MLBs 10 Best Relief Pitchers of the 2000s: Papelbon, Rivera, Wagner?

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MLBs 10 Best Relief Pitchers of the 2000s: Papelbon, Rivera, Wagner?
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Now that the decade of the 2000s has just ended, I thought it would be a good time to make a list of the best relief pitchers from this decade.

Now keep in mind, this list is a list of the best careers, so far. It is not a list of the best right now. This needs to be kept in mind while reading this list; I’m talking about the best careers, not the best 2009 seasons.

Some argue that the position of relief pitcher is an unimportant position. I disagree.

Here’s a mathematical argument against that. The average relief pitcher should make it to the playoffs 27 percent of the time. That’s not arguable, it’s a simple matter of factual mathematics.

However, of the top 10 on this list, the average relief pitcher has appeared in the playoffs 42 percent of the time. That’s 15 percentage points better than the law of mathematics.

Some may say it’s a coincidence. I argue otherwise.

In fact, the top five on this list have made it to the playoffs 55 percent of the time. Again, 27 percent is what is mathematically expected.

So the top 5 on this list are 28 percentage points higher than expected, over twice as many playoff appearances than the average relief pitcher.

The top three on this list have appeared in the playoffs 71% of the time, forty four percentage points higher than mathematically expected for the average relief pitcher and approaching three times the likelihood of making the playoffs compared to the law of mathematical averages.

So, the average relief pitcher should appear in the playoffs 27% of the time; but the top 10 on this list appear in the playoffs 42% of the time; the top five on this list appear in the playoffs 55% of the time; and the top 3 on this list appear in the playoffs 71% of the time.

There are obviously other variables that factor into a team making the playoffs, but it’s an obvious and easy argument to say that the better the relief pitcher, the better chance a team has to make the playoffs.

OK, enough of mathematics.  

Relief pitchers used to be starting pitchers that couldn’t cut it, more or less. Relief pitching really didn’t start until the 1910s, so there were no relief pitchers during the first 40 seasons of Major League Baseball.

Now days, relief pitchers are not starting pitchers that couldn’t cut it. It’s not the case today. Guys like Mariano Rivera can pitch as well as any starting pitcher, he just happens to be a relief pitcher.

It was generally like that during the early days of relief pitching, they were starting pitchers that couldn’t cut it. Though, there were truly great relief pitchers in the early days to break that rule also.

But it wasn’t broken as often back then and the general rule was followed: the good pitchers were starters and the duds were relievers.

Before the 1910s, in the early days of relief pitching and on the rare occasions that a relief pitcher was needed, the starting pitcher with the day off would pitch in relief.

This was basically how it was until the 1910s. Even in the 1910s, relief pitchers were rare and each decade since has seen more and more relief pitchers.

That’s a brief, quick condensed history of relief pitching.    

Now, a minimum of 250 games is required to be considered for this list. There are easily a good half dozen that have not yet reached 250 games that appear to be on their way to great careers. Having not yet reached 250 games, they will not be considered for this list.

There were 182 relief pitchers from the 2000s that reached at least 250 games. That is more than any other decade.

Some are still pitching, some aren't.

If a player does not appear on this list of 182, then they either haven't reached 250 games or I consider them a relief pitcher from the 1990s. The 1990s will be covered in a separate article.

Relief pitchers will only be in one decade. For example, Mariano Rivera will appear in my 2000s article. So, he will not appear in my 1990s article, which I will write later.

 

An Explanation of the Stats

The statistics that I include will be Games Pitched, Games Started, Innings Pitched, ERA, ERA+, WHIP (OOB%), H/9 (OBA), SV, SV/50 (per 50 Games Relieved) and K/BB (ratio). I will also letter grade their length of career. Most of these letter grades for length of career are so far, since most are still Pitching.

First , I will include their raw career numbers first. These are simply their career numbers, to this point.

Second , I will include their adjusted career numbers, if they have had a long career (which most have). Adjusted career is this: Let's take Trevor Hoffman, for example. Hoffman has had a long career. So in order to find his real numbers, I have to exclude some late seasons during his career to find the numbers that he really carried during his career.

With Hoffman, I'd exclude his 2001, 2005 and 2008 seasons. That is his adjusted career. Again, this can only be done with long career players. If I don't list an adjusted career under a player's raw career numbers, then it means they haven't played long enough to adjust for their long career or it means they haven't had any bad seasons late in their career.

Third , I will include peak career numbers. Many like short peaks, not me. I include the best seasons equaling at least 250 games for a peak. It takes away the possibility of a pitcher having one or two lucky seasons. The 250-game peak will tell us how good the pitcher was at his best.   

