’ve ever heard of the old Adjusted Pitcher Runs stat by Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette, that’s basically what we’re doing. (Note: it’s conceptually the same, but I reinvented the wheel on this one, so my formula and results won’t necessarily be the exact same. It’s the same process, though.)
Let’s walk through one season as an example. In 1950, 33-year-old Jim Konstanty really put relievers on the map when his MVP season helped earn the Phillies an unexpected pennant. In 152 innings pitched—all in relief—he allowed 45 runs. The 1950 NL ERA was 4.14, so a perfectly average pitcher would give up 69.92 runs, not 45.
Well, if we’re talking league average, we need to adjust Konstanty’s runs allowed for park. The Phillies played in a slight pitcher’s park, with a park factor of 97 that deflated Konstanty’s earned runs allowed by a tad. Adjust for that, and Konstanty would’ve allowed 46.39 runs in a perfectly neutral environment in his relief work that season.
In other words, the difference between Konstanty and a league-average pitcher in that same amount of time is 23.53 runs (69.92 minus 46.39). That was the edge Konstanty gave his team. That’s Adjusted Pitcher Runs (APR).
That’s great, if we’re just going to look at the 1950 NL. But what if you want to compare it to the 1968 AL, which had a league-wide ERA of 2.98, or the 1996 AL with an ERA of 4.99? Konstanty’s mark of 23.53 runs is dependent on the context of a 4.14 league average ERA, so we need to balance the playing field here.
Okay, there’s a simple way of doing that: divided his score by the league ERA. Take 23.53 and divide it by 4.14 and you get 5.68. Konstanty saved his teams 5.68 games worth of runs in his relief work. That ain’t bad; not bad at all. Let’s call that Adjusted Pitcher Games (APG), because we’re adjusting the pitcher’s runs by the league game average. (Also, there’s already a Adjusted Pitcher Wins stat with results that look nothing like these, so I can’t use that.)
As nice as Konstanty’s season was, it doesn’t make the top 10 relief seasons ever. These guys make the club.
10. Lindy McDaniel, 1960 Cardinals: 29.83 APR, 7.93 APG
This is the oldest season on the list. (Prior to McDaniel, the best-ever relief season was Old Folks Ellis Kinder with the 1951 Red Sox.)
One nice thing is that McDaniel also justifies my decision to look at splits, because he did make a pair of spot starts on the year—and he was terrible in them. In 12 innings in two starts, McDaniel allowed 12 runs, all earned. Despite that, he still had an overall ERA barely over 2.00.
McDaniel was just that good in his relief outings. In 63 relief appearances, McDaniel threw 104.1 innings, and posted a miniscule 1.29 ERA. To this day, it’s the second-best ERA ever by someone with over 100 innings pitched in relief. (Ted Abernathy nudged past him with a 1.27 ERA in 106.1 frames out of the Reds bullpen in 1967. But ERAs overall were lower in 1967, so it isn’t as impressive as McDaniel’s season.)
In a league that averaged 5.5 strikeuts per nine innings, McDaniel fanned 95 in his 104.1 innings out of the bullpen. He saved 26 games, setting a new NL record.
This remained the best season by any reliever until the 1970s. The closest anyone came to matching him was, in fact, Abernathy with the 1967 Reds, at 7.82 APG. McDaniel’s big 1960 is still the third-best performance by an NL reliever.
9. Willie Hernandez, 1984 Tigers: 31.79 APR. 7.94 APG
In 1984, the twice-traded journeyman reliever won the Cy Young Award and MVP with his big season from the bullpen. If you want to know how much the relief ace’s job has changed over the last 30 years, Hernandez’s terrific campaign is a good place to start.
In 80 outings, Hernandez had just 32 saves. It wasn’t like the Tigers lacked for save opportunities, either. His teammates recorded another 19 without him. That’s in part because manager Sparky Anderson didn’t always call on Hernandez for the cheap saves.
It’s also because Hernandez wasn’t always available. An advantage of a one-inning closer is that he’s almost always able to be called on. But Hernandez wasn’t a one-inning closer. He threw 140.1 innings, all out of the bullpen. On 38 occasions, he threw at least two innings, including 15 times with at least three innings and a pair of four-inning outings.
Hernandez nearly became the first fireman to go the entire season without a blown save, but he had his one in his final save opportunity of the season.
