MLB: 10 Best Relief Pitchers of the 1980s: Gossage, Orosco, Sutter?

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
MLB: 10 Best Relief Pitchers of the 1980s: Gossage, Orosco, Sutter?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The 1980s is the only decade in the history of Major League Baseball with three relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame.

The 1980s was the decade that we started seeing prevalence with career relief pitching.

In fact, every relief pitcher in this top 10, except one, started in 0-10 percent of their career games.

That’s almost like today.

There are certainly some important differences in today’s relief pitching and the relief pitching of the 80s. One difference, relief pitchers of the 80s chewed up more innings.

Here’s an example. Not too long ago I published an article on the 10 best relief pitchers from the 2000s and only one relief pitcher in the top 10 averaged over 1.3 innings pitched per game.

Now, on this list, the 10 best relief pitchers from the 80s, eight of the 10 averaged at least 1.3 innings pitched per game.

In short, the top 10 in the 2000s averaged 1.2 innings pitched per game compared to the top 10 from the 80s who averaged 1.6 innings pitched per game.

That’s the main difference. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but comparing 1.2 IP to 1.6 IP is tremondous.

Again, the main similarity, they were generally career relief pitchers.

More than any other decade, this is the decade that I don’t see eye to eye with most historians. Most respected historians have never rated a long list of relief pitchers, like I’m doing with these lists.

It’s surprising that most historians have never made a relief pitcher list because they have done every other position.

My point, I’ve read enough from many historians to generally know where they would likely rate these relief pitchers if they were to.

There are two or three relief pitchers in this top 10 that I think would rate higher or lower than I.

The three that come to mind are Dennis Eckersley, Jesse Orosco and Dan Quisenberry.

Now, many historians would likely have Eckersley and Quisenberry four to six spots higher than I do; and likewise, they would likely have Orosco two to four spots lower than I do.

These are the main three. They are all three in the top 10 and I try to explain my line of thinking.

I know many think I slightly overrate or underrate these three and hopefully the write-ups help explain my reasoning.

There were 101 relief pitchers from the 1980s and that is more than any other decade in the history of MLB, other than the 1990s and the 2000s.

If a player does not appear on this list of 101, then they either didn't reach 250 games or I consider them a relief pitcher from the 1970s or 90s.  

Relief pitchers will only be in one decade. For example, Rich Gossage will appear in this article. So, he will not appear in my 1970s article, which I will write later, and he did not appear in my 1990s article.

 

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.

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

Second , I will include their adjusted career numbers, if they had a long career. Adjusted career is this: Let's take Jesse Orosco, for example. Orosco 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 Orosco, I'd exclude his 1990, 1991, 1994, 1999, 2001 and 2003 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 didn't play long enough to adjust their long career or it means they didn't have 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 101 Relief Pitchers

Here are the 101 Relief Pitchers from the 1980s that reached at least 250 games (listed in alphabetical order): Don Aase, Jim Acker, Juan Agosto, Neil Allen, Larry Andersen, Keith Atherton, Doug Bair, Steve Bedrosian, Juan Berenguer, Warren Brusstar, Tim Burke, Rick Camp, Bill Campbell, Don Carman, Bobby Castillo, Bill Caudill, Mark Clear, Pat Clements, Doug Corbett, Steve Crawford, Mark Davis, Ron Davis, Bill Dawley, Ken Dayley, Jeff Dedmon, Frank DiPino, Jamie Easterly, Dennis Eckersley, Mark Eichhorn, Steve Farr, George Frazier, Scott Garrelts, Jerry Don Gleaton, Rich Gossage, Jim Gott, Cecilio Guante, Greg Harris, Tom Henke, Willie Hernandez, Joe Hesketh, Al Holland, Rick Honeycutt, Ricky Horton, Steve Howe, Jay Howell, Tom Hume, Roy Lee Jackson, Bob James, Mike Jeffcoat, Jim Kern, Bob Kipper, Bob Lacey, Dennis Lamp, Gary Lavelle, Terry Leach, Craig Lefferts, Aurelio Lopez, Gary Lucas, Tippy Martinez, Bob McClure, Lance McCullers, Andy McGaffigan, Joey McLauglin, Greg Minton, Paul Mirabella, Dale Mohorcic, Donnie Moore, Gene Nelson, Tom Niedenfuer, Dickie Noles, Edwin Nunez, Jesse Orosco, Bob Owchinko, Alejandro Pena, Ted Power, Joe Price, Dan Quisenberry, Shane Rawley, Jeff Reardon, Dave Righetti, Don Robinson, Jeff Robinson, Joe Sambito, Dan Schatzeder, Dave Schmidt, Rod Scurry, Ray Searage, Bob Shirley, Doug Sisk, Dave Smith, Lee Smith, Bob Stanley, Mike Stanton, Sammy Stewart, Tim Stoddard, Bruce Sutter, Kent Tekulve, Mark Thurmond, Ed Vande Berg, Frank Williams and Matt Young  

 

The Top 10

10. Steve Bedrosian (1981-1995) Career Length Grade: A

Raw Career: 732 G, 46 GS, 1,191 IP, 3.38 ERA, 114 ERA+, 1.30 WHIP, 7.8 H/9, 184 SV, 13.4 SV/50 and 1.8 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 647 G, 46 GS, 1,085.2 IP, 3.23 ERA, 118 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 178 SV, 14.8 SV/50 and 1.8 K/BB (exclude his 1991 and 1995 seasons)

Peak Career: 264 G, 7 GS, 406 IP, 2.50 ERA, 158 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 62 SV, 12.2 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB (include his 1982, 1984, 1987, 1993 and 1994 seasons)

 

During his long 14-season Major League Baseball career, he was basically a starting pitcher during his 1985 season and he was a relief pitcher during his other 13 seasons.