 

The 182 Relief Pitchers

Here are the 182 Relief Pitchers from the 2000s that reached at least 250 games (listed in alphabetical order):  Terry Adams, Jeremy Affeldt, Antonio Alfonseca, Armando Almanza, Matt Anderson, Luis Ayala, Danys Baez, Miguel Batista, Joe Beimel, Heath Bell, Armando Benitez, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Betancourt, Brian Boeringer, Joe Borowski, Ricky Bottalico, Chad Bradford, Doug Brocail, Jim Brower, Jonathan Broxton, Tim Byrdak, Kiko Calero, Shawn Camp, Matt Capps, Giovanni Carrara, Hector Carrasco, Shawn Chacon, Bruce Chen, Randy Choate, Jason Christiansen, Vinnie Chulk, Todd Coffey, Jesus Colome, Chad Cordero, Francisco Cordero, Neal Cotts, Jesse Crain, Doug Creek, Juan Cruz, Vic Darensbourg, Mike DeJean, Elmer Dessens, Brendan Donnelly, Octavio Dotel, Scott Downs, Joey Eischen, Alan Embree, Kelvim Escobar, Scott Eyre, Kyle Farnsworth, Pedro Feliciano, Randy Flores, Keith Foulke, Ryan Franklin, Jason Frasor, Brian Fuentes, Aaron Fultz, Eric Gagne, Geoff Geary, Gary Glover, Wayne Gomes, Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gordon, John Grabow, Danny Graves, Kevin Gregg, Eddie Guardado, Matt Guerrier, John Halama, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, LaTroy Hawkins, Aaron Heilman, Felix Heredia, Matt Herges, Trevor Hoffman, Mike Holtz, Bob Howry, Byung Hyun Kim, Jason Isringhausen, Bobby Jenks, Jose Jimenez, Todd Jones, Jorge Julio, Steve Karsay, Ray King, Steve Kline, Billy Koch, Dan Kolb, Al Levine, Brad Lidge, Kerry Ligtenberg, Scott Linebrink, Braden Looper, Javier Lopez, Brandon Lyon, Mike MacDougal, Ryan Madson, Ron Mahay, Matt Mantei, Damaso Marte, Tom Martin, Brian Meadows, Jim Mecir, Ramiro Mendoza, Cla Meredith, Dan Miceli, Trever Miller, Guillermo Mota, Mike Myers, Joe Nathan, C.J. Nitkowski, Vladimir Nunez, Will Ohman, Darren Oliver, Antonio Osuna, Jose Paniagua, Jonathan Papelbon, Danny Patterson, Troy Percival, Cliff Politte, Jay Powell, Scott Proctor, J.J. Putz, Chad Qualls, Jon Rauch, Chris Reitsma, Al Reyes, Dennys Reyes, Arthur Rhodes, Juan Rincon, Ricardo Rincon, David Riske, Mariano Rivera, John Rocker, Fernando Rodney, Felix Rodriguez, Francisco Rodriguez, J.C. Romero, B.J. Ryan, Duaner Sanchez, Scott Sauerbeck, Scott Schoeneweis, Bobby Seay, George Sherrill, Scot Shields, Brian Shouse, Paul Shuey, Rafael Soriano, Jorge Sosa, Justin Speier, Russ Springer, Huston Street, Tanyon Sturtze, Scott Sullivan, Jeff Tam, Julian Tavarez, Matt Thornton, Mike Timlin, Salomon Torres, Derrick Turnbow, Ugueth Urbina, Jose Valverde, Mike Venafro, Oscar Villarreal, Ron Villone, Luis Vizcaino, Billy Wagner, Jamie Walker, Tyler Walker, John Wasdin, David Weathers, Dan Wheeler, Gabe White, Rick White, Bob Wickman, Scott Williamson, C.J. Wilson, Jay Witasick, Tim Worrell, Michael Wuertz, Kelly Wunsch and Esteban Yan

 

The Top 10

10. Arthur Rhodes (1991-Present) Career Length Grade: A (so far)

Raw Career: 780 G, 61 GS, 1,099.2 IP, 4.15 ERA, 107 ERA+, 1.32 WHIP, 7.9 H/9, 32 SV, 2.2 SV/50 and 2.2 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 688 G, 61 GS, 1,015.1 IP, 4.06 ERA, 109 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 19 SV, 1.5 SV/50 and 2.3 K/BB (exclude his 2004 and 2006 seasons)

Peak Career: 311 G, 0 GS, 269.2 IP, 2.14 ERA, 198 ERA+, 0.97 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 7 SV, 1.1 SV/50 and 4.0 K/BB (include his 2001, 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2009 seasons)

 

He’s the only relief pitcher in this top 10 who has never been a closer. These lists aren’t meant to be the 10 best closers from each decade, but there are naturally going to be a lot of closers on these lists because they are generally among the best relief pitchers in the league. It’s why they’re closers, right?

