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relief pitchers

For those individuals well versed in baseball trivia, a question I will soon put forth might shock a great deal of baseball enthusiasts.  The Hall of Fame has acknowledged the relief pitcher, with selections of firemen such as Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm, and recent inductions of Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter.  Sutter and Gossage are modern relief artists, who both reached 300 career saves, however, when you ask the question who has the most career saves between Hall of Famers Gossage, Sutter and their unenshrined peer Tom Henke, few people would put forth the proper answer.  The two men with plaques in the Hall of Fame were outperformed by the underappreciated closer of the Blue Jays.  Henke saved 311 career games to Gossage’s 310 and Sutter’s 300.

The closer has become a valuable piece to a roster and few stoppers were as dynamite as Tom “The Terminator” Henke.  An overpowering closer who racked up high strikeout totals while also limiting base-runners by issuing few walks, Henke was an elite fireman whose career is more impressive than his two enshrined peers.  Not only did Henke amass more saves than Gossage and Sutter, but he also posted lower career totals in ERA and WHIP.  His totals weren’t just a little lower than the two Hall of Famers—they were a great deal lower.

When Henke hung up his spikes, he walked away from the game with a tidy ERA of 2.67.  Bruce Sutter’s career mark was quite a bit higher at a respectable 2.83 while Gossage’s exceeded 3.00, albeit by the scantest of margins.  With a career WHIP of 1.092, Henke was that uncommon fireman who kept runners off base.  Not only was The Terminator difficult to hit, but he was also stingy with bases on balls.  Bruce Sutter’s career WHIP of 1.140 was much higher than Henke’s while Gossage posted a decent career mark of 1.232, far inferior to both Henke and Sutter.  Henke enjoyed three seasons with a WHIP below 1.000, a feat matched by Gossage but not by Sutter, who only had two such campaigns.

Tom Henke posted an ERA under 2.50 in seven separate seasons (Sutter only had three such years) and enjoyed six 30+ saves seasons.  Relief pitchers are typically judged by the games they saved, which baffles the analyst as to why Sutter and Gossage were enshrined at the expense of Henke.  Whereas Tom had six 30+ saves seasons, Goose only notched two such campaigns while Sutter enjoyed four.  Of the three, Henke was also the most reliable, for he stringed together four consecutive seasons with 30 or more saves, while Bruce Sutter’s 30+ saves seasons were all spread out throughout his career—he never had back-to-back 30 saves seasons.

The mark of a terrific pitcher is limiting base-runners, and with firemen, the need to keep batters off base is of uppermost importance.  Oftentimes, especially in the days of these three gentlemen, stoppers were brought into games with runners already on base.  With inherited ducks on the pond, the fireman capable of missing bats was important.  Henke bested his peers in this regard as well.  In only one season did Henke allow more hits than innings worked—Gossage allowed this to happen in five seasons and Sutter in three.  On average, Henke allowed 6.9 hits per nine innings, a mark that easily eclipsed Sutter’s 7.6 and Gossage’s 7.4.  Strikeouts, the best way to strand runners, was a forte of Henke’s as well, for The Terminator averaged 9.8 whiffs per nine innings: Gossage (7.5) and Sutter (7.4) lagged way behind.

Many things separated Tom Henke from his bullpen peers, but what was most impressive about his game was his terrific location for a power pitcher.  Your typical late inning flamethrower simply pulls back and uncorks a fastball as hard as he can throw it, with little regard to accuracy, which, as one would imagine, often leads to free passes.  Strikeout-to-walk ratios aren’t as impressive as they could be given this disregard for control.  But Henke had both the strikeout arm and the control pitcher’s accuracy.  He retired with an impressive SO/BB of 3.38, which outdistanced Gossage’s (2.05) and Sutter’s (2.79) by margins immense.  At the top of his form, Henke posted five seasons in his career with a SO/BB of 4.25 or higher—something Bruce Sutter only did once, while Gossage was never able to perform.

Tom Henke was an elite closer, who, upon his initial run at the Hall of Fame, failed to receive even two percent of the vote from the BBWAA.  Why Henke was overlooked and the voters zeroed in on Sutter and Gossage is anyone’s guess, but it seems clear to me, that the best fireman owns not a plaque in the Hall of Fame’s gallery.

This list of Hall of Fame eligible pitchers consists of those hurlers who split their careers between the rotation and bullpen.  They are listed in order of career strikeouts.

