Shouldn’t a closer, you know, close?by Geoff Young
May 06, 2009
While perusing a recent article by my esteemed colleague Brandon Isleib, I noticed that he'd identified Rick Sutcliffe as a primary culprit in the 1980 Dodgers' failure to reach the playoffs. Sutcliffe was awful that year, but as a kid who lived and died with that team, the two names that stick in my mind are free agent signings Dave Goltz and Don Stanhouse.
I remember Goltz because he got shelled in the one-game playoff against Houston (should've started Fernando Valenzuela). As for Stanhouse, I mainly remember his nickname, "Stan the Man Unusual" because for a guy paid to save ballgames, he sure made things difficult.
Then I got to wondering, was Stanhouse really as bad as I'd remembered? Well, yeah. He went 2-2 with a 5.04 ERA (70 ERA+) and saved seven games. He also walked 16 and struck out only five in 25 innings.
What happened to Stanhouse that year? How come he went from being a respected closer to the most useless guy on a pitching staff?
As it turns out, he never was as good as people may have thought. Sure, he saved 45 games for the Baltimore Orioles in 1978 and 1979 with a 2.87 ERA, but his peripheral numbers were abominable. He issued 6.29 BB/9 during that stretch, against 4.64 K/9. (He also imploded in the '79 postseason, allowing 17 base runners and striking out zero batters in five innings.) Still, his ERA was shiny, so he got the big contract.
This is all well and good, and we could probably talk all day about Stanhouse, but the real point is that his performances in '78 and '79 got me to thinking about horrible closers. So I did what I always do: I started digging.
Let me warn you up front that I don't have a snappy formula that delivers a bold proclamation of anything. This is more of an appreciation than a competition. Pretend you're at an art gallery. You gawk and occasionally say "wow," but unless you're judging a contest, you don't need to figure out which one shines the brightest.
Balls and strikes, whatever
In honor of Stanhouse, I first looked for pitchers who saved 20 or more games in a season with a K/BB at or lower than 1.00. We're using 1966 to 2008 for this, since '66 is when the statistic was first officially adopted (sorry, no 1926 Firpo Marberry). Turns out there are 10 pitchers who have accomplished the feat. Two (Stanhouse and Greg Minton) did it twice. The full list:
The range of effectiveness of these pitchers is impressive. In 1974, Murphy walked 51 and struck out 47 for the Brewers, but otherwise he finished with outstanding numbers. Murphy never again approached that kind of success, but he managed to last 12 seasons in the big leagues.
At the other end of the spectrum, Williams and Chacon were horrendous in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Chacon had the "advantage" of calling Coors Field his home, although his road ERA was 6.19 that year, so he would have stunk anywhere.
The other names on the list are distinctive in their indistinctiveness. Scherman spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues and never did much outside of that '71 campaign. Farmer was a journeyman who enjoyed a couple of nice seasons surrounded by a slew of mediocre ones.
Minton was one of the better pitchers from this group. He performed well as San Francisco's closer from 1979 to 1983. He went 29-29 during that stretch, with 96 saves and a 2.51 ERA (141 ERA+). Then he scuffled for a few years before re-emerging in a supporting role for the Angels toward the end of the '80s.
Power had some nice seasons (1984, 1985, 1992) and others (1983, 1988, 1993) that were less nice. His career numbers resemble those of Murphy.
Grahe was sort of the Brandon Lyon of his day—decent but nothing special. You know about Hawkins—he had a brilliant stretch from 2002 to 2004 (20-7, 27 saves, 2.22 ERA, 202 ERA+), but he has been mediocre or worse for much of the rest of his career.
None of these guys was really awful, though. In short stretches, yes—Williams and Chacon in particular had brutal seasons—but at least they were serviceable big-league pitchers. That's not the standard you want to set for your closer, but it counts for something.