More or less, he was a slider and fastball pitcher, and it worked for him.

His 1987 season was magical. During that season, he pitched in 65 games of relief and almost 90 IP. He posted a 2.83 ERA, 150 ERA+, 2.6 K/BB and led the League with 40 SV. After the season, he won the Cy Young Award, as a relief pitcher.

He ended up recording over 20 saves during each of the last four seasons from 1986-1989.

He didn’t win the Cy Young Award during his 1993 season, but it was arguably just as good or better than when he won it in 1987.

During his 93 season, he pitched in almost 50 games of relief and 50 IP. He posted a 1.63 ERA, 248 ERA+, 0.97 WHIP and 6.2 H/9.

He had some incredible seasons as a relief pitcher.

There are certainly some higher caliber relief pitchers on the Honorable Mentions list that have arguments to take this 10th and final spot instead of Bedrosian.

Notably: Tim Burke, Mark Eichhorn and Dave Smith. But the three of them all had average length of careers, give or take; and Bedrosian had a nice long career that more than makes up the gap for the slight difference in caliber.  

 

9. Dan Quisenberry (1979-1990) Career Length Grade: B

Raw Career: 674 G, 0 GS, 1,043.1 IP, 2.76 ERA, 146 ERA+, 1.18 WHIP, 9.2 H/9, 244 SV, 18.1 SV/50 and 2.3 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 616 G, 0 GS, 973.1 IP, 2.53 ERA, 160 ERA+, 1.14 WHIP, 8.9 H/9, 243 SV, 19.8 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB (exclude his 1988 and 1990 seasons)

Peak Career: 312 G, 0 GS, 516 IP, 2.27 ERA, 180 ERA+, 1.10 WHIP, 8.8 H/9, 143 SV, 23.1 SV/50 and 2.9 K/BB (include his 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985 and 1987 seasons)

His career 2.76 ERA still ranks as the 15th best ERA in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He posted less than a 2.80 ERA during eight of the last nine seasons of the 1980s, from 1981-1989, including seven consecutive seasons from 1981-1987.

His career 146 ERA+ still ranks as the 15th best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded over a 135 ERA+ during nine of the 12 seasons during his career. In fact, he recorded over a 150 ERA+ for seven consecutive seasons from 1981-1987.

He posted less than a 1.19 WHIP five times during his career, including four consecutive seasons from 1981-1984.

By the time his career was through, he recorded almost 245 SV. He led the League in SV during five of the first six seasons of the 1980s, from 1980-1985 and he recorded over 30 SV during all five seasons that he led the League.

In fact, he led the League with over 30 saves during four consecutive seasons from 1982-1985.

He was a submarine-style pitcher, and it worked for him. During his first season, he was more of a three quarters to sidearm pitcher. He watched Kent Tekulve pitch and was influenced by his style. Quisenberry then went to submarine style, more or less underhanded.

Quisenberry ended up being more of a submarine style than Tekulve was. Tekulve was between sidearm and submarine. By the way, I have Tekulve in the four-spot on this list.

In his Historical Baseball Abstract Book, Bill James has Dan Quisenberry rated as the fifth best relief pitcher in the history of MLB.

Now in fairness, Bill James released the book after the 2000 season and guys like Rivera and Wagner aren’t yet rated in his book. But even if he had five from the 2000s ahead of Quisenberry, then Bill James is saying that Dan Quisenberry is arguably one of the 10 best relief pitchers in history.

I don’t buy it. I think highly of Quisenberry, obviously, but one of the 10 best of all time?

No, I don’t think so.

He had good control and didn’t walk many, but his control was his downfall, in an odd way. They hit him well because of his control; i.e. they knew the pitch was going to be in the strike zone. This led to his career 9.2 H/9. It’s by far the worst H/9 in this top 10. It’s almost unacceptable. Of course, it’s made up for by some of his other extraordinary stats.

My point is 9.2 H/9 is simply unacceptable for the 1980s, especially for a relief pitcher. Now, I’ll be the first to tell you, he was better than his 9.2 H/9. But at the same time, he wasn’t quite as good as his 2.76 ERA.

Here’s my point. Let’s compare him to Tom Henke. I have Henke in the five-spot on this list. Obviously, Bill James has Quisenberry rated higher than Henke. I disagree.

Here is the comparison of their career numbers.