8. Dan Quisenberry, 1983 Royals: 33.01 APR. 8.08 APG.
Hernandez had a great season, but Quisenberry had a great run. From 1980 to 1986, he was the best reliever in baseball. From 1980-86, hie is pegged at 141.51 APR and 34.94 APG. He was sensational, with an ERA well under 3.00 while throwing 130 innings a year. Speaking as someone who started following baseball at that time, the image that Bruce Sutter has for the BBWAA is the image Quisenberry has in my mind. He was the ultimate relief ace.
And he was never better than in 1983. Instead of the typical ERA in the mid-2.00s, Quisenberry went down to 1.93. He threw a career-best 139 innings in 69 outings. Oh, and he saved 45 games, shattering the decade-old record of 38. (Soon, Quisenberry’s 45 saves would become tyipcal, as the one-inning closer loomed on the horizon.)
7. Doug Corbett, 1980 Twins: 33.42 APR. 8.27 APG.
You know what? I’m barely aware of this guy. I vaguely recall having his baseball card as a kid, and that’s about it.
But he had a wonderful 1980 season as a 27-year-old rookie. He’d actually been a quality minor league reliever for years for the Reds, but clearly they weren’t that high on him. Luckily for him, the Twins nabbed him in the Dec., 1979 Rule 5 draft, and manager Gene Mauch gave Corbett a key role in the bullpen.
Finally given an opportunity on the big stage, Corbett thrived. Despite working in one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball, Corbett posted a 1.98 ERA in 136.1 innings.
He never quite recaptured the old magic afterward. Corbett was still a high-quality reliever in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, but then he blew his arm out. He rallied for a great season with the 1984 Angels but that was it.
6. Rich Gossage, 1975 White Sox: 32.45 APR. 8.56 APG.
This was Goose Gossage’s coming out party. He’d been in-and-out of the majors since 1972 but hadn’t really impressed anyone. He sometimes pitched out of the bullpen and served as the occasional spot starter (he had been primarily a starting pitcher in the minors), but this year was a sensation.
Gossage pitched 141.2 innings, all out of the bullpen. (Anyone notice a theme in how almost everyone on this list is throwing over 100 innings, usually well over 100? Well, that’s the reason there is no one too recent on this list.) He led the league with 26 saves, fanned 130 batters and posted a 1.84 ERA. Gossage established himself as the best reliever in the game in 1975.
5. Rich Gossage, 1977 Pirates: 34.94 APR. 8.94 APG.
And in 1977, Gossage re-established himself as the best reliever in the game and became the only man to make this list twice.
Between his standout 1975 and 1977 seasons, something disastrous happened to Gossage: he got a new manager. After his big 1975 campaign with Chicago, the White Sox hired the once-brilliant but by then well-past-his-prime Paul Richards to manage. Richards saw a lively arm with a great fastball and decided he should be a starting pitcher. Gossage went 9-17 with a 3.94 ERA.
Then the White Sox did the best possible thing they could do for Gossage: they traded him to the Pirates. There, Gossage reunited with manager Chuck Tanner, who had helmed the 1975 White Sox. Thus, the same man who transformed the minor league starter into an ace closer helped change Gossage back into baseball’s most dangerous bullpen arm.
Gossage didn’t throw as much in 1977 as he had in 1975—“only” 133 innings—but he was even more effective, with an amazingly low ERA of 1.62. That year’s NL ERA leader was fellow Pittsburgh pitcher John Candelaria at 2.34. If Gossage pitched the remaining 29 innings to qualify for the league ERA title, he could’ve allowed 19 earned runs and still topped Candelaria.
Gossage then went to New York as a free agent. After one more big season, his workload dropped dramatically, but he remained a great reliever for another decade.
4. Bruce Sutter, 1977 Cubs: 36.23 APR. 9.27 APG.
After a bunch of seasons with relievers throwing 130-140 innings, here is something very different: a fireman who barely made it into three digits, with 107.1 innings pitched. You can just imagine how good Sutter must’ve been in 1977 to spot a peak-era Gossage 30 innings and still score higher.
Yeah, Sutter was that good in 1977. His ERA: 1.34. Mind you, he did that while pitching in an absurdly strong hitter’s park, with a park factor of 112. That’s like having a 1.20 ERA in a normal ballpark. And it wasn’t a fluky great ERA, either. His peripherals reflect it.
While pitching in windblown Wrigley Field, Sutter allowed just five homers all year while fanning 129 batters. That gave Sutter 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, exactly double the league’s 5.4 K/9 average. Cubs teammate Ray Burris, who started 39 games on the year, had fewer whiffs that the 107-inning relief ace.
