Recently, I wrote a couple of columns that looked at the best and worst relief seasons in history. They were interesting, but there was one annoying feature: a complete absence of any seasons from the last 25 years.
Modern ace relievers don’t pile up the innings of the aces of the 1970s and 1980s and so can’t provide as much value. And way back in the day, managers would let really bad relievers pick up an impressive number of innings in garbage time, so the moderns don’t do worse there, either.
So let’s correct the oversight of those columns by looking at the best and worst relief performances of recent times. The most recent guy to make either of the initial lists came in 1986 (Mark Eichhorn, who had the best season ever by a reliever then).
The system here is based on an old Pete Palmer stat, Adjusted Pitcher Runs (APR), which looks at the difference in runs allowed by a pitcher and what a league-average arm would surrender in the same number of innings. Oh, and it’s adjusted for park.
I take things one step further than the classic APR system, though. In order to adjust for league, I divide a pitcher’s APR by the league’s ERA. I call the result Adjusted Pitcher Games (APG).
Also, please note that we’re looking just at how a pitcher did in relief. If he had any starts, those numbers aren’t included. (Quick note: I haven’t been able to add in 2013 yet, as the season wasn’t over yet when I wrote this article).
Okay, based on that, what are the most extreme horrible and great seasons by a reliever from 1987 onward? Let’s start with the bad.
Worst reliever seasons: 1987-2012
Before getting to the bottom five, let’s look at those who just missed—No. 6-10 on the litany of the limp—ordered by ARG, from tenth to sixth place.
Rnk Year Team APR APG Pitcher 10 1997 WSN -18.81 -4.47 Omar Daal 9 1992 LAD -16.1 -4.59 Tim Crews 8 2005 TBR -20.03 -4.59 Travis Harper 7 2009 PHI -19.62 -4.67 Brad Lidge 6 1997 SEA -21.36 -4.67 Norm Charlton
Okay, now here are the absolute worst in recent times:
5. 1998 Mariners: Bobby Ayala. –21.99 ARR, -4.72 APG
This is interesting because it just barely beats out Norm Charlton from the 1997 Mariners. Man, those Seattle teams got far too many innings from relievers with far too little on the ball.
My goodness, what a terrible season. In 62 appearances, Ayala threw 75.1 innings, positing a 7.29 ERA. My favorite part is his win-loss record: 1-10. Yeah, win-loss records are overrated, but this tells us something about him.
It tells us he was used in plenty of games where the Mariners had somewhat close leads. Most terrible relievers are garbage-time arms, but Ayala saw some notable leverage situations, so his poor performance was especially damaging. In fact, Ayala had eight saves, so he spent part of the year as the closer.
Then again, manager Lou Piniella didn’t really have many other options in the bullpen. Ayala’s 7.29 ERA is just a tad worse than Paul Spoljaric’s 6.48 ERA, Bob Wells 5.10, or Heathcliff Slocumb’s 5.32. Ayala was just the worst arm in a terrible bunch.
4. 1992 Tigers: Les Lancaster. –19.01 APR, -4.81 APG
Hey, I remember this guy! I remember him having a fantastic year in the bullpen for the 1989 Cubs, posting a 1.36 ERA. He was never anywhere near that good again, but nothing in his past prepared anyone for his disastrous 1992 season.
That year, Lancaster came out of the bullpen 40 times, posting a 6.04 ERA. Normally that wouldn’t merit inclusion here, but somehow, some way, Sparky Anderson let Lancaster throw over two innings per appearance. I can only imagine how long he would’ve let Lancaster stay in if he was at all effective.
Lancaster actually had some nice long relief outings, too. He threw 6.2 scoreless innings on June 9 and allowed just an unearned run in five frames on June 25. But those were the aberrations. In 25 of his 40 relief outings, Lancaster was tagged for at least one earned run.
His peripherals are even worse, too. Lancaster fanned just 33 batters while walking 47 and allowing a homer every eight innings. It was a brutal season, and this is the worst score by an AL reliever from recent years.
3. 1995 Giants: Jose Bautista. –21.51 APR, -5.15 APG
It’s bad enough that Bautista had an ERA of 6.44 in 1995. But this study looks only at relief innings, and his 6.44 ERA includes a half-dozen starts. In relief, he posted a 6.96 ERA in 64.2 innings.
