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MLB's 10 Best Left-Handed Relief Pitchers of All-Time

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MLB's 10 Best Left-Handed Relief Pitchers of All-Time
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Relief pitchers still don’t generally get the respect they deserve, even though about 30% of the seats on the team bus are taken by this position.

Left-handed relief pitchers even get less respect, generally speaking.

There have been 188 left-handed relief pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball that have pitched at least 250 G.

There have been a total of 656 relief pitchers in the history of MLB that have pitched at least 250 G, righty or lefty.

So that means that 29% of relief pitchers in history have been lefties and 71% have been righties.

There are only five relief pitchers in the history of MLB that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame; and they are all righties. That means, of course, that there is not one left-handed relief pitcher in the HOF.

This list is set to settle the argument, or start the debate: Who is the best left-handed relief pitcher in the history of MLB.

 

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 and list the primary decade they pitched in.

Amazingly, there is not one left-handed relief pitcher in the Hall of Fame. If they someday induct a left-handed relief pitcher into the HOF, who should the first one be? (choices listed in order from oldest to newest)

Submit Vote vote to see results

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 (which most did). 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 played long enough to adjust for their long career or it means they didn't have 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 Top 10

10. B.J. Ryan (2000s) Career Length Grade: C+ (so far)

Raw Career: 560 G, 0 GS, 536.2 IP, 3.37 ERA, 133 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 117 SV, 10.4 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 535 G, 0 GS, 516 IP, 3.24 ERA, 138 ERA+, 1.26 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 115 SV, 10.7 SV/50 and 2.5 K/BB (exclude his last season)

Peak Career: 284 G, 0 GS, 308 IP, 2.28 ERA, 197 ERA+, 1.11 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 109 SV, 19.1 SV/50 and 3.2 K/BB (include his 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008 seasons)

 

He’s just a hard guy to hit. He posted less than 7.0 H/9 during three consecutive seasons from 2004-2006.

It’s easy to argue that B.J. Ryan was the best relief pitcher during the middle part of the first decade of the 2000s, from 2004-2006. In fact, during the three consecutive seasons combined from 2004-2006, he pitched almost 210 G of relief and almost 230 IP. He recorded a combined 2.04 ERA, 77 SV, 222 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 6.3 H/9 and 3.8 K/BB.

Those are obviously three incredible consecutive seasons from 2004-2006 and, again, there is an argument that he was quietly the best overall relief pitcher in the game during those three consecutive seasons.

There’s actually an argument that he was the best overall relief pitcher during the five seasons from 2004-2008, but that’s another story. He may or may not have been, but he was certainly among the best during those five seasons, no question.

The best season of his career thus far has been his 2006 season. During that 2006 season, he pitched 65 G of relief and over 70 IP. Amazingly, he posted a 1.37 ERA, 38 SV, 335 ERA+, 0.86 WHIP, 5.2 H/9 and 4.3 K/BB.

What a season. Folks, they don’t get much better than that 2006 season.

Ryan hasn’t pitched in MLB during the 2010 season and most think he won’t. Unfortunately, most think his career is through, we’ll see.

My guess?

I hope not; but I think so.

What a relief pitcher.

There are absolutely seven or eight players on the Honorable Mentions list that have a logical argument to have this 10th and final spot instead of Ryan.

Two that quickly come to mind are Gary Lavelle and Dave Righetti. Both of them had longer careers than Ryan and that helps narrow the gap between their numbers, but it doesn’t narrow the gap all the way.

Another player that comes to the forefront of my mind for serious consideration is John Hiller. Hiller and Ryan had the same length of career, when taken into context of the era, and that obviously makes length of career a wash with these two.

Now, Hiller and Ryan have similar numbers when taken into the context of the era, in my eyes, almost exactly the same. Hiller has better numbers when looked at in their raw state, but they are the same as Ryan’s, more or less, when adjusted for the decade. Let’s remember, Ryan put up his numbers during the 2000s, the steroid era.

My point is, Ryan gets the 10th and final spot.

Would I have a problem with Hiller having the 10th spot instead?

No, I wouldn’t have a huge problem with that, but I’m obviously taking Ryan.