Tom Henke: 2.67 ERA, 156 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 311 SV, 24.3 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB

Quisenberry: 2.76 ERA, 146 ERA+, 1.18 WHIP, 9.2 H/9, 244 SV, 18.1 SV/50 and 2.3 K/BB

As you can see, those are seven statistical categories that many historians feel are the seven most important statistical categories to look at for a relief pitcher. They pitched at almost exactly the same time.

Henke is better in all seven categories, every one of them. Quisenberry is not better in any, not a one.

 It’s apparent that Henke was better than Quisenberry, isn’t it?

Sure Quisenberry had a longer career. I call Quisenberry a B in the length of career category and I call Henke a C. Surely, that doesn’t make up the difference; of course it doesn’t, not if length of career is properly installed. Again, Henke is better in all seven statistical categories, there’s simply too much ground to make up.

You see my point. Quisenberry isn’t even better than Henke from the 1980s, as you can see.

So there’s no way he’s fifth all time, he’s not even fifth from the 1980s. Henke is fifth from the 1980s, and should be. But not even Henke is fifth all time, but he’s obviously and apparently better than Quisenberry.

I’ve got a ton of respect for Bill James (and Dan Quisenberry), but Quisenberry is not arguably one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB.

However, he is arguably one of the 10 best relief pitchers from the 1980s.

 

8. Jeff Reardon (1979-1994) Career Length Grade: A

Raw Career: 880 G, 0 GS, 1,132.1 IP, 3.16 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1.20 WHIP, 7.9 H/9, 367 SV, 20.9 SV/50 and 2.5 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 746 G, 0 GS, 988 IP, 2.98 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.20 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 326 SV, 21.9 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB (exclude his 1989, 1993 and 1994 seasons)

Peak Career: 259 G, 0 GS, 331 IP, 2.39 ERA, 158 ERA+, 1.12 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 108 SV, 20.8 SV/50 and 2.7 K/BB (include his 1979, 1981, 1982, 1988 and 1992 seasons)

His career 367 SV still ranks seventh all-time. Incredibly, he posted over 20 saves during 11 consecutive seasons from 1982-1992, including leading the League with 41 in 1985.

The two best consecutive seasons of his entire career were arguably his 1981 and 1982 seasons. In those two seasons combined, he pitched almost 120 G of relief and 180 IP. He recorded a combined 2.11 ERA, 170 ERA+, 1.07 WHIP and 6.8 H/9.

What an incredible relief pitcher this guy was. Basically, other than his last season or two, he spent his entire career up among the best relief pitchers in the League, period. 

 

7. Dennis Eckersley (1975-1998) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,071 G, 361 GS, 3,285.2 IP, 3.50 ERA, 116 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 8.4 H/9, 390 SV, 27.5 SV/50 and 3.3 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 905 G, 361 GS, 3,128.2 IP, 3.45 ERA, 117 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 8.4 H/9, 324 SV, 29.7 SV/50 and 3.2 K/BB (exclude his 1993, 1995 and 1998 seasons)

Peak Career: 276 G, 33 GS, 530.1 IP, 2.26 ERA, 181 ERA+, 0.96 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 177 SV, 36.1 SV/50 and 5.0 K/BB (include his 1979, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1992 seasons)

His career 390 SV still ranks fifth all time in the history of Major League Baseball. He led the League twice in SV and posted over 25 SV during nine of the 10 seasons from 1988-1997. In fact, he posted over 30 SV during six consecutive seasons from 1988-1993.

His career 3.3 K/BB still ranks as the 13th best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He led the League in K/BB three times during his career and he recorded over 2.5 K/BB during 19 of the 24 seasons of his career. In fact, he recorded over 2.7 K/BB during each of his last 14 seasons.

His career 1.16 WHIP still ranks as the 18th best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He posted less than a 1.20 WHIP during 14 of the 24 seasons of his career, including seven consecutive seasons from 1987-1993, the first seven seasons of his career that he was a relief pitcher.

That puts him in the top 20 all time in SV, K/BB and WHIP. In fact, there are only five other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 20 all time in all three of those categories with Eckersley.

They are: Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, John Wetteland and Tom Henke. Good company there Dennis.

During his incredibly long 24-season MLB career, he was basically a starting pitcher during his first 12 seasons and he was a relief pitcher during his last 12 seasons.

His best season as a starting pitcher was arguably his 1979 season. During that 1979 season, he pitched over 30 G as a starter and 245 IP. He recorded a .630 W%, 1.19 WHIP and led the League with a 150 ERA+.

To me, that 1979 season was his best season as a starting pitcher, and it’s the only season as a starting pitcher that I included as part of his peak career.

He certainly had four or five great seasons as a relief pitcher, too.

His 1992 season was arguably the best season of his career as a relief pitcher. During the 1992 season, he pitched almost 70 G of relief and 80 IP. He posted a 1.91 ERA, 196 ERA+, 0.91 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 8.5 K/BB and led the League with 51 SV. He picked up the Cy Young Award after that season was through, as a reliever.