The big wow factor for Bautista is home runs. He allowed 16, one every four innings. Combine that with 68 other hits and 17 walks, and its’ amazing his ERA didn’t look even worse.
2. 1989 Pirates: Jeff Robinson. –18.04 APR, -5.15 APG
When you look at Robinson’s’ stats at Baseball-Reference.com, it doesn’t seem too bad at first. A 4.58 ERA? Yeah, that’s below average for 1989, but what’s that doing here?
Simple, that 4.58 ERA includes 19 starts. He was good in those starts, too, posting a 3.53 ERA. It’s the 31 remaining relief appearances that were the problem.
In them, Robinson posted a 7.32 ERA, which is impressively awful, especially for a guy working in a pitchers’ park, and the league ERA is 3.49. He let 74 men on base in fewer than 40 innings for a .392 on-base percentage. He also allowed an extra-base hit every other inning.
The Pirates got rid of Robinson by 1990 and improved from also-rans to division winners. Coincidence? Well, largely, but not entirely.
1. 2003 Padres/Braves: Jaret Wright. –23.04 APR, -5.37 APG
Here it is, the worst relief season by anyone in the last 30 years. What’s really amazing is that Wright was actually an above-average reliever in his brief spell with the Braves.
The Padres got sick of Wright’s sorry butt in late August and put him on waivers. In 11 outings in Atlanta, Wright was great, posting a 2.00 ERA. It just shows how dreadful he was for those first five months with the Padres.
And dreadful he was. Wright posted a mind-boggling ERA of 8.37 with San Diego, a team that played in one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball. In 47.1 innings, he allowed 59 hits and 28 walks. Oh, and he found the time to throw 10 wild pitches, too.
Among other things, Wright is one of the best arguments that former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone is a genius. Wright was terrible before coming to the Braves, but then he had a great month in the bullpen in 2003, followed by an effective stint as a start in 2004 (15-8 with a 3.28 ERA). After that, the Braves let him walk via free agency, and Wright posted a 6.08 ERA with the Yankees.
But he sure was terrible in those five months with the Padres.
Best reliever seasons: 1987-2012
Okay, now for the best. To kick off the list, here are the tenth- through sixth-best seasons from 1987 onward:
Rnk Year Team APR APG Pitcher 10 1999 CWS 30.47 6.26 Keith Foulke 9 1993 MON 25.78 6.37 John Wetteland 8 2003 LAD 27.54 6.42 Eric Gagne 7 2002 ATL 26.71 6.50 Chris Hammond 6 1992 MON 23.1 6.58 Mel Rojas
5. 1989 Royals: Jeff Montgomery. 25.62 APR, 6.59 APG
Montgomery had a nice career, with over 300 career saves and three All-Star Game selections, but he was never better than the year he became the Royals’ closer. In 92 innings, Montgomery posted a microscopically low ERA of 1.37. Actually, it’s even better if you throw out his slow start. Aside from April, his ERA was an incredible 1.11.
His peripherals are great but not earth-shattering. Montgomery struck out a batter per inning while letting a base runner on per inning. Yeah, those are both great marks, but you wouldn’t expect a 1.37 ERA from it. Regardless, he didn’t let people score on him (though it does help explain why he was nowhere near as good in any other seasons).
4. 1990 A’s: Dennis Eckersley: 26.68 APR, 6.81 APG
Of course. Of course, there has to be an Eckersley season in the mix. He was the archetypal closer, and that 1988-90 A’s bullpen just might be the best and most influential relief unit ever. They shut people down with plenty of one-inning performances.
As great as Eck was, he was never more impressive than in 1990. That year, he had a ludicrously low ERA of 0.61. Zero point six one. That’s barely half of Bob Gibson’s famous 1.12 ERA in 1968.
Now, there is a bit of a hitch. Nearly half of Eck’s runs allowed were unearned: four out of nine. On June 12, 1990, he retired two of the first three batters he faced, but the other guy got on via error. Eck then fell apart with two outs, allowing two walks (one intentional), a single, and two doubles, letting a quartet of unearned runs in.