Well, Rhodes has never been a closer. In fact, he’s never even made the All-Star team. The same thing with the All-Star team, generally speaking, only closers make the All-Star team. Every now and then a non-closer relief pitcher will make the All-Star team, but it’s very rare.

Rhodes probably should have made the All-Star team three or four times so far during his career. Take his 2001 season, for example. Rhodes pitched in over 70 games that season and by the time the season was through, he posted a 1.72 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 242 ERA+ and 6.9 K/BB.

I’m not making those numbers up, those are actually the numbers he posted during his 2001 season. Let me tell you something folks, if you don’t make the All-Star team with those numbers then you’re just never going to make the All-Star team.

Again, Rhodes has arguably had two or three other seasons during his career that were just as good as his 2001 season, but he’s never made the All-Star team.

Many suggest that closers don’t get the respect they deserve and, as you can see, non-closer relievers get even less respect.

Here’s a neat little story about Rhodes, I’ll give the quick condensed version here:

In 2006, he arguably had the worst season of his entire career and he suffered from some serious arm injuries that season. Tommy John surgery was performed on him and he missed the entire 2007 season.

Many thought he was done. They thought, he’s old and he’s coming off of surgery, stick a fork in him. But Rhodes had other plans. After sitting out the entire 2007 season, he returned for the 2008 season.

He’s 40 years old right now; he arguably just pitched the two best seasons of his entire career, the two seasons right after many had counted him out.

I just love those kind of stories, those down for the count but came back stories. Well, Rhodes has one of those. That was the quick condensed version.

Many casual fans would not suspect him, but Rhodes easily has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. His peak consists of five of his last eight seasons.

During his peak, which is a peak over 310 G and almost 270 IP, he’s posted a 2.14 ERA, 198 ERA+, 0.97 WHIP, 6.3 H/9 and 4.0 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you won’t find 20 peaks better than his.

I had told you that his peak consists of five of his last eight seasons. There have been two Arthur Rhodes. The Arthur Rhodes during the first half of his career, which was fairly good, but not great; and the Arthur Rhodes during the second half of his career, which is dominant.

We have to remember, Rhodes was a starting pitcher during his first four seasons in the League and he was still learning how to be a starting pitcher when they moved him to the bullpen.

So after four seasons in the League, he found himself spending his next three or four seasons learning how to be a relief pitcher.

He finally figured it out, obviously. By the time he had it all figured out, the first half of his career was basically over.

By this time he was a dominant pitcher with a repertoire of pitches that included a fastball, curveball and slider. He’s remained one of the best relief pitchers ever since, and still is, at the age of 40.

He’s very quietly one of the 10 best left handed relief pitchers ever to grace the fields of MLB.

There is an honorable mentions list at the bottom of this publication and there are certainly good arguments for some of the relief pitchers on the HM list to have this 10th and final spot instead of Rhodes.

But Rhodes gets this spot, especially when his nice long career is properly taken into account.  

 

9. Francisco Rodriguez (2002-Present) Career Length Grade: C- (so far)

Raw Career: 478 G, 0 GS, 519.2 IP, 2.53 ERA, 174 ERA+, 1.14 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 243 SV, 25.3 SV/50 and 2.8 K/BB

Peak Career: 278 G, 0 GS, 292.2 IP, 2.12 ERA, 212 ERA+, 1.15 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 161 SV, 28.9 SV/50 and 3.0 K/BB (include his 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons)

His career 6.2 H/9 ranks as the third best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He has posted less than 7.5 H/9 during all eight seasons during his career. He posted less than 6.5 H/9 during each of his first five seasons and he posted less than 5.5 H/9 during each of his first two seasons.

His career 174 ERA+ ranks as the fourth best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded over a 140 ERA+ during six consecutive seasons from 2003-2008.

His career 2.53 ERA ranks as the sixth best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has posted less than a 2.85 ERA during six of the eight seasons during his career, including five consecutive seasons from 2004-2008.

His career 1.14 WHIP ranks as the 15th best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded less than a 1.15 WHIP during each of his first five seasons and he recorded less than a 1.05 WHIP during each of his first three seasons.

That puts Rodriguez in the top 15 all time in H/9, ERA+, ERA and WHIP. Those are four extremely important statistical categories for a relief pitcher. The fact of the matter is, there are only six other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 15 all time in all four of those categories with Rodriguez.

They are: Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, Tom Henke and Bryan Harvey.

That’s kind of a who’s who of relief pitchers over the past 30 years, isn’t it? Well, you can add Rodriguez’ name to that conversation.

He’s posted over 240 SV during his career and he’s posted over 30 SV during each of his last five seasons.

He also has good control and he recorded over 2.6 K/BB during each of his first six seasons.

He has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. His peak consists of four of the five seasons from 2004-2008.

During his peak, which is peak of almost 280 G and over 290 IP, he posted a 2.12 ERA, 212 ERA+, 1.15 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 28.9 SV/50 and 3.0 K/BB.