Danny Darwin (1,942), Woody Fryman (1,587), Greg Swindell (1,542), Juan Pizzaro (1,522), Ron Reed (1,481), Gary Bell (1,378), Joe Nuxhall (1,372), Stan Williams (1,305), Pedro Ramos (1,305), Fred Norman (1,303), Diego Segui (1,298), Murry Dickson (1,281), Don Robinson (1,251), Marty Pattin (1,179), Dick Farrell (1,177), Bobby Bolin (1,175), Moe Drabowsky (1,162), Johnny Klippstein (1,158), Billy Hoeft (1,140), Billy O’Dell (1,133), Dave Giusti (1,103), Tom Griffin (1,054), Ken Forsch (1,047), Rick Honeycutt (1,038)

Shane Rawley (991), Ron Kline (989), Dick Drago (987), Dick Tidrow (975), Pete Richert (925), Syl Johnson (920), Steve Gromek (904), Chuck Stobbs (897), Mark Leiter (892), Bob Shaw (880), Dan Spillner (878), Dennis Lamp (857), Matt Young (857), Hank Aguirre (856), Don Larsen (849), Bruce Ruffin (843), Skip Lockwood (829), Barry Latman (829), John Curtis (825), Walt Masterson (815), Ken Brett (807), Roger Craig (803), Bob Shirley (790), Mike LaCoss, (783), Mike Bielecki (783), Jakie May (765), Willie Blair (759), Mickey McDermott (757), Dan Schatzeder (748), Nelson Potter (747), Joe Gibbon (743), Jim Barr (741), Garry Staley (727), Joe Hesketh (726), Lew Krausse Jr. (721), Lee Stange (718), Harry Gumpert (709), Tom Sturdivant (704)

Neal Heaton (699), Al Benton (697), Doug Bird (680), Ike DeLock (672), Brian Bohanon (671), Billy Loes (645), Bill Krueger (639), Dave Wickersham (638), Bill V. Swift (636), Andy Hassler (630), Al Mamaux (625), Tom Murphy (621), Bob E. Smith (618), Scott Bankhead (614), Farmer Ray Moore (612), Doc Crandall (606), Dave Kosto (606), Allan Russell (603), John D’Acquisto (600), Don Carman (598), George Caster (595), Bill Bailey (570), Hank Johnson (568), Ray Scarborough (564), Ricky Bones (564), Warren Hacker (557), Al Brazle (554), Ferdie Schupp (553)

Buddy Daley (549), Gil Heredia (547), Scott Kamieniecki (542), Mickey Harris (534), Jim Owens (516), Wade Blasingame (512), Lloyd Brown (510), Cal Koonce (504), Bruce Dal Canton (485), Dave Danforth (484), Joe Haynes (475), Elam Vangilder (474), Al Fitzmorris (458), Dickie Noles(455), Jumbo Jim Elliott (453), Bob Kuzava (446), Joe Coleman Sr. (445), Chief Hogsett (441), Ray Kolp (439), Jim Hannan (438), Dave West (437), Jerry Arrigo (433) Erv Palica (423), Jack E. Russell (418), Don Aase (418), Clint Brown (410), Edwin Wells (403), Frank Baumann (384), Marvin Freeman (383), Dick Coffman (372), Boom-Boom Beck (352), Ben Cantwell (348), Jerry Augustine (348), Tony Kaufmann (345), Fred Heimach (334), Red Barrett (333), Bob Chipman (322), Stubby Overmire (301), Bobby Burke (299), Johnny Lanning (295) and Benny Frey (179)

This list consists of HOF eligible relief pitchers that aren’t profield on this blog.  They are listed in order of career saves.

Robb Nen (314), Rod Beck (286), Gregg Olson (217), Jeff Shaw (203), Mike Henneman (193), Mitch Williams (192), Jeff Russell (186), Jeff Brantley (172), Roger McDowell (159), Jay Howell (155), Greg Minton (150), Mike Williams (144), Mike Jackson (142), Gary Lavelle (136), Steve Farr (132), Bob Stanley (132), Ron Davis (130), Dave LaRoche (126), Mel Rojas (126), Jack Aker (123), Mark Wohlers (119), Tippy Martinez (115), Frank Linzy (111), Al Worthington (110), Fred Gladding (109), Tom Burgmeier (102), Craig Lefferts (101), Mike Fetters (100)

Joe Hoerner (99), Tom Niedenfuer (97), Norm Charlton (97), Heathcliff Slocumb (97), Randy Moffitt (96), Mark Davis (96), Bob Locker (95), Aurelio Lopez (93), Phil Regan (92), Tom Hume (92), Steve Howe (91), Jim Gott (91), Bill Henry (90), Donnie Moore (89), Jim Kern (88), Ken Sanders (86), Joe Sambito (84), Elias Sosa (83), Claude Raymond (83), Mark Clear (83), Larry Sherry (82), Doug Henry (82), Eddie Fisher (81), Doug Bair (81), Eddie Watt (80), Pedro Borbon Sr. (80), Grant Jackson (79), Stan Belinda (79), Al Holland (78), Tim Stoddard (76), Neil Allen (75), Ed Farmer (75)