Still, many of Eck’s other numbers look as gaudy as his ERA. In 73.1 innings, he allowed just 41 hits and best of all, just four walk. Mind you, one of those walks was intentional. So half of the walks Eck allowed all year came in that 1990 outing. Eckersley didn’t allow a run in the first 40 games of the year nor in the last 30. In between, he had a stretch of nearly eight weeks without allowing an earned run.
It’s as dominant a season as you can have. It ranks just fourth because of the innings pitched: just 73.1, the fewest by anyone in the top ten in recent years.
3. 2012 Rays: Fernando Rodney. 28.47 APR, 6.98 APG
Eck’s 73.1 innings are the fewest by any of the leaders, but Rodney nearly beats him out with 74.2 frames thrown.
In fact, Rodney’s 2012 is damn near a dead ringer for Eckersley’s 1990. Rodney had four more outs, and that led to an ERA 0.01 better, 0.60. As you might determine, Rodney had the same number of earned runs as Eck in his big season: five. The fun part is, they both had four unearned runs, as well.
Remember how Eck barely allowed 40 hits in his season? Rodney allowed 43 hits. Both struck out about a batter per inning, too. Each recorded 48 saves, though Rodney’s control wasn’t as absurdly good as Eck’s. Rodney walked 15 batters, light years more than Eck’s four.
Rodney scores a placement higher than Eck because his run environment was higher than Oakland’s ballpark circa 1990. Rodney doesn’t have the prestige of Eck’s big season, but this is the best relief season of the 21st century.
2. 1996 Yankees: Mariano Rivera. 35.06 APR, 7.01 APG
As with Eck, there has to be a Rivera season here as well, right? Unlike the others at the top of this list, Rivera’s ERA is actually north of 2.00. It’s 2.09, to be exact. Wait, Rivera had an ERA under 2.00 in 11 different seasons, so why is this one on the list?
Simple: innings. In 1996, Rivera threw over 100 innings (107.2). He never did that again, typically throwing 70-some frames a year. As great as he was with those smaller workloads, he never had a 0.60-ish ERA like Eckersley or Rodney.
The 1996 season was Rivera’s first in the bullpen, and he spent the season in middle relief. But he was so good, it’s easy to see why he became teh closer after that. He fanned 130 batters in his 107.2 innings, nearly 11 per nine frames. Meanwhile, he allowed just 73 hits, including all of one home run. Also, unlike all the other guys way up this list, Rivera didn’t allow a single unearned run.
It was a great season, the best in the last quarter century, but not quite the best since 1986.
1. 1987 Expos: Tim Burke. 29.70 APR. 7.26 APG
Wait, who? Okay, I remember having this guy’s baseball card, but not much else. He didn’t make a big impression upon the people of the day, either. He made just one All-Star squad, in 1989. Thus, he didn’t make the squad while having this remarkable season.
Burke was the Expos’ top relief ace, with 18 of the team’s 50 saves. It wasn’t like Burke was just given the job late in the season, either. He notched his seventh save on June 13, and then shortly after that had three straight outings in which he allowed a run. After that, Buck Rodgers gave Burke almost no save opportunities until the last five weeks of the season.
Rodgers didn’t bury Burke, though. He put Burke in games that were either tied or with the Expos barely trailing. As a result, Burke picked up five relief wins in two weeks in August, and then immediately after that graduated to the closer’s role.
On the year, Burke went 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA in 91 innings. That ERA in those innings put him atop all comers here. It helped that it happened in a high-offense year, too. Burke kept the ball in the park—allowing just three homers—and didn’t issue free passes (just 17 walks, six of which were intentional).
Neither his homers allowed or walks surrendered numbers are as impressive as the heights of Rivera or Eckersley, but they are outstanding. Burke wasn’t any kind of strikeout artist, with just 58 whiffs, but he did enough other things right.
Oh, and he threw his worst pitches at the best times. Aside from his 12 earned runs, he allowed six unearned runs. If you’d rather use earned runs per nine innings instead of ERA, Burke would finish behind Rivera.
But however you order them, these are the most extreme relief seasons in recent years.
References & Resources
Info comes from Baseball-Reference.com, most notably its Splits Finder in the Play Index.