 

9. Dan Plesac (1990s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,064 G, 14 GS, 1,072 IP, 3.64 ERA, 118 ERA+, 1.29 WHIP, 8.2 H/9, 158 SV, 7.5 SV/50 and 2.6 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 940 G, 14 GS, 991.1 IP, 3.51 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP, 8.2 H/9, 156 SV, 8.4 SV/50 and 2.6 K/BB (exclude his 1999 and 2002 seasons)

Peak Career: 279 G, 0 GS, 266.1 IP, 2.60 ERA, 165 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 88 SV, 15.7 SV/50 and 3.1 K/BB (include his 1987, 1988, 1989, 2000 and 2003 seasons)

 

He was basically a fastball and slider pitcher. His slider was a nice hard slider that neared the speed of his fastball. It worked for him and he had extremely good control.

In fact, he posted over 2.5 K/BB during 11 of the 18 seasons of his career; and he posted over 3.1 K/BB during each of the last four seasons of the 1990s, from 1996-1999.

Plesac remains as one of only seven pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball to ever pitch over 1,050 G during a career; and he’s one of only four left-handed pitchers to ever pitch over 1,050 G during a career.

He might have been the best overall relief pitcher in all of baseball during the last few seasons of the 1980s, from 1987-1989. During those three consecutive seasons from 1987-1989, he combined to pitch almost 160 G of relief and over 190 IP. He recorded a combined 2.47 ERA, 86 SV, 171 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP, 7.3 H/9 and 3.7 K/BB.

What a way to end the decade of the 1980s, wow.

The best season of his entire career was arguably his 1987 season. During that season, he pitched almost 60 G of relief and 80 IP. He posted a 2.61 ERA, 23 SV, 177 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP, 7.1 H/9 and 3.9 K/BB.

Again, he really didn’t let up in the next couple of seasons either. He had a great career and had two or three incredible seasons later in his career, two decades later in the 2000s also.

What a great, long career he had.

 

8. Randy Myers (1990s) Career Length Grade: A-

Raw Career: 728 G, 12 GS, 884.2 IP, 3.19 ERA, 123 ERA+, 1.30 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 347 SV, 24.3 SV/50 and 2.2 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 666 G, 12 GS, 828 IP, 3.08 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.29 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 319 SV, 24.4 SV/50 and 2.3 K/BB (exclude his last season)

Peak Career: 309 G, 0 GS, 357.1 IP, 2.22 ERA, 177 ERA+, 1.17 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 157 SV, 25.3 SV/50 and 2.6 K/BB (include his 1988, 1989, 1990, 1996 and 1997 seasons)   

 

His career 347 SV still ranks ninth all time in the history of Major League Baseball; it ranks third all time for a left-handed pitcher. He led the League in SV during three of the five seasons from 1993-1997 and posted over 35 SV each of the three seasons that he led the League.

Incredibly, he posted over 20 SV during 10 of the last 11 seasons of his career, including each of his last seven seasons.

This guy was a SV machine.

Myers started his career with the New York Mets and spent more seasons with the Mets than any other team during his career. He had some good seasons for the Mets. His best season with New York was arguably his 1988 season. During that season, he pitched 55 G of relief and almost 70 IP. He recorded a 1.72 ERA, 26 SV, 190 ERA+, 0.91 WHIP, 6.0 H/9 and 4.1 K/BB.

What a season it was.

He only pitched a couple of seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, but he might have pitched his best ball with them. He pitched with the Orioles during the 1996 and 1997 seasons. He combined those two seasons with Baltimore to pitch over 120 G of relief and almost 120 IP. He posted a combined 2.51 ERA, 76 SV, 187 ERA+ and 2.6 K/BB.

His only two seasons with Baltimore, but incredible back to back seasons.

In fact, the best season of his entire career was arguably his 1997 season with Baltimore. During that season, he pitched over 60 G of relief and almost 60 IP. He recorded a 1.51 ERA, 293 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 2.6 K/BB and led the League with 45 SV.

What an incredible season that was.

What an incredible career.

By the time his career was through, he had helped his teams to the playoff five times, including capturing the 1990 World Series championship with the Reds.

With all of his playoff appearances, he basically pitched another short season in the postseason. His career postseason numbers: almost 30 G of relief and over 30 IP; a 2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 5.3 H/9.

Great postseason numbers.

Myers career ended after the 1998 season because of some serious arm and shoulder injuries. He already had a nice long career by the time his shoulder went south, and what a career it was.

 

  7. Arthur Rhodes (2000s) 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 that has never been a closer. This list isn’t meant to be the 10 best left-handed closers of all time, but there are naturally going to be a lot of closers on this list 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; and it’s easily one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a left-handed 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; and you won’t find 10 better by a left-handed relief pitcher.