As scary as that sounds, Sutter was even more impressive for much of the year. On July 3, he had an ERA of 0.77 with 84 strikeouts in 70.1 frames. Even after (by his standards) an off July, his ERA was still 1.06 on August 1. Then the Cubs had to shut him down with an arm problem. Sutter came back and was still really good, but not inhumanly amazing anymore. If he could’ve kept up the pace, he would’ve had the greatest relief season ever, though.
Instead, when the same thing happened to him in 1978, manager Herman Franks announced the club was going to use him more selectively, just letting him save games. The journey from fireman to closer was underway.
Also, as any good Cubs fan knows, Sutter’s shutdown in 1977 was the beginning of the end for that club. The 1977 squad was in first place at 61-41, but Chicago dropped two-thirds of its remaining games to end up 81-81. Even by Cubs standards, that’s a powerful collapse.
Random comment: the two best relief seasons in NL history happened in the same year, Gossage and Sutter both in 1977.
3. Jim Kern, 1979 Rangers: 40.87 APR. 9.66 APG.
Kern was a flaky ace reliever for several years, but he never had a season anything like this one. It’s one of only two relief seasons ever with over 40 APR.
Aside from 1979, Kern never threw more than 105.2 innings relief in any season. In 1979, he threw 143 innings out of the bullpen. Kern had just two other seasons with an ERA under 3.00 (well, three if you include his season of 0.2 innings pitched, but let’s ignore that). The lowest of those ERAs was 2.37. But in 1979, Kern posted a 1.57 ERA.
It was an amazing season, but frankly, he was overused. The next year, Kern was terrible, and while he recovered for two solid seasons afterward, 1979 would always be Kern’s wonder year.
2. John Hiller, 1973 Tigers: 36.92 APR. 9.67 APG.
When Quisenberry set the new single-season saves record in 1983, it was Hiller’s record he broke. Hiller threw “only” 125.1 innings out of the bullpen for the 1973 Tigers, but he overcame those relievers with more quantity based on the sheer quality of his performance.
Hiller posted a 1.44 ERA while pitching in Tiger Stadium, which was a hitters’ park. Manager Billy Martin leaned on Hiller as much as he could, so he led the league in games, games finished, and—of course—saves. This was the season that finally surpassed McDaniel’s 1960 campaign as the best year ever by a reliever.
It was also completed a great comeback for Hiller. In 1971, he suffered a heart attack before the season and had to miss the entire year. He’d performed ably in 1972, but 1973 was his dream season.
Hiller had an impressive 1974, too. He pitched 150 innings in relief and pulled off an amazing pair of achievements. He set two AL records that still stand to this day: most relief wins in a season (17) and most relief losses in a season (14). Stop and think for a second that both of those AL records were set by the same man in one year.
1. Mark Eichhorn, 1986 Blue Jays: 43.39 APR. 10.36 APG
Ultimately, there can be only one. And it’s Mark Eichhorn. His 1.72 ERA isn’t as impressive as many of the others here, but he damn near qualified for the ERA title with 157 innings thrown. Thus, he’s the only reliever to score north of 10 APG in a season.
Like Quisenberry, Eichhorn was a sidearmer. Like Corbett, he was a rookie. This rookie pitcher served under a rookie manager, Jimy Williams, who would spend his entire career getting great performances from his relievers.
And Williams pushed Eichhorn as much as possible. In 69 outings, Eichhorn threw at least two innings 41 times. In fact, 26 of those appearances were at least three innings long. He peaked with a six-inning outing on July 8 and had five other appearances of four innings or more.
All year long, batters looked like fools trying to figure out his delivery. He fanned 166 batters in relief, the second highest total ever behind Dick Radatz’s 183 in 1964. No one could get a hit off of him, with just 105 base knocks all year. Just eight were homers, barely one ever 20 innings. Eichhorn also issued only 31 unintentional walks on the season.
After that, Eichhorn never was nearly as good. He was still very solid in 1987, but then he had a dry spell before recovering. Eichhorn never threw anywhere near 157 innings in a year again. In fact, no one has. The most any reliever has thrown since Eichhorn’s 1986 is 127.2 innings, which were by Eichhorn in 1987.
This is why no recent pitchers make the list. It’s been over 20 years since any reliever has thrown 115 frames in a season, and most of these guys are north of 130 innings.
But they are the best relief seasons ever. Of course, that makes one wonder what the worst relief seasons ever are. I’ll cover that the next chance I get.
References & Resources
Info and stats come from Baseball-Reference.com.