Many were hard on Rodriguez last season because he arguably had the worst season of his entire career. Now, he had 35 SV on a team that only won 70 games.

Easy math here, he saved half of his teams wins last season. It’s hard to call that bad, huh? Down for Rodriguez, but still good compared to most other relief pitchers. Is that better?

To this point, he’s had a slightly below average length of career. But he has been so dominant that he is arguably one of the 20 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB, even with his slightly below average length of career.

What a relief pitcher this guy is.

 

8. Keith Foulke (1997-2008) Career Length Grade: B+

Raw Career: 619 G, 8 GS, 786.2 IP, 3.33 ERA, 139 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP, 7.5 H/9, 191 SV, 15.7 SV/50 and 3.7 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 501 G, 8 GS, 660.1 IP, 3.04 ERA, 154 ERA+, 1.02 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 175 SV, 17.7 SV/50 and 4.0 K/BB (exclude his last three seasons)

Peak Career: 283 G, 0 GS, 356 IP, 2.20 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 126 SV, 22.1 SV/50 and 4.7 K/BB (include his 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons)

 

His career 1.08 WHIP ranks as the seventh best WHIP in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He posted less than a 1.19 WHIP during eight of the 11 seasons during his career and he posted less than a 1.09 WHIP during seven consecutive seasons from 1998-2004.

His career 3.7 K/BB ranks as the eighth best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded over 2.8 K/BB during eight of the 11 seasons during his career, including seven consecutive seasons from 1998-2004.

That puts Foulke in the top 10 all time in WHIP and K/BB. In fact, there are only six other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 10 all time in each of those two categories with Foulke.

They are: Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Trevor Hoffman, Rafael Soriano, and Huston Street. Good company there, huh?

Foulke posted over 30 SV during four of the first five seasons of the 2000s, from 2000-2004, including leading the League with 43 during the 2003 season.

He recorded over a 155 ERA+ during six consecutive seasons from 1999-2004.

He posted less than 7.5 H/9 during six of the seven seasons from 1998-2004.

By the time his career was through, he had pitched over 15 G in the playoffs, including capturing the 2004 World Series championship. During his combined career playoff games, he recorded a 2.53 ERA and 6.3 H/9, great career postseason numbers.

It’s amazing just how quickly forgotten this guy is. I mean, I bring this guy up and people say, “He’s a running back, isn’t he?”

Oh, good lord.

Foulke pitched last season in the Minor Leagues. Other than Rickey Henderson, it seems like you only hear about great relief pitchers ending their career in the Minor Leagues. I’m sure there are other great players that are not relief pitchers that go back to the minors after their MLB career is over, but doesn’t it seem like relievers do it far more often?

Some may think this is an off the wall theory, but I theorize that at least part of the reason for this is the fact that most of the great relief pitchers didn’t get the respect they deserved even when they were great; and many are willing to try to earn that respect by starting over at the end of their career.

The problem is, you can’t start over, you’re done. It’s the end, not the start. Kind of sad. This theory isn’t true for all great relief pitchers that end their career in the Minor Leagues, but I believe it to be part of the reason for some; or something like that. Sometimes there is a tinge of sadness where there should be a deluge of glory. That’s relief pitching.

It almost borders on amazing that a pitcher that was as good as Foulke in MLB pitched in the Minor Leagues last year. I mean, Foulke easily has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. His peak consisted of four of the six seasons from 1999-2004.

During his peak, which is a peak over 280 G and 355 IP, he posted a 2.20 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 22.1 SV/50 and 4.7 K/BB.

He’s another guy, you can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you won’t find 20 peaks better than his.

What a quickly and tragically forgotten relief pitcher. He’s very quietly and arguably one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

 

7. Troy Percival (1995-Present) Career Length Grade: B+ (so far)

Raw Career: 703 G, 1 GS, 708.2 IP, 3.17 ERA, 146 ERA+, 1.11 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 358 SV, 25.6 SV/50 and 2.6 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 613 G, 1 GS, 626.2 IP, 2.92 ERA, 160 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, 316 SV, 25.9 SV/50 and 2.7 K/BB (exclude his 2005, 2008 and 2009 seasons)

Peak Career: 273 G, 1 GS, 302 IP, 2.15 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.95 WHIP, 5.2 H/9, 118 SV, 21.9 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB (include his 1995, 1996, 2001, 2002 and 2007 seasons)

 

His career 6.1 H/9 ranks as the best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He has posted less than 7.0 H/9 during 11 of the 14 seasons during his career, including each of his first five seasons.

His career 358 SV ranks eighth on the all time list. He recorded over 25 SV for nine consecutive seasons from 1996-2004.

His career 1.11 WHIP ranks as the 11th best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than a 1.20 WHIP during eight of his 14 seasons and he posted less than a 1.14 WHIP for three consecutive seasons from 2001-2003.