What’s interesting to me, is that he arguably had a better season as a relief pitcher two seasons prior during the 1990 season. In fact, some historians argue that it is the best single season in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During that magical 1990 season, he pitched over 60 G of relief and 70 IP. He recorded a 0.61 ERA, 48 SV, 606 ERA+, 0.61 WHIP, 5.0 H/9 and 18.3 K/BB.

You can obviously see why some historians call it the best single season in history for a relief pitcher.

Folks, that’s over 60 games pitched and he only allowed five earned runs and four base on balls all season. I just watched the first two weeks of the regular season and I saw pitchers that we all consider good and they allowed five earned runs and gave up four base on balls in a single game; that’s what Eckersley allowed all of the 1990 season, over 60 games pitched. Wow.

He apparently had a three or four excellent seasons as a relief pitcher and he also had one or two fabulous seasons as a starting pitcher.

He’s one of only 13 relief pitchers in the history of MLB to pitch in over 1,000 G.

Now, here’s my problem with Eckersley.

Casual fans might be thinking; what’s  the problem, you have him in the seven spot?

This is true, I obviously think he was great by having him in the seven spot.

But many historians will call him one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB and many historians would have him in the one spot on this list of 1980s relief pitchers. I obviously don’t have him in the one spot on this list, I have him in the seven spot.

For example, Bill James has him rated as the second best relief pitcher in the history of MLB and the best relief pitcher from the 1980s in his Historical Baseball Abstract book. He’s a respected historian whom I have a ton of respect for also, and many do.

I just don’t see eye to eye with historians regarding Eckersley.

Here’s why:

Eckersley was basically a starting pitcher during each of his first 12 seasons and he was a relief pitcher during each of his last 12 seasons.

Let me take his first 12 seasons as a starting pitcher first.

He was an extremely good starting pitcher, don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t close to even being one of the 10 best starting pitchers while he was a starter. He was arguably one of the 20 best in the League.

Again, extremely good, but I’ll call him the 19th best starting pitcher in the League while he pitched. He wasn’t even close to starting pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, etc…

Heck, he wasn’t even as good as starting pitchers that were not one of the 10 best, like John Tudor, Mike Scott, Mario Soto, etc…

So, he was good, and we could argue, but I’m comfortable with calling him the 19th best starting pitcher from the 1980s.

Here are his first 12 seasons stats as a starting pitcher: (1975-1986) 376 G, 359 GS, 2,496 IP, 3.67 ERA, 111 ERA+, 8.7 H/9, 1.21 WHIP, 151 W, 105 W%+, 20 SHO, 2.2 SHO/40, 1,627 K and 2.6 K/BB.

Those are arguably among the 20 best starting pitcher numbers from the era, but again, not near the top 10. Again, I’m comfortable with the 19 spot for starting pitchers.

Now, just taking his 12 seasons as a relief pitcher, 1987-1998: 695 G, 2 GS, 789.2 IP, 2.96 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.00 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 387 SV, 27.8 SV/50 and 6.8 K/BB.

Those are extraordinary numbers and way better than the 19 spot for relief pitcher numbers. But, they aren’t the best relief pitcher numbers from the era. I have Sutter in the three spot on this list and they are not as good as Sutter’s numbers.

Here are Sutter’s numbers: 661 G, 0 GS, 1,042 IP, 2.83 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.14 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 300 SV, 22.7 SV/50 and 2.8 K/BB.

Comparing Sutter to Eckersley, we find that it is close, but Sutter has better overall numbers in my eyes. They are tied in ERA+, but Sutter is better in IP, ERA and H/9. Eckersley is better in some. It’s close, but Sutter gets the nod from me, and Sutter is in the three spot on this list.

Some may say, Eckersley is a pitcher of the 1980s, but he pitched more relief in the 1990s. I say, OK, then let’s look at some 1990s relief pitchers.

I wrote an article on the 10 best relief pitchers of the 1990s a week or two ago and I have John Wetteland in the two spot on that list.

Let me compare the two of them:

Wetteland: 618 G, 17 GS, 765 IP, 2.93 ERA, 148 ERA+, 1.14 WHIP, 7.2 H/9, 330 SV, 27.5 SV/50 and 3.2 K/BB.

Eckersley: 695 G, 2 GS, 789.2 IP, 2.96 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.00 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 387 SV, 27.8 SV/50 and 6.8 K/BB.

Again, comparing the two, it’s close, but I think Wetteland was better. Wetteland is better in GS, ERA, ERA+ and H/9. It’s close, but Wetteland gets the slight nod; and Wetteland is in the two spot on the 1990s list, so that would put Eckersley in the three spot on the 1990s list; and again, in the four spot on the 1980s list.

Here’s my point, it’s arguable, but he’s around there give or take. So he’s the 19th best starting pitcher and the fourth best relief pitcher. So, historians are taking these two things:

19th best starting pitcher + fourth best relief pitcher divided by two = the best relief pitcher

Basically: 19 + 4 divided by 2 = 1

Nop, sorry, not buying it.

I know how they do it, and I have respect for how they do it. But it’s a backwards a*s power equation like ERA+.