Turk Lown (73), Ron Taylor (72), Ted Power (70), Dick Hall (68), Paul Lindblad (64), Al McBean (63), Joe Heving (63), Ed Roebuck (62), Hal Woodeshick (61), Dale Murray (60), Darren Holmes (59), Marv Grissom (58), Danny Frisella (57), Tom Ferrick (56), Sid Monge (56), Frank DiPino (56), Mike Fornieles (55), Curtis Leskanic (55), Greg A. Harris (54), Lerrin LaGrow (54), Edwin Nunez (54), Bob L. Miller (52), Scott Radinsky (52), Bob McClure (52), Dave Schmidt (50), Larry Andersen (49), Joe Boever (49), Scott Garrelts (48), Mace Brown (48), Ted Wilks (46), Bill Castro (45), Harry Dorish (44), Mike Trombley (44), Steve Mingori (42), Steve Hamilton (42), Jerry Johnson (41), Orlando Pena (40)

Ken Dayley (39), Eric Plunk (35), Xavier Hernandez (35), Roy Lee Jackson (34), Turk Wendell (33), Mark Eichhorn (32), Tom Hall (32), Juan Berenguer (32), Garland Braxton (32), Dick Selma (31), Sarge Connally (31), Rob Murphy (30), Jim Acker (30), Joe Beggs (29), Clyde Shoun (29), Juan Agosto (29), Jumbo Brown (29), George Frazier (29), Bob Patterson (28), Gene Nelson (28), Jerry Don Gleaton (26), Pete Appleton (26), Frank LaCorte (26), Hal White (25), Lee Guetterman (25), Andy McGaffigan (24), Bobby Tiefenauer (23), Paul Shuey (22), Jeff Parrett (22), Tony Castillo (22), Mike Maddux (20), Rosy Ryan (19), Steve Crawford (19), Chuck McElroy (17), Graeme Lloyd (17), Earl Johnson (17), Mike Ryba (16), Scott Service (16)

Bob Miller (15), Alan Mills (15), Morris Martin (15), Bud Byerly (14), Greg Cadaret (14), Mark Guthrie (14), Jamie Easterly (14), Dwayne Henry (14), Joe Price (13), Ed Vosberg (13), Art Herring (13), Paul Mirabella (13), Dave Tomlin (12), John Habyan (12), Ed Glynn (12), Steve Ridzik (11), Terry Leach (10), Dennis Cook (9), Rich Rodriguez (8), Jim Corsi (7), Tony Fossas (7), Gary Ross (7), Mike Jeffcoat (7), Rich DeLucia (7), Bill Zuber (6), Jim Poole (4), Mike Magnante (3) and Eric Gunderson (2)

One of the top left-handed firemen of all-time, Assenmacher was a valuable relief pitcher throughout the 1990s.  Early in his career he would work multiple inning stints but thanks to the “specialist explosion” of the 1990s, Paul became arguably the best left-handed specialist in the Majors.  The southpaw from Michigan always posted elite strikeout numbers, ending his career with a stellar ratio of 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings of work. 

Assenmacher went undrafted out of Aquinas College and signed as an amateur free agent with the Braves in 1983.  By 1986, the overlooked prospect was in the Majors.  Paul enjoyed a remarkable rookie season out of the Atlanta bullpen with a 2.50 ERA and .700 winning percentage.  He established himself as a top-of-the-line setupman in his freshman season but like many players before him, suffered from the fabled Sophomore Jinx. 

Paul put a rough second season behind him and got back to business in 1988.  The southpaw worked 79 innings and averaged 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings.  The job of a fireman is to limit damage when the opposition starts an uprising and the best way to do that is by striking out batters with inherited runners on base.  Assenmacher whiffed 64 batters in 58 innings for the Braves in 1989, but this was before the Bobby Cox era when the Braves were a second division club.  Late in the season Paul was dealt to the Cubs for prospects Kelly Mann and Pat Gomez.  He was able to make his first postseason appearance with Chicago but they failed to advance to the World Series.  Paul would eventually work in 36 postseason games before he retired.

