This annotated week in baseball history: Sept. 12-Sept. 18 1960

On September 17, 1960 John Franco was born. Franco recorded 424 saves in his career, a number which still stands as a record, one under fire this season. Richard looks back on his life and career.

It was, not without some justification, a big story this season when Trevor Hoffman recorded the 600th save of his career. Hoffman is the first man to reach the milestone, and will likely finish the season approximately 40 saves ahead of Mariano Rivera for most all-time. Whether Hoffman, in the midst of a dreadful season, will come back next year—and whether he will be closing if he does—remains to be seen.

When it comes to huge save totals, those two men, along with Lee Smith (who for many years held the all-time record), are the three most discussed. Yet late this season a notable save-related record is being chased, albeit almost totally under the radar. That record is the most saves all-time by a left-handed pitcher.

The current holder of that record is John Franco. In his career, Franco recorded 424 saves. At of this writing—before Tuesday’s games—Billy Wagner has 418. With fewer than 15 games left in the Braves’ season, it seems unlikely that Wagner—who needed 40 saves this year—will be taking the title away. Since Wagner has announced that this will be the final year of his career, he will likely end his career short by something in the neighborhood of five saves.

That being the case, it seems probable that Franco will continue to hold the record for the foreseeable future. After Wagner, the highest save total by an active lefty reliever is Brian Fuentes, who is under 200 at age 34. After Fuentes, the list is even less impressive. Names like Jeremy Affeldt and Scott Downs are in the top 10 and even Taylor Tankersley—who has pitched fewer than 120 career innings and well under 25 the past two years—is in the top 30.

(The overall list of lefties is not quite as dire; all-time after Franco and Wagner the top lefties in saves are Randy Myers, Dave Righetti and Sparky Lyle. It drops off thereafter though, with Mitch Williams and Fuentes occupying the sixth and seventh spots all-time.)

Despite his impressive save totals, Franco is something of a forgotten man when it comes to the discussion of great relievers. While obviously not the same quality of player, in some ways Franco seems reminiscent of Jeff Bagwell, a man whose greatest accomplishments always carried a but.

Franco did lead the league in saves twice but he never saved 40 games in a season. He had a 1.81 ERA in the postseason but had lost his closing role to the often erratic Armando Benitez by that time and recorded just one playoff save. Franco recorded probably his best season in 1988, pitching for the Reds but was traded for Randy Myers before the 1990 season. Myers, along with Rob Dibble would form the “Nasty Boys” bullpen that helped carried Cincinnati to the World Series that year, while Franco pitched for a Mets team that fell just a handful of games behind Pittsburgh in the NL East.

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John Franco, the most successful lefty closer in baseball history (Icon/SMI)

Despite that element of his career, Franco’s lifetime numbers are, almost certainly, better than you remember and compare favorably to other, better regarded contemporaries. Among those pitchers with 200 or more saves—and 25 or fewer games started—only Gene Garber, Lyle and Lee Smith pitched more innings than Franco. Meanwhile, Franco’s career 138 ERA+ is better than all those men.

In fact, among those pitchers with more than 1,000 IP who relieved in 80 percent of their appearances, Franco’s ERA+ is bettered only by Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dan Quisenberry and Hoffman. In that same group, Franco’s HR/9 ranks in the top 25 all-time, as does his K/9. The latter is also in the top 100 among pitchers all-time.

Part of Franco’s quality also comes from his durability. As late as 2000, at age 39, he was still a useful reliever, an impressive feat for a man for whom the same thing could be said in 1984. Franco would continue to pitch—albeit with severely limited effectiveness—to 2005. Over the course of that period, no man who relieved exclusively (or nearly so) threw more innings and only three recorded more strikeouts.

Even given the circumstances of Franco’s career—he played on some truly dreadful Mets teams—it is odd his story is not better known since in many ways he represented a typical “good story.” He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a sanitation worker and would honor his father throughout his career, wearing an orange Department of Sanitation t-shirt under his jersey.

Franco attended college at St. John’s, where he was a teammate of future Mets teammate Frank Viola. Playing his college games less than four miles as the crow files from the mound at Shea Stadium, Franco pitched two no-hitters as a freshman and helped take the then-Redmen to the College World Series in 1980.

Franco remains connected to St. John’s, and the school honored him in 2009 by having him throw out the first pitch at a Big East game between the Red Storm and Georgetown that was the first game ever played at CitiField.

Franco will be eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time on the 2011 ballot. For his part, Lee Smith has been on the ballot for eight years and has yet to top 50 percent of the voting, while other similar players to Franco have struggled to top 10 percent. It seems likely that Franco will be a “one-and-done” candidate, dropping off after this year.

Franco probably doesn’t merit Hall of Fame inclusion—though he would be a sure thing for the Hall of Very Good. But even without a plaque in Cooperstown, he will still have his title as the lefty with the most saves, and hold that title for many years to come. Many players have accomplished less.

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Comments

  1. Chris Waters said...

    Franco may have been a darn good pitcher, but he and Brett Butler showed themselves to be the absolute scum of the earth during the strike year, with their asinine comments. They both have no sympathy from me, and can both rot in whatever Hell their religions speak of. It is one thing to have your livlihood threatened and to respond to it, but these two were way sociopathic. I really hope that every person he encounters treats him likewise. He makes Barry Bonds seem like an angel.

  2. Joe Pilla said...

    I naturally cannot quantify this (altho I’d be VERY impressed if someone else can), but my lasting impression of John Franco as a Met was I’d never seen a pitcher give up so many fluke hits. Swinging bunts, bloops, chops, dinks, bad hops—these seem to constantly beset Franco. I don’t know if he was simply incompletely fooling hitters or had, or some vengeful Cincinnati witch had added some mojo to the trade, but, whatever the cause, Johnny always seemed to have a couple of guys on without solid contact against him. 1-2-3 ninths just weren’t his style, which makes his record even more impressive.

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