I’m using a linear equation; like they use with OPS+ and like I use for my invented stat, W%+.

If you use a power equation like they use on ERA+, then it over exaggerates a pitchers dominance. In fact, many think they should change ERA+ to a linear equation because of this reason.

OPS+ is a linear equation and it does not over exaggerate a players dominance. Let’s put it this way. Mariano Rivera has a career 202 ERA+ under the ERA+ that most use, a power equation. But, if it were published as a linear equation, he would have a 151 ERA+. He would still have the best of all time for any pitcher over 1,000 IP, but it would drop from a 202 to a 151.

Do you see what I mean?

It simply over exaggerates his dominance. That’s why mathematicians can’t stand ERA+, it’s a great stat, but it over implies the greatness of pitchers; and OPS+ doesn’t over exaggerate the greatness, because it’s linear.

If you’re confused, let me give you a layman’s terms example.

Here my example:

There is a shoe store that has some $10 shoes. The next day, they have a sale and are selling the shoes for $8. The store is saying the shoes are 25% off. Well, they’re not 25% off, they’re 20% off, right?

Of course. They are taking the $2 off back into the new price of $8, that’s how they get the 25% off. But that’s just not how it works. That’s how it works with a backwards a*s power equation, but it’s not how it should work. With a linear equation, it’s 20% off, like common sense tells us, take the $2 off into the original price of $10.

That’s a linear equation, the equation that should be used and the equation that is used on OPS+ and my invented W%+.

Does that make sense?

That’s why some historians are upset about the stat of ERA+. More or less, they are upset because it’s not a linear equation, it’s a backwards a*s power equation.

My point, calling Eckersley: 19 (starting pitcher) + 4 (relief pitcher) divided by 2 (categories) = 1 (overall pitcher)

I don’t have to tell you, that’s a backwards a*s power equation, not a linear equation.

Look, he was great, and he was a dominant starting pitcher for one or two seasons, but he pitched 12 as a starter; and he was a truly dominant relief pitcher for four or five seasons, but he pitched 12 seasons of relief.

He was great, but maybe overrated slightly as a relief pitcher anyways.

Either way, this is how I get here with Eckersley: I say, 19 + 4 divided by 2 = 7. Better than 19 + 4 divided by 2 = 1.

In my eyes, I’m still giving him something for his incredibly long career, which I should do. But he’s still not first. I’m just saying, I see how and why some historians call him the best from this decade, but I think you get to that point with a power equation rating formula, or something along those lines.

With a linear rating formula, or something along those lines, he’s the 19th best starter and the fourth best reliever; which is sure as hell not the best overall, unless you want me to tell you that $10 shoes that are now $8 are 25% off.

I can tell you that if you’d like.

Look he was great. He’s one of only five relief pitchers in the history of MLB that is in the Hall of Fame and one of only three from the 1980s. The 1980s is the only decade in the history of MLB with more than one relief pitcher in the HOF.

Neat trivia: When Kirk Gibson hit his famous walk off HR (remember the brilliant call, “I can’t believe what I just saw”, my favorite call of all time), that HR was hit off of Dennis Eckersley during the 1988 World Series.

 

 

6. Lee Smith (1980-1997) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,022 G, 6 GS, 1,289.1 IP, 3.03 ERA, 131 ERA+, 1.26 WHIP, 7.9 H/9, 478 SV, 23.5 SV/50 and 2.6 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 800 G, 6 GS, 1,064 IP, 2.88 ERA, 139 ERA+, 1.26 WHIP, 7.9 H/9, 359 SV, 22.6 SV/50 and 2.5 K/BB (exclude his 1989, 1992, 1993 and 1997 seasons)

Peak Career: 302 G, 0 GS, 381.1 IP, 2.29 ERA, 174 ERA+, 1.18 WHIP, 7.5 H/9, 169 SV, 28.2 SV/50 and 2.9 K/BB (include his 1983, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1994 seasons)

 

His career 478 SV still ranks third in the history of Major League Baseball. He led the League in SV four times during his incredibly long 18 season MLB career, including three of the four seasons from 1991-1994. He posted over 25 SV during each of the four seasons he led the League in SV.

Incredibly, he posted over 20 SV during 13 consecutive from 1983-1995, every season during his career except for his first three seasons and his last two seasons.

He had a large arsenal of four or five great pitches that he threw. His pitch arsenal included a slider and two or three different types of fastballs. He threw a hard rising fastball and a cut-fastball. Some historians argue that he simply had the best fastball of the decade, starter or reliever.

His great pitch arsenal helped him record over 2.5 K/BB nine times during his career, including five consecutive seasons from 1987-1991.

He had so many great seasons, it’s hard to pick his best season. If I must, his best season was arguably his 1983 season. During that 1983 season, he pitched over 65 of relief and 100 IP. He posted a 1.65 ERA, 229 ERA+, 1.07 WHIP, 6.1 H/9 and led the League with 29 SV.

What a season he had; what a career he had.

He still remains as one of only 13 pitchers in the history of MLB to ever pitch over 1,000 G during a career.