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.

 

6. Wilbur Wood (1960s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 651 G, 297 GS, 2,684 IP, 3.24 ERA, 114 ERA+, 1.23 WHIP, 8.7 H/9, 57 SV, 8.0 SV/50 and 2.0 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 556 G, 209 GS, 2,102 IP, 2.86 ERA, 126 ERA+, 1.17 WHIP, 8.3 H/9, 57 SV, 8.3 SV/50 and 2.3 K/BB (exclude his 1975, 1977 and 1978 seasons)

Peak Career: 292 G, 51 GS, 790.2 IP, 2.23 ERA, 161 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP, 7.8 H/9, 53 SV, 11.0 SV/50 and 2.6 K/BB (include his 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1976 seasons)

 

There are a lot of parallels to Wilbur Wood and Dennis Eckersley. First of all, they are almost the exact same rating, in my book. Eckersley might edge him out, but it’s close.

Another big parallel between the two of them is the fact that they both basically spent half of their career as a starting pitcher and half of their career as a relief pitcher.

The parallels between the two help some historians argue that if Eckersley is in the Hall of Fame, then Wood should be also. They argue, in short: generally the same career layout, and generally the same career numbers, when adjusted per decade.

Now, Eckersley was a starting pitcher during the first half of his career and he was a relief pitcher during the second half of his career.

Basically, Wood was opposite. He was a relief pitcher during the first half of his career and he was a starting pitcher during the second half of his career. Of course, what Wood did is rare, usually you start first and then spend the twilight of your career in the bullpen. Not Wood, he relieved first, and started as he got older, rare and arguably harder to do.

Wood had an incredibly long 17 season Major League Baseball career and he started pitching in MLB as a teenager during the 1961 season.

He had two or three good pitches he threw, but he was generally a knuckleball pitcher. He usually threw the knuckleball and some historians argue he possessed the best knuckleball in history. Though, his peer relief pitcher from the 1960s, Hoyt Wilhelm, is also argued to have the best knuckleball of all time.

As I said, Wood basically spent the first half of his career as a relief pitcher, and he had some great seasons as a relief pitcher.

His best season as a relief pitcher was arguably his 1968 season. He led the League with 88 G, which was a MLB record at the time, 2 GS and almost 160 IP. Incredibly, while setting a MLB record of 88 G, he posted a 1.87 ERA, 171 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP and 7.2 H/9.

What a season.

He had some truly great seasons as a starting pitcher during the second half of his career, also. It’s arguable if he was a better starter or reliever, as he was great at both.

His best season as a starting pitcher was arguably his 1971 season. He pitched almost 45 G, over 40 GS and almost 335 IP, yes, almost 335 IP. Unbelievably, while pitching almost 335 IP as a starting pitcher that season, he recorded a 1.91 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.3 H/9, 210 Ks, 3.4 K/BB, 22 W, .629 W% and led the League with 189 ERA+.

Again, I think it’s close if he or Eckersley was a better overall pitcher, but I can tell you this one thing for sure: Eckersley never had a season as a starting pitcher that was nearly as good as that 1971 season for Wood.

It’s a tough one, again, I might give Eckersley the overall edge, but it’s a virtual tie.

How about this?

Overall, it’s a toss up. Eckersley was a slightly better relief pitcher, but Wood was a slightly better starting pitcher.

Wood posted at least 20 W during four consecutive seasons as a starting pitcher from 1971-1974, including leading the League with 24 W during consecutive seasons in 1972 and 1973. He won almost 50 games in those two seasons combined as a starter and he won 90 games during the four consecutive seasons combined from 1971-1974 as a starter.

Look, Eckersley was a good starting pitcher, don’t get me wrong; but Eckersley won just over 150 games in 12 seasons as a starting pitcher, and Wood won 90 games just in the four consecutive seasons as a starter from 1971-1974.

As you see above, Wood won at least 20 games for four consecutive seasons, and Eckersley never won over 20 games during his 12 seasons as a starter. Again, Eckersley may have been a slightly better relief pitcher, but Wood was certainly a slightly better starter.