His career 146 ERA+ ranks as the 15th best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded over a 150 ERA+ six times during his career and he recorded over a 210 ERA+ during each of his first two seasons.

That puts Percival in the top 15 all time in H/9, SV, WHIP and ERA+. Those are four very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher.

In fact, there are only two other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 15 all time in all four of those categories with Percival. They are Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman. That fact alone should tell us something.

Percival has always possessed fairly good control. He’s posted over 2.6 K/BB seven times during his career and he posted over 3.2 K/BB during each of his first three seasons.

Many think that Percival’s MLB career is over, as he’s arguably coming off of the two worst seasons of his entire career. We’ll see.

Percival has pitched almost 10 games in the playoffs and he helped his team capture the 2002 World Series championship. His combined career postseason stats are a 2.79 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.4 H/9 and 10.0 K/BB. Fabulous postseason numbers.

He arguably has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During his peak, which is a peak over 270 G and 300 IP, he recorded a 2.15 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.95 WHIP, 5.2 H/9, 21.9 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you’ll be hard pressed to find 10 peaks better than that one.

Percival is arguably one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

 

6. Armando Benitez (1994-2008) Career Length Grade: A-

Raw Career: 762 G, 0 GS, 779 IP, 3.13 ERA, 139 ERA+, 1.22 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 289 SV, 19.0 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 669 G, 0 GS, 692.1 IP, 2.89 ERA, 151 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 261 SV, 19.5 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB (exclude his 2005, 2007 and 2008 seasons)

Peak Career: 277 G, 0 GS, 298.1 IP, 1.93 ERA, 221 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.4 H/9, 111 SV, 20.2 SV/50 and 2.9 K/BB (include his 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2004 seasons)

 

His career 6.3 H/9 ranks as the fourth best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he posted less than 7.5 H/9 during each of his first 11 seasons.

Obviously, people just couldn’t hit this guy. He had a repertoire of pitches in his arsenal that included a slider and two or three different types of fastballs, including a split fingered fastball and a normal heat fastball.

He threw his heat fastball over 100 MPH. When that pitch was on, he was almost unhittable. When he had trouble controlling it, he was smart enough to slow it down to the mid 90s for control. He was smart with that pitch. Between the arm, the brain and the pitch arsenal, he’s fourth all time in H/9.

By the time his career was through, he recorded almost 290 SV. He recorded over 20 SV for seven consecutive seasons from 1998-2004, including leading the League with 47 in 2004.

He’s another relief pitcher that pitched in the Minor Leagues last season. I talked about this with Keith Foulke in the eight spot on this list. Again, it’s amazing that a relief pitcher that was as dominant as Benitez is ending his career in the Minor Leagues.

Benitez has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During his peak, which is a peak of almost 280 G and 300 IP, he posted a 1.93 ERA, 221 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.4 H/9, 20.2 SV/50 and 2.9 K/BB. Incredible.

There is no question that Benitez was every bit as good or better than Percival, in the seven spot on this list, but Percival seemed to get more recognition while he played, for whatever reason.

Benitez is kind of like Foulke, he’s kind of forgotten already by the casual fan. Amazing, because Benitez is one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

 

5. Joe Nathan (1999-Present) Career Length Grade: C+ (so far)

Raw Career: 533 G, 29 GS, 685 IP, 2.75 ERA, 159 ERA+, 1.11 WHIP, 6.5 H/9, 247 SV, 24.5 SV/50 and 2.7 K/BB

Peak Career: 273 G, 0 GS, 280 IP, 1.61 ERA, 275 ERA+, 0.93 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 156 SV, 28.4 SV/50 and 4.4 K/BB (include his 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons)

 

His career 6.5 H/9 ranks as the sixth best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than 7.0 H/9 during each of his last eight seasons, every season during his career as a relief pitcher, as he was a starting pitcher during each of his first two seasons. He’s posted less than 6.0 H/9 during each of his last two seasons.

His career 159 ERA+ ranks as the seventh best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

He’s recorded over a 140 ERA+ during each of his last seven seasons, every season thus far during his career except for his first three seasons. He’s recorded over a 160 ERA+ during each of his last six seasons and he’s incredibly recorded over a 205 ERA+ during each of his last four seasons.

His career 1.11 WHIP ranks as the 11th best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than a 1.07 WHIP during each of his last eight seasons, again, every season thus far during his career except for his first two seasons when he was a starting pitcher. In fact, he’s posted less than a 0.94 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 2.75 ERA ranks as the 13th best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded less than a 2.75 ERA during each of his last six seasons, every season during his career except for his first four seasons. In fact, he’s recorded less than a 2.15 ERA during each of his last four seasons.

That puts Nathan in the top 15 all time in H/9, ERA+, WHIP and ERA. Those are four very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher.