The Cubs didn’t limit Paul to left-handed batters.  He was a workhorse out the Cubs pen.  Assenmacher posted back-to-back 100 innings pitched seasons with the Cubs in 1990 and ’91.  Paul saved 10 games in 1990 before reaching his career high of 15 in 1991.  That ’91 season was a great one for the Detroit-area southpaw.  He worked 103 innings and fanned 117 batters, which gave him an amazing average of 10.3 whiffs over nine innings.  In 1992, he posted his third straight season of 70 or more games pitched before the Cubs swapped him to the Yankees at the end of the ’93 season.  By this time, the specialist craze was beginning to take hold and Assenmacher was used to stymied the best left-handed bats in the business.

Traded to the White for the 1994 season, Paul pitched one year for the Pale Hose before he landed with the Indians as a free agent.  His most productive years–as far as October play is concerned–came with the Tribe.  A powerhouse under skipper Mike Hargrove, Cleveland was a common face in postseason play during the mid-to-late 1990s.  Paul was the man they used to silence the booming left-hand bats in the American League.  From 1995 to 1999, Paul and the Indians would make the postseason every year.  In his first year with the Tribe he fanned an average of 9.4 batters over nine innings as Cleveland made the World Series.  Untouchable in the Division Series and ALCS, Paul worked six games without surrendering a hit.  But he wasn’t as lucky in the Fall Classic and his old team, the Braves, defeated Cleveland.

After losing to the Orioles in 1996 Division Series, Assenmacher’s Indians made the World Series again in 1997.  During the regular season Paul had a perfect 5-0 record and during the postseason he was used in 14 contests.  In the World Series he worked five games and went unscored upon but the Tribe again lost, this time to the Marlins.  He had one good year left in 1998 when he worked in 69 games for Cleveland but the Indians were toppled in the ALCS by the Yankees.  He pitched one final year before calling it a career.

THE NUMBERS

W 61/L 44/PCT .581/ERA 3.53/G 884/SV 56/IP 856/H 817/BB 315/SO 807

One of the finest setupmen in baseball history, Pena was able to notch over 70 saves despite infrequent use as a closer.  The Dominican right-hander spent his prime years with the Dodgers, putting out fires from Tommy Lasorda’s bullpen.  An unheralded pitcher on some strong Dodgers teams, arms like Hershiser, Valenzuela and Welch garnered the spotlight while Pena went about his work with little fanfare.  Originally a starter, Alejandro was converted to relief work after an injury and made himself into an elite fireman.

Signed by the Dodgers out of the Dominican in 1978, Los Angeles called Pena up to the parent club for his first taste of Major League ball in the strike shortened 1981 campaign.  In just 14 games, Alejandro had a tidy 2.84 ERA and averaged just 6.4 hits over nine innings.  The Dodgers initially got Pena’s feet wet as a relief pitcher in Los Angeles but he started taking his regular turn in the rotation in 1983.  That year he won a dozen games on a 2.75 ERA.  In 1984 he won the ERA crown with a 2.48 mark while also pacing the NL in shutouts.  Although he wasn’t getting the attention of the portly southpaw Valenzuela, Alejandro proved a highly dependable pitcher.  Then the injury struck.

Right when Pena was making a name for himself as one of the top starting pitchers in the National League, he missed almost all of the ’85 season to injury.  When he returned in ’86, skipper Lasorda employed Alejandro with baby gloves, using him as a long arm and spot starter.  But in 1987 he found his niche when he was converted full-time to a relief pitcher.  He saved 11 games that year before his finest season in 1988.  Los Angeles captured the NL West flag in ’88 as Pena saved a dozen games on a 1.91 ERA.  He posted a fine strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.07-to-1 as he led the Dodgers to the World Series.  The Dodgers won the world title as Alejandro worked 9.1 innings and surrendered just three hits in that year’s postseason. 

Alejandro was just as good in 1989 when he posted a 2.13 ERA and raised his strikeout-to-walk ratio to an amazing 4.17-to-1.  After two terrific years out of their bullpen, the Dodgers had a strong trade chip on their hands so they dealt him to the Mets to land toolsy second baseman Juan Samuel.  Used in a setup capacity by the Mets, Pena averaged a strikeout per inning his first season in the Big Apple.  But in 1991, when the Atlanta Braves were in need of a closer, they sent pitchers Tony Castillo and Joe Roa to the Mets to land Pena.  The trade was a boon for Atlanta.  Pena was just what the doctor ordered.  In fifteen games down the stretch, Alejandro saved eleven games on a 1.40 ERA, leading the Braves to the postseason.  He added three more saves to his season’s worksheet in a brilliant NLCS but he lost his only decision in a World Series defeat to the Twins.

Pena saved 15 games for the Braves in 1992 but it would be his last good season.  He became a journeyman after that.  The right-