 

5. Tug McGraw (1970s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 824 G, 39 GS, 1,514.2 IP, 3.14 ERA, 117 ERA+, 1.25 WHIP, 7.8 H/9, 180 SV, 11.5 SV/50 and 1.9 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 666 G, 37 GS, 1,297.2 IP, 2.93 ERA, 125 ERA+, 1.24 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 159 SV, 12.6 SV/50 and 1.9 K/BB (exclude his 1979, 1982, 1983 and 1984 seasons)

Peak Career: 307 G, 5 GS, 586 IP, 2.01 ERA, 180 ERA+, 1.12 WHIP, 6.7 H/9, 87 SV, 14.5 SV/50 and 2.3 K/BB (include his 1969, 1971, 1972, 1976, 1977 and 1980 seasons)

 

During his incredibly long 19 season Major League Baseball career, he was basically a relief pitcher for 17 seasons and he was a starting pitcher for two seasons; two of the first three seasons of his career.

The best season of his entire career was arguably his 1980 season and it was the last truly great season of his career.

During that 1980 season, he pitched almost 60 G of relief and over 90 IP. He posted a 1.46 ERA, 260 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.0 H/9 and 3.3 K/BB.

It was an incredible season.

His best back to back seasons were arguably consecutive seasons in 1971 and 1972. During those two seasons combined, he pitched 105 G, 1 GS and almost 220 IP. He recorded a 1.70 ERA, 199 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP and 6.0 H/9.

By the time his career was through, he had a bunch of good seasons and six or seven seasons that were truly extraordinary.

Incredibly, he helped his team to the playoff during seven of the 13 seasons from 1969-1981, including capturing the 1980 World Series championship.

His combined postseason numbers are: over 25 G of relief and 50 IP; a 2.24 ERA and 6.5 H/9, great career postseason numbers.

Neat trivia: he’s the father of country music superstar Tim McGraw.

 

4. Sparky Lyle (1970s) Career Length Grade: A

Raw Career: 899 G, 0 GS, 1,390.1 IP, 2.88 ERA, 128 ERA+, 1.28 WHIP, 8.4 H/9, 238 SV, 13.2 SV/50 and 1.8 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 688 G, 0 GS, 1,060.1 IP, 2.50 ERA, 146 ERA+, 1.21 WHIP, 7.8 H/9, 214 SV, 15.5 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB (exclude his 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1982 seasons)

Peak Career: 288 G, 0 GS, 505.2 IP, 2.03 ERA, 174 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 7.5 H/9, 104 SV, 17.9 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB (include his 1967, 1972, 1974, 1976 and 1977 seasons)

 

He was a true career relief pitcher and never started a game during his long Major League Baseball career.

Incredibly, he posted less than a 2.80 ERA during nine of the first 11 seasons of his career, including four consecutive seasons from 1971-1974.

By the time his career was through, he recorded almost 240 SV and led the League in SV twice, recording over 20 SV each time he led the League. The fact of the matter is, he recorded at least 20 SV during five of the first eight seasons of the 1970s, from 1970-1977.

He won the Cy Young award as a relief pitcher during the 1977 season. During that Cy Young award winning 1977 season, he led the League by pitching 72 G of relief and almost 140 IP. He posted a 2.17 ERA, 26 SV and 183 ERA+.

Another great season for him, and arguably even better than his Cy Young award 1977 season, was three season prior, in 1974. During that 1974 season, he pitched over 65 G of relief and almost 115 IP. He recorded a 1.66 ERA, 215 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP and 7.3 H/9.

All of those numbers I just mentioned from 1974 are better than his Cy Young award 1977 season, except for G and IP. My point is, 1974 was a great season, and arguably just as good or better than his Cy Young award 1977 season.

The best back to back seasons during his career were arguably consecutive seasons in 1976 and 1977. During those two season combined, he pitched over 135 G of relief and 240 IP. He posted a 2.21 ERA, 49 SV and 170 ERA+.

As you can see, this guy had five or six incredible seasons during his career.

He helped his team to the postseason during four of the six seasons from 1976-1981, including capturing the World Series championship in 1977.

His combined career postseason numbers: over 10 G of relief and 20 IP; a 1.69 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7.2 H/9 and 3.0 K/BB. Great career postseason numbers.

He arguably remains as one of the 20 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB, lefty or righty.