In fact, there are only six other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 15 all time in all four of those categories with Nathan. They are: Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez, Tom Henke and Bryan Harvey. Another who’s who of relief pitchers from the last 30 years. Add Nathan’s name to that list.

Nathan has posted almost 250 SV thus far during his career and he’s posted over 35 SV during each of his last six seasons, every season during his career except for his first four seasons.

His control is extremely good. He’s recorded over 2.5 K/BB during each of his last seven seasons, every season during his career except for his first three seasons. In fact, he’s recorded over 3.8 K/BB during each of his last six seasons.

He easily has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. His peak consists of four of the five seasons from 2004-2008.

During his peak, which is a peak over 270 G and 280 IP, he posted a 1.61 ERA, 275 ERA+, 0.93 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 28.4 SV/50 and 4.4 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you won’t find 10 peaks better than this one.

He’s one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

Unfortunately, it’s apparent that he is going to miss the entire 2010 season because of Tommy John surgery. I’ll miss you this season, I hope you come back well in 2011.

 

4. Trevor Hoffman (1993-Present) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 985 G, 0 GS, 1,042 IP, 2.73 ERA, 147 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 591 SV, 30.0 SV/50 and 3.8 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 815 G, 0 GS, 878.2 IP, 2.61 ERA, 154 ERA+, 1.03 WHIP, 6.8 H/9, 475 SV, 29.1 SV/50 and 3.8 K/BB (exclude his 2001, 2005 and 2008 seasons)

Peak Career: 259 G, 0 GS, 266.1 IP, 1.89 ERA, 213 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, 176 SV, 33.8 SV/50 and 4.1 K/BB (include his 1998, 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2009 seasons)

 

His career 591 SV ranks first all time in the history of Major League Baseball. He has led the League in SV twice and posted at least 20 SV during 15 of the 17 seasons during his career, including nine consecutive seasons from 1994-2002.

His career 1.04 WHIP ranks as the fourth best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he has recorded less than a 1.19 WHIP during each of his last 16 seasons, every season during his career except for his first season. He’s recorded less than a 1.04 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 3.8 K/BB ranks as the sixth best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has posted over 2.9 K/BB during each of his last 16 seasons, every season during his career except for his first season. Wow.

His career 2.73 ERA ranks as the 12th best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has recorded less than a 2.75 ERA during 10 of the 17 seasons during his career and he recorded less than a 2.70 ERA the last 4 seasons of the 1990s, from 1996-1999.

His career 147 ERA+ ranks as the 13th best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has posted over a 135 ERA+ during 11 of the 17 seasons during his career and he posted over a 140 ERA+ during five consecutive seasons from 1996-2000.

His career 6.9 H/9 ranks as the 14th best H/9 in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded less than 7.5 H/9 during 10 of the 17 seasons during his career and he recorded less than 7.0 H/9 during the last four seasons of the 1990s, from 1996-1999.

That puts Hoffman in the top 15 all time in SV, WHIP, K/BB, ERA, ERA+ and H/9. Folks, I’m here to tell you, if you told most respected historians that they could only look at six statistical categories for relief pitchers, and only six, these would very likely be the six they would choose to look at.

And Hoffman is in the top 15 all time in all six of those categories, every one of them. In fact, there’s only one other relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top 15 all time in all six of those categories with Hoffman. It’s Billy Wagner, just the two of them. Obviously, with a fact like this, we’re talking about one hell of a special relief pitcher here with Hoffman.

2008 was arguably the worst season of his entire career and I remember a lot of fans in certain circles were begging Hoffman to retire after that disappointing 2008 season. Of course, he didn’t retire. At the age of 42, he came back for the 2009 season and he arguably had the best season of his entire career last season in 2009.

Glad he didn’t retire, huh?

He’ll be back at the age of 43 this coming season in 2010, good luck Hoffman. Everyone is questioning how long he can keep this up, it’s been an amazing ride so far and I wish him luck.

He has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During that peak, which is a peak of almost 260 G and over 265 IP, he posted a 1.89 ERA, 213 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, 33.8 SV/50 and 4.1 K/BB.

He’s one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

 

3. Jonathan Papelbon (2005-Present) Career Length Grade: F (so far)

Raw Career: 268 G, 3 GS, 298 IP, 1.84 ERA, 254 ERA+, 0.98 WHIP, 6.5 H/9, 151 SV, 28.5 SV/50 and 4.5 K/BB

Peak Career: 251 G, 0 GS, 264 IP, 1.74 ERA, 270 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 151 SV, 30.2 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB (exclude his first season)

 

His career 1.84 ERA is the best ERA in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He has posted less than a 2.70 ERA during all five seasons of his career and he has posted less than a 2.35 ERA during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 0.98 WHIP is the best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has recorded less than a 1.15 WHIP during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 254 ERA+ is the best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has posted over a 170 ERA+ during all five seasons during his career and he’s posted over a 195 ERA+ during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 4.5 K/BB is the best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher (are you starting to see a trend here?). He’s recorded over 3.1 K/BB during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 6.5 H/9 ranks as the sixth best H/9 in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher (whoops, found a statistical category that he’s not first all time in). He’s posted less than 7.5 H/9 during three of the five seasons during his career and he posted less than 5.5 H/9 during consecutive seasons in 2006 and 2007.