 

5. Tom Henke (1982-1995) Career Length Grade: C

Raw Career: 642 G, 0 GS, 789.2 IP, 2.67 ERA, 156 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 311 SV, 24.3 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 605 G, 0 GS, 751.2 IP, 2.61 ERA, 158 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 296 SV, 24.5 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB (exclude his 1994 season)

Peak Career: 270 G, 0 GS, 329.1 IP, 1.99 ERA, 201 ERA+, 1.06 WHIP, 6.8 H/9, 135 SV, 25.0 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB (include his 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1995 seasons)

 

His career 2.67 ERA still ranks as the eighth best ERA in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He posted less than a 2.95 ERA during 10 of the 14 seasons of his career, including seven consecutive seasons from 1987-1993.

His career 156 ERA+ still ranks as the eighth best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded over a 140 ERA+ during nine of the 14 seasons of his career, including five consecutive seasons from 1989-1993.

His career 1.09 WHIP still ranks as the eighth best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He posted less than a 1.19 WHIP during 10 of the 14 seasons of his career, including each of his last seven seasons.

His career 3.4 K/BB still ranks as the 11th best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he recorded over 2.6 K/BB during 11 of the 14 seasons of his career and he recorded over 2.7 K/BB during seven consecutive seasons from 1985-1991.

His career 6.9 H/9 still ranks as the 14th best H/9 in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He posted less than 7.5 H/9 during nine of the 14 seasons of his career, including five consecutive seasons from 1989-1993.

His career 311 SV still ranks 17th all time in the history of MLB. He recorded at least 20 SV during nine of the last 10 seasons of his career, including eight consecutive seasons from 1986-1993 and also led the League in SV with 34 in 1987.

That puts Henke in the top 20 all time in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/BB, H/9 and SV. If you told historians that they could look at six statistical categories for a relief pitcher, and only six, these would likely be the six categories they would choose to look at; and Henke is in the top 20 all time in all six categories.

In fact, there are only two other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 20 all time in all six of these categories with Henke.

They are: Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman.

That should tell us something about Henke. As a matter of fact, it does tell us something about him.

He was incredible.

There were a lot of fans that couldn’t believe he retired when he did, because he was at his peak when he retired.

In fact, he arguably had the best season of his entire career during his last season in 1995. During that 1995 season, he pitched over 50 G of relief and almost 55 IP. He posted a 1.82 ERA, 36 SV, 230 ERA+, 1.10 WHIP, 7.0 H/9 and 2.7 K/BB.

He posted those numbers, and then he retired; incredible. What a way to end a career.

He had a stellar career.

He helped his Toronto Blue Jays to the postseason during four of the eight seasons from 1985-1992 and they captured the World Series championship during that 1992 season. During his combined four postseasons, he pitched 15 G of relief and posted a 1.83 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 4.6 H/9.

Incredible career postseason numbers.

Henke has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. During his peak, which is a peak of 270 G and almost 330 IP, he recorded a 1.99 ERA, 201 ERA+, 1.06 WHIP, 6.8 H/9, 25.0 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB.

It’s possible that if he wouldn’t have retired while he was still at his peak and he would have pitched two or three more seasons, he would be in the Hall of Fame. Again, one of only three relief pitchers in the history of MLB that is in the top 20 all time in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/BB, H/9 and SV. Incredible.

 

4. Kent Tekulve (1974-1989) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,050 G, 0 GS, 1,436.2 IP, 2.85 ERA, 132 ERA+, 1.25 WHIP, 8.2 H/9, 184 SV, 8.8 SV/50 and 1.6 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 882 G, 0 GS, 1,229 IP, 2.67 ERA, 142 ERA+, 1.22 WHIP, 8.0 H/9, 165 SV, 9.4 SV/50 and 1.6 K/BB (exclude his 1985, 1988 and 1989 seasons)

Peak Career: 274 G, 0 GS, 400.1 IP, 2.20 ERA, 169 ERA+, 1.18 WHIP, 7.5 H/9, 58 SV, 10.5 SV/50 and 1.5 K/BB (include his 1975, 1978, 1983 and 1986 seasons)

 

During his incredibly long Major League Baseball career, he pitched in 1,050 G and still remains as one of only 13 pitchers in the history of MLB to ever pitch in over 1,000 G during a career.

He was a submarine style pitcher that was, more or less, really somewhere between sidearm and submarine.

Man, did it work for him. He posted less than a 2.90 ERA during nine of the 12 seasons from 1975-1986, including four consecutive seasons from 1981-1984.

He had some extraordinary seasons during his career. His best season was arguably his 1983 season. During that 1983 season, he pitched over 75 G of relief and almost 100 IP. He recorded a 1.64 ERA, 227 ERA+, 1.15 WHIP and 7.1 H/9.

He was the real deal. What a career.