 

3. John Franco (1990s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,119 G, 0 GS, 1,245.2 IP, 2.89 ERA, 137 ERA+, 1.33 WHIP, 8.4 H/9, 424 SV, 18.9 SV/50 and 2.0 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 882 G, 0 GS, 1,030.1 IP, 2.53 ERA, 155 ERA+, 1.29 WHIP, 8.1 H/9, 374 SV, 21.3 SV/50 and 2.0 K/BB (exclude his 1993, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2005 seasons)

Peak Career: 287 G, 0 GS, 354 IP, 2.01 ERA, 191 ERA+, 1.20 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 126 SV, 22.1 SV/50 and 1.9 K/BB (include his 1985, 1987, 1988, 1992 and 1996 seasons)

 

His career 424 SV still ranks fourth all time in the history of Major League Baseball; and it’s first all time for a left-handed pitcher. He led the League in SV three times during his career and posted over 25 SV each time he led the League. In fact, he posted over 25 SV during 11 of the 13 seasons from 1986-1998, including six consecutive seasons from 1986-1991.

He’s one of only three players in the history of MLB to ever pitch in over 1,100 games during a career and he’s the only one of the three relief pitchers to pitch in over 1,100 games and post less than a career 2.90 ERA.

In fact, of the 13 relief pitchers in the history of MLB to ever pitch in over 1,000 games, there are only two that have posted less than a career 2.90 ERA and over a career 135 ERA+: John Franco and Hoyt Wilhelm. Nice company there Franco.

So that makes Franco the only left-handed pitcher in the history of MLB to ever pitch in over 1,000 games and post less than a career 2.90 ERA and over a career 135 ERA+, the only one ever.

He was just a hard guy to score against. He recorded less than a 2.95 ERA during 14 of the 21 seasons during his career, including each of the first five seasons of his career. In fact, he recorded less than a 2.65 ERA during each of his first two seasons.

He posted over a 140 ERA+ during 12 of the 21 seasons during his career and he posted over a 150 ERA+ during four consecutive seasons from 1994-1997.

He helped his team to the postseason during consecutive seasons in 1999 and 2000. He pitched 15 games in the two combined postseasons. During those 15 games combined, he recorded a 1.88 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 6.9 H/9 and 3.3 K/BB. Extraordinary postseason numbers.

His team actually made it to the World Series during the 2000 postseason. Unfortunately, they lost, but it wasn’t Franco’s fault. In fact, he pitched four games in the World Series and posted a 0.00 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and never allowed a run.

All of these facts in combination are part of the reasons that he is easily one of the 20 best relief pitchers in the history of MLB, righty or lefty.

 

2. Jesse Orosco (1980s) 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 and also a relief pitcher from the 1980s. 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; and he easily has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a left-handed 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; and you won’t find 10 better by a lefty.

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, righty or lefty.

 

1. Billy Wagner (2000s) 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; and it’s first all time for a lefty. 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; and it’s first all time for a lefty.

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; and it’s first all time for a lefty. 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; and it’s first all time for a lefty. 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; and it’s second all time for a lefty. 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; and he’s actually either first or second all time in all six of those categories for a lefty. 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, righty or lefty.

He also has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher; and it’s simply the best peak in history for a left-handed 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.

There is really no question that Billy Wagner is the best left-handed relief pitcher to ever grace the fields of MLB.

The arguments on this list is who’s second, not who’s first. Two through eight actually have an argument for that two spot, especially two through six; but no question as to who should be in the one spot: Billy Wagner.

 

  The Honorable Mentions

Here are the ten left-handed relief pitchers that just missed the top 10 for various reasons. I will list them in order from oldest to newest: Bobby Shantz (1950s), Ron Perranoski (1960s), Tom Burgmeier (1970s), John Hiller (1970s), Willie Hernandez (1980s), Rick Honeycutt (1980s), Gary Lavelle (1980s), Dave Righetti (1980s), Mike Stanton (1990s) and Steve Kline (2000s)

 

The 10 Highest Caliber Left-Handed Relief Pitchers of All Time

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. Damaso Marte (2000s)

9. Tug McGraw (1970s)

8. Steve Howe (1980s)

7. John Hiller (1970s)

6. B.J. Ryan (2000s)

5. Sparky Lyle (1970s)

4. John Franco (1990s)

3. Jesse Orosco (1980s)

2. Mike Gonzalez (2000s)

1. Billy Wagner (2000s)

 

The Caliber Honorable Mentions (listed in order from oldest to newest): Bill Henry (1960s), Ron Perranoski (1960s), Wilbur Wood (1960s), Al Hrabosky (1970s), Darold Knowles (1970s), Gary Lavelle (1980s), Joe Sambito (1980s), Randy Myers (1990s), Brian Fuentes (2000s) and Arthur Rhodes (2000s)

 

There you go, the best left-hander relief pitchers of all time. The 10 best careers and the 10 highest caliber left-handed relief pitchers.

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