That puts Papelbon in the top 10 all time in ERA, WHIP, ERA+, K/BB and H/9. Those are five very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher. There is only one other relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top 10 all time in all five of those categories with Papelbon. It’s Billy Wagner.

Papelbon has already pitched almost 20 games in the playoffs during his career, including capturing the 2007 World Series championship. His combined postseason numbers are: 1.00 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 4.7 H/9 and 2.9 K/BB. Unbelievable postseason numbers.

He easily has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. Now keep in mind, his peak is every season during his career except for his first season.

During this peak, which is a peak over 250 G and almost 265 IP, he’s posted a 1.74 ERA, 270 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 30.2 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you won’t find 10 peaks better than this one.

Papelbon is an F in the length of career category so far. Even with his extremely short career he’s easily one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

At the bottom of this publication there is a 10 highest caliber section which rates the 10 highest caliber pitchers from the 2000s. Papelbon is first on that list. But caliber is only part of the formula, length of career is also part of the formula. It’s why he’s the third best relief pitcher from this decade, but the highest caliber.

I’m trying to say, he can pitch as well or better than Rivera and Wagner, but it’s close. But Rivera and Wagner have way longer careers, that’s not close.

 

2. Billy Wagner (1995-Present) Career Length Grade: A (so far)

Raw Career: 782 G, 0 GS, 833.2 IP, 2.39 ERA, 182 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 385 SV, 24.7 SV/50 and 3.9 K/BB

Peak Career: 306 G, 0 GS, 326.1 IP, 1.77 ERA, 250 ERA+, 0.90 WHIP, 5.5 H/9, 161 SV, 26.4 SV/50 and 4.6 K/BB (include his 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2009 seasons)

 

His career 6.1 H/9 is the best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he has posted less than 7.5 H/9 during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career, including each of his last nine seasons. In fact, he’s posted less than 6.5 H/9 during each of his last two seasons.

His career 1.01 WHIP ranks as the second best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has recorded less than a 1.20 WHIP during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career. Wow. He’s recorded less than a 1.13 WHIP during each of his last nine seasons and he’s recorded less than a 1.03 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 2.39 ERA ranks as the third best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

Incredibly, he’s posted less than a 2.90 ERA during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career. He’s posted less than a 2.75 ERA during each of his last nine seasons. He’s posted less than a 2.65 ERA during each of his last eight seasons and he’s posted less than a 2.35 ERA during each of his last two seasons.

His career 182 ERA+ ranks as the third best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded over a 135 ERA+ during 13 of the 15 seasons during his career. He’s recorded over a 160 ERA+ during each of his last nine seasons and he’s recorded over a 180 ERA+ during each of his last two seasons.

His career 3.9 K/BB ranks as the third best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted over 3.2 K/BB during 12 of the 15 seasons during his career, including each of his last nine seasons.

His career 385 SV ranks sixth all time in the history of MLB. He’s recorded over 20 SV during 11 of the 15 seasons during his career, including eight consecutive seasons from 2001-2008.

That puts Wagner in the top 10 all time in H/9, WHIP, ERA, ERA+, K/BB and SV. Again, if historians could only choose six statistical categories to look at, and only six, these would very likely be the six that many historians would choose.

And Billy Wagner is the only relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top 10 all time in all six of those categories, the only one, no one else. That shouldn’t tell us something; that does tell us something.

That’s why he’s easily one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

He’s also easily one of the 10 best left handed relief pitchers in the history of MLB. He’s not just one of the 10 best left handed relief pitchers of all time, I shouldn’t say that. He’s simply thee best left handed relief pitcher in the history of MLB.

He also has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. During that peak, which is a peak over 305 G and 325 IP, he posted a 1.77 ERA, 250 ERA+, 0.90 WHIP, 5.5 H/9, 26.4 SV/50 and 4.6 K/BB.

 

1.Mariano Rivera (1995-Present) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 917 G, 10 GS, 1,090 IP, 2.25 ERA, 202 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 526 SV, 29.1 SV/50 and 3.9 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 850 G, 10 GS, 1,018.2 IP, 2.19 ERA, 207 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 496 SV, 29.5 SV/50 and 3.8 K/BB (exclude his 2007 season)

Peak Career: 265 G, 0 GS, 288.2 IP, 1.56 ERA, 285 ERA+, 0.86 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 167 SV, 31.5 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB (include his 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2008 seasons)

 

His career 2.25 ERA ranks as the second best ERA in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than a 2.90 ERA during 13 of the 15 seasons during his career, including 11 consecutive seasons from 1996-2006.

