Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 8, 2007
BASEBALL: The Best Lefthanded Reliever Ever
I suppose this is an especially inauspicious morning to be discussing this, since we could just as well be discussing whether Pat Burrell should be traded to Tampa, Texas or preferably Japan. But my son asked me the other day who the best lefthanded relief pitcher in baseball history was, I thought about it and realized that it may well be Billy Wagner.
When I looked more closely at the issue, the second thing that jumped out was that the Mets - and, other than the Mets, the Yankees - have had a disproportionate share of the best ones. Let's look over the list of serious or semi-serious candidates. I left off Lefty Grove, who was never used primarily as a reliever other than the 1929 World Series but who finished in the top 5 in the league in saves 6 times, including a league-leading 9 in 1930 while winning 28 games. I'm also leaving off a bunch of guys who are in the next tier, either because they never reached the heights or had only a moment of greatness or were never ace relievers - Mark Davis, Mitch Williams, Al Hrabosky, John Hiller, BJ Ryan, Eddie Guardado. That leaves the contenders. The key for the table - which is drawn from career totals:
"Y" is the number of seasons when each guy (1) was his team's #1 reliever and (2) had an ERA+ of 100 or better (i.e., an ERA equal to or better than the park-adjusted league average as measured by baseball-reference.com - for the uninitiated, the higher the ERA+ the better the pitcher was relative to the league); ERA+ is a career total, but the other numbers are based only on career totals as a reliever (Wagner, Franco and Lyle never started a game, and Perranoski started only one); walks per 9 innings are measured by excluding intentional walks, which are a major occupational hazard for relievers, especially situational middlemen; the last two columns are career innings and ERA as a reliever in the postseason (Righetti is the only guy here to start a postseason game, and pitched outsandingly as a starter in the 1981 postseason), in roughly what I think is the right order for the top 11 (stats are through last night's fiasco), though I suppose one could quibble about Plesac vs Hrabosky (not that I think a lot of bar fights will be started over that particular argument).
The two main arguments against Wagner as the best - and understanding that it's hard to compare a modern short-outing closer to a 70s-style relief ace like Lyle, McGraw or Perranoski - are that he hasn't thrown nearly enough innings and that his postseason record is ghastly, compared to a bunch of guys who were brilliant in October. But in terms of the quality of his pitching, Wagner has just been so far ahead of the others, and over an extended period of years in which he has been fantastically consistent, that you have to give him the nod.
As for picking Myers over Perranoski on this list, Myers was really dominant in his best years, and also gets a close call for his postseason exploits.
At any rate, Mets fans can look at that list with some pride: Tug, Jesse, Randall K, Franco and now Wagner. Quite a tradition (Stanton even pitched two years for the Mets, though my brain has largely blocked out the memory).