Baseball Crank
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).

PitcherYSVWG-RIP-RERA-RERA+HR/9BB/9K/9P-IPP-ERA
Billy Wagner1033737679729.02.361820.852.7911.9510.18.71
John Franco124249011191245.22.891370.593.017.0414.11.88
Sparky Lyle10238998991390.12.881270.542.595.6521.11.69
Randy Myers834742716814.13.171220.713.439.1630.22.35
Ron Perranoski7178797361170.22.781230.372.665.2714.27.98
Jesse Orosco41448712481277.03.121250.793.408.2421.24.15
Tug McGraw8180897851301.12.861160.512.576.7452.12.24
Dave Righetti825246629827.13.381140.673.367.163.03.00
Willie Hernandez314770734994.13.211180.822.236.8513.21.32
Mike Stanton0846811371073.23.851140.742.797.2855.22.10
Dan Plesac41586210501003.03.551170.882.858.880.154.00

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).

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:28 AM | Baseball 2007 | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

If you are looking for one man to pitch the bottom of the ninth in game seven it is hard to argue with Wagner, but I would feel comfortable with any of the top eight. They were all dominate for an extended period of time. Hernandez, Stanton, Plesac and Hrabosky were all good too, but not for teh extended periods of time that the others enjoyed.

I grew up watching Hrabosky and remember a series against the Braves where he struck our Darrell Evans three straight nights in the ninth for a series sweep. I don't ever remember that happening before or since.

Posted by: maddirishman at June 8, 2007 12:24 PM

Lyle pitched far more innings per appearance than Wagner. That has to amount to something . . . not to mention the post-season record.

Posted by: Mike at June 8, 2007 10:49 PM

No way I can't be biased here. Tug. Because I DID believe.

Posted by: Daryl Rosenblatt at June 8, 2007 11:23 PM

You should take another look at John Hiller. He had a couple of truly outstanding years in the early 70s.

Posted by: Devin McCullen at June 9, 2007 5:10 PM

No offense, but Tug considered himself a Phillie first.

Posted by: That Dude at June 10, 2007 12:37 AM

Wagner certainly has the best stuff of the guys on the list (even better than Myers), and blows away the side with the greatest frequency. OTOH, I think Lyle, McGraw, and Franco were all better at getting out of trouble.

Posted by: Jerry at June 10, 2007 10:43 AM

Why do articles like this always show up after I've traded the pitcher in my Dynasty Baseball league?

Posted by: Peter at June 10, 2007 1:01 PM

The only problem with this list: with the possible exception of Myers, name the one guy on that list you wouldn't take over Wags in a big spot.

Posted by: Thom at June 16, 2007 6:49 AM

Actually, Myers is the only Mets closer I ever completely trusted. He was less reliable later in his career, but he was a fine postseason pitcher.

Posted by: Crank at June 16, 2007 12:06 PM
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