 

3. Bruce Sutter (1976-1988) Career Length Grade: B

Raw Career: 661 G, 0 GS, 1,042 IP, 2.83 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.14 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 300 SV, 22.7 SV/50 and 2.8 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 549 G, 0 GS, 889.2 IP, 2.54 ERA, 152 ERA+, 1.10 WHIP, 7.3 H/9, 260 SV, 23.6 SV/50 and 2.9 K/BB (exclude his last three seasons)

Peak Career: 255 G, 0 GS, 433.2 IP, 1.91 ERA, 208 ERA+, 1.03 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 141 SV, 27.6 SV/50 and 3.5 K/BB (include his 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1984 seasons)

 

His career 1.14 WHIP still ranks as the 15th best WHIP in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He posted less than a 1.20 WHIP during seven of his first nine seasons and he posted less than a 1.18 WHIP during each of his first four seasons. In fact, he posted less than a 1.07 WHIP during each of his first two seasons.

His career 2.83 ERA still ranks as the 18th best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded less than a 2.95 ERA during seven of his first nine seasons, including four consecutive seasons from 1979-1982.

That puts him in the top 20 all time in two very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher: WHIP and ERA.

In fact, there are only eight other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 20 all time in both of those categories with Sutter.

They are: Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Trevor Hoffman, Hoyt Wilhelm, Joe Nathan, Tom Henke and Bryan Harvey. Well, add Sutter’s name to that list and you, more or less, have a who’s who of relief pitchers from the past 50 seasons.

Sutter was simply a very special relief pitcher, as that fact suggests.

He posted over a 135 ERA+ during seven of his first nine seasons, including three consecutive seasons from 1979-1981.

By the time his career was through, he recorded 300 SV. He led the League with over 20 SV during five of the six seasons from 1979-1984, including four consecutive seasons from 1979-1982. In fact, he recorded over 20 SV during nine consecutive seasons from 1977-1985, every season during his career except for his first season and his last two seasons.

He posted over 2.8 K/BB six times during his career, including each of his first four seasons.

As you can see, he was capable of posting incredible numbers, almost year in and year out.

The two best seasons of his career were arguably his 1977 and 1979 seasons.

During the 1977 season, he pitched over 60 G of relief and almost 110 IP. He recorded a 1.34 ERA, 31 SV, 327 ERA+, 0.86 WHIP, 5.8 H/9 and 5.6 K/BB.

What an incredible season.

During the 1979 season, he pitched over 60 G of relief and 100 IP. He posted a 2.22 ERA, 187 ERA+, 0.98 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, 3.4 K/BB and led the League with 37 SV. He won the Cy Young award that season, as a relief pitcher.

He easily has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. During his peak, which is a peak of 255 G of relief and over 430 IP, he recorded a 1.91 ERA, 208 ERA+, 1.03 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 27.6 SV/50 and 3.5 K/BB.

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

Sutter is one of only five relief pitchers in the history of MLB that is in the Hall of Fame and he’s one of only three from this decade; and the 1980s is the only decade with more than one relief pitcher in the HOF.

In Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract book, he also rates Sutter as the third best relief pitcher from the 1980s, and he also rates him as the fourth best relief pitcher in history.

While I agree with Bill James that Sutter is the third best from this decade, I don’t believe that he remains as the fourth best all time. There have simply been too many greats since Sutter.

But, I still say that Sutter remains as one of the 20 best relief pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball.

 

2. Jesse Orosco (1979-2003) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,252 G, 4 GS, 1,295.1 IP, 3.16 ERA, 125 ERA+, 1.26 WHIP, 7.3 H/9, 144 SV, 5.8 SV/50 and 2.0 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 945 G, 4 GS, 1,064 IP, 2.80 ERA, 139 ERA+, 1.20 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 139 SV, 7.4 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB (exclude his 1990, 1991, 1994, 1999, 2001 and 2003 seasons)

Peak Career: 268 G, 0 GS, 336.2 IP, 1.95 ERA, 195 ERA+, 1.10 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 42 SV, 7.8 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB (include his 1981, 1983, 1986, 1989 and 1997 seasons)

 

His career 1,252 G ranks first all time in the history of MLB for a pitcher, period.

This guy is generally underrated by the casual fan. This is likely because he was only a closer during three or four seasons of his career. He pitched great as a closer but, again, only three or four seasons as a closer.

He spent most of his career as a non-closer relief pitcher and even some of his career as a left-handed specialty relief pitcher. He was, more or less, used as a left-handed specialist during the last 30-40% of his career.

It didn’t matter which role you used him in, he was among the best in the League in whichever role he was used in.

There is a great quote from Bill James that I want  to share with you that will help shed some light on this issue:

 

“Who is the best left-handed reliever of all time? The best left-handed reliever specializing in getting out lefties, by far, has been Jesse Orosco. He has been consistently effective for 20 years at a job that most people can’t do two years in a row.”—Bill James, respected baseball historian and Godfather of SABERmetrics

 

During his career, even though he spent the last third of his career as a left-handed specialist, he still faced almost twice as many right-handed hitters. Left-handed hitters had over 1,580 AB against Orosco and right-handed hitters had almost 3,155 AB against him during his career.

For his career, left-handed hitters posted less than a .210 BA and right-handed hitters posted a .230 BA. Those are both exceptional numbers. They’re best and bestest, as my three year old niece would say.