Runs, runs, everywhere
Next, I checked to see how many pitchers had saved 20 games in a season with an ERA+ of 100 or lower. Seventy-one: too many. Okay, how about an ERA+ of 90? That gives us 27, which is manageable but which doesn't quite get at the essence of putrid. We're looking for the dregs here. Let's try 80.
This is more like it. There are only nine such seasons on record. Three of them (Hawkins '01, Williams '03, Chacon '04) appear on our first list as well, which means they are pitchers that couldn't throw strikes or keep the opposition from scoring. Interestingly, the sub-80 ERA+ "closer" is a recent phenomenon, with the first instance occurring in 1997. Here's the complete list:
Gee, the Phillies sure have had some lousy closers this decade. Mesa's '03 season is a thing of beauty. The league hit .296/.379/.446 against him that year. Basically he turned everyone into Mark Grace.
Worrell was a terrific closer who battled through some tough mid-career injuries but then hung around a little too long. Brantley had several nice seasons in the '90s but was near the end of his line by the time he reached Philly; he was kind of the Jason Isringhausen of his day.
Brazoban was a one-hit wonder. He had a nice half-season as a rookie in '04, then struggled to replace the injured Eric Gagne in '05 and saw his career fizzle in large part due to injuries.
Ditto Turnbow. He had a dominant 2005, surrounded by a whole lot of nothing.
Wilson? The jury is still out on him.
Peak value is great, but what about the long haul? Who really stunk it up over the course of a career while still notching saves?
I looked for pitchers with 100 or more saves to their credit and an ERA+ of 100 or lower. There are three such men:
Giusti was a lousy starter for the Colt .45s/Astros and Cardinals before heading to Pittsburgh in a December 1969 trade. The Pirates moved him to the bullpen, where he thrived. Giusti saved 20 or more games in four straight seasons, going 30-15 with a 2.61 ERA and 137 ERA+ in the process. In other words, his overall numbers are brought down by his early career as a starting pitcher. In reality, Giusti is too good for us.
Williams we've discussed. And because he shows up on all three lists, if this were a competition, I'd be inclined to call him the worst closer ever. Still, even he had a somewhat respectable three-year run from 2000 to 2002 (11-14, 92 SV, 3.42 ERA, 132 ERA+).
Jimenez? He's kind of like Giusti, only with a much shorter career. Jimenez was terrible as a starter for the Cardinals in '99 (5-14, 5.85 ERA, 79 ERA+ despite a no-hitter), but had some nice seasons closing for Colorado. From 2000 to 2003, he went 15-23 with a 4.13 ERA and 125 ERA+, picking up 102 saves over that stretch. Not great, but not terrible.
Lowering the threshold to 80 saves gives us a few more names (Claude Raymond, Phil Regan, Tom Hume, Mark Davis, Ryan Dempster), but are these guys really career closers? Raymond saved more than 10 games in a season twice in his career. Regan broke 20 saves twice ('66 and '68), but he garnered MVP consideration both times. Hume closed for four years (1979-1982), during which time he went 30-29 with 72 saves, a 2.86 ERA and 129 ERA+; again, that's a little too good for our purposes. Davis broke double digits in saves twice and was named to the All-Star team both times; heck, he won a Cy Young Award. Dempster was bad (8-19, 85 SV, 4.12 ERA, 110 ERA+), but the Cubs ended that experiment after three seasons.
Most of the guys who are lousy get weeded out by natural selection. Chacon, Brazoban, and Turnbow all had potential but couldn't make it happen. Williams is the closest we have to a pitcher that managed to carve out a career for himself as a closer despite not being very good, and even he had stretches of effectiveness.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's easy to find horrible individual seasons from a closer but difficult to find horrible careers. I was hoping for worse. I wanted a relief version of Tony Cloninger, and I'm not sure one exists... yet.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference. Seriously, you have to ask?
Geoff Young covers the San Diego Padres at Ducksnorts and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. Feel free to send Geoff comments via email.
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