His career 1.01 WHIP ranks as the second best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he has recorded less than a 1.19 WHIP during each of his last 14 seasons, every season during his career except for his first season; the only season during his career that he was a starting pitcher.

He’s recorded less than a 0.91 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 202 ERA+ ranks as the second best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted over a 140 ERA+ during each of his last 14 seasons, again, every season during his career except for his first season when he was a starting pitcher. He’s posted over a 240 ERA+ during each of his last two seasons.

His career 526 SV ranks second in the history of MLB. He’s led the League in SV 3 times. He’s recorded over 25 SV during each of his last 13 seasons, every season during his career except for his first two seasons. He’s recorded over 35 SV during each of his last two seasons.

His career 3.9 K/BB ranks as the third best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted over 2.8 K/BB during 12 of the 15 seasons during his career. He’s posted over 3.2 K/BB during each of his last nine seasons. He’s posted over 4.4 K/BB during each of his last five seasons and he’s posted over 5.9 K/BB during each of his last three seasons.

That puts Rivera in the top three all time in ERA, WHIP, ERA+, SV and K/BB. Those are five very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher and Rivera is the only relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top three all time in all five of those categories. The only one.

He’s just a hard guy to hit. He’s recorded less than 7.5 H/9 during 11 of the 15 seasons during his career, including five consecutive seasons from 1998-2002.

He’s pitched about another two seasons worth of games in the postseason during his career. Incredibly, he’s helped his team to the playoff during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career, including 13 consecutive seasons from 1995-2007.

Of those 14 postseason appearances, his team has captured five World Series championships, including three consecutive World Series championships from 1998-2000.

In his combined 14 postseason appearances, he has pitched in almost 90 G and posted a combined 0.74 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 5.5 H/9 and 5.1 K/BB, absolutely incredible postseason numbers.

Rivera had arguably the worst season of his entire career during the 2007 season and, unbelievably, there were actually some suggesting that he should retire. Well, he didn’t retire, he came back in 2008 and arguably had the best season of his entire career. Pitched very well last season in 2009, too. Glad he didn’t retire, huh?

Rivera easily has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During his peak, which is a peak of 265 G and almost 290 IP, he posted a 1.56 ERA, 285 ERA+, 0.86 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 31.5 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB. Actually, that’s not just one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher, it’s simply thee best peak in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher, period.

He’s easily one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB. In fact, he’s the best, hands down. He’s almost to relief pitching what Walter Johnson was to starting pitching. They don’t get any better than Rivera at this position.

 

The Honorable Mentions

Here are the 10 relief pitchers that just missed the top 10 for various reasons. I will list them in alphabetical order: Francisco Cordero, Eric Gagne, Tom Gordon, Bob Howry, Jason Isringhausen, B.J. Ryan, Scot Shields, Mike Timlin, Ugueth Urbina and Bob Wickman

 

The 10 Highest Caliber Relief Pitchers of the 2000s

I consider this to be the Smoky Joe Wood section. Who’s the best pitcher, putting career values aside; putting length of career aside and putting some other things aside that affect a relief pitchers overall rating? So, these aren’t the best careers, these are the best pitchers, in a way.

Like Smoky Joe Wood in the 1910s, he was a starting pitcher that many historians feel is one of the 10 highest caliber starting pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. But with his short overall career, he’s never rated that high when you see historians rate starting pitchers because they are almost always rating the best careers.

Don’t get me wrong, caliber is part of historians formula too, it’s just a smaller part of the overall equation; and smaller than it should be, if you ask me, but that’s another article.

Smoky Joe Wood’s career value is lower because of his short career and some other factors. But if a highest caliber list were made, Smoky Joe Wood would appear on many historians all time top 10 lists. But almost never in the top 10 on their all time career list, which are the lists that we usually see.

I hope that makes sense. This is basically what I’m doing here with this list. Again, this list is not a list of the best careers, that list is the list you just read. This list is the highest caliber relief pitchers. Here it is.

10. Mike Gonzalez

9. Keith Foulke

8. Armando Benitez

7. Francisco Rodriguez

6. Troy Percival

5. Trevor Hoffman

4. Joe Nathan

3. Billy Wagner

2. Mariano Rivera

1. Jonathan Papelbon

The Caliber Honorable Mentions (listed in alphabetical order): Rafael Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Cordero, Brendan Donnelly, Eric Gagne, Damaso Marte, B.J. Ryan, Rafael Soriano, Huston Street and Jose Valverde.

 

There you go, the best relief pitchers from the 2000s. The 10 best careers and the 10 highest caliber relief pitchers.

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