Overall, his career OBA was just over .220 with lefties and righties combined.

Compare that to HOFer, Bruce Sutter, in the three spot. Right-handed hitters recorded almost a .240 BA against Sutter, compared to just over .220 for Orosco. Left-handed hitters recorded almost a .220 BA against Sutter, compared to less than .210 for Orosco. Overall, they combined to hit .230 against Sutter and just over .220 for Orosco.

Orosco simply held his hitters to a lower BA; righties, lefties and combined. And Orosco did it while pitching in almost twice as many career games as Sutter. I’m not saying that Sutter shouldn’t be in the HOF, I’m just saying that Orosco was just as good or better than Sutter. Orosco was just used in different roles for much of his career.

Look, Orosco was just a hard guy to hit. He posted less than 7.5 H/9 during 11 of the 18 seasons from 1981-1998, including five consecutive seasons from 1994-1998.

He had five or six incredible seasons. The best season of his career was arguably his 1983 season. During that season, he pitched over 60 G of relief and 110 IP. He recorded a 1.47 ERA, 247 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP and 6.2 H/9.

What a season.

When he was on, he was on.

He arguably has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. During his peak, which is a peak of almost 270 G of relief and over 335 IP, he posted a 1.95 ERA, 195 ERA+, 1.10 WHIP and 6.3 H/9.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you’ll be hard pressed to find 20 peaks better than this one.

In the big picture and the history of relief pitchers, he’s quietly and generally slightly underrated by the casual fan.

He is easily one of the 20 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.

 

1.Rich Gossage (1972-1994) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,002 G, 37 GS, 1,809.1 IP, 3.01 ERA, 126 ERA+, 1.23 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 310 SV, 16.1 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 872 G, 37 GS, 1,653.1 IP, 2.87 ERA, 132 ERA+, 1.21 WHIP, 7.2 H/9, 275 SV, 16.5 SV/50 and 2.0 K/BB (exclude his 1986, 1988 and 1993 seasons)

Peak Career: 279 G, 0 GS, 534.2 IP, 1.73 ERA, 217 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 125 SV, 22.3 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB (include his 1975, 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1985 seasons)

 

His career 310 SV still ranks 18th all time in the history of Major League Baseball. He led the League in SV three times during his career, including two of the three seasons from 1978-1980. He posted over 25 SV all three times he led the League.

He posted at least 20 SV during 10 of the 12 seasons from 1975-1986, including the first seven seasons of the 1980s, from 1980-1986.

He had an incredibly long 22 season MLB career and he was basically a starting pitcher for one season and he was a relief pitcher during his other 21 seasons.

He still remains as one of only 13 relief pitchers in the history of MLB to ever pitch over 1,000 G during a career.

He’s one of only five relief pitchers in the history of MLB that is in the HOF and he’s one of only three from the 1980s. The 1980s is the only decade in history with more than one relief pitcher in the HOF.

He was just a hard guy to hit, intimidating, to say the least. He recorded less than 7.5 H/9 during 11 of the 16 seasons from 1975-1991, including six consecutive seasons from 1977-1982.

He had five or six incredible seasons during his career. The two best seasons of his career were arguably his 1977 and 1981 seasons.

During his 1977 season, he pitched in over 70 G of relief and 130 IP. He posted a 1.62 ERA, 26 SV, 243 ERA+, 0.96 WHIP, 5.3 H/9 and 3.1 K/BB.

During the strike shortened 1981 season, he pitched in over 30 G of relief and 45 IP. He recorded a 0.77 ERA, 20 SV, 461 ERA+, 0.77 WHIP, 4.2 H/9 and 3.4 K/BB.

Those are obviously two extraordinary seasons.

He just had a truly great peak.

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 of almost 280 G of relief and 535 IP, he posted a 1.73 ERA, 217 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.9 H/9 and 22.3 SV/50.

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

All of these things in combination are why he still arguably remains as one of the 10 best relief pitchers to ever grace the fields of MLB.

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: Larry Andersen, Tim Burke, Mark Eichhorn, Greg Harris, Willie Hernandez, Rick Honeycutt, Gary Lavelle, Greg Minton, Dave Righetti and Dave Smith.

 

The 10 Highest Caliber Relief Pitchers of the 1980s

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 overall rating and 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. Kent Tekulve

9. Tim Burke

8. Steve Howe

7. Dave Smith

6. Mark Eichhorn

5. Dan Quisenberry

4. Jesse Orosco

3. Rich Gossage

2. Bruce Sutter

1. Tom Henke

The Caliber Honorable Mentions (listed in alphabetical order): Larry Andersen, Steve Bedrosian, Dennis Eckersley, Steve Farr, Willie Hernandez, Jay Howell, Gary Lavelle, Jeff Reardon, Joe Sambito and Lee Smith.

 

There you go, the best relief pitchers from the 1980s. The 10 best careers and the 10 highest caliber relief pitchers.

 

Load More Stories

Follow New York Yankees from B/R on Facebook

Follow New York Yankees from B/R on Facebook and get the latest updates straight to your newsfeed!

Out of Bounds

New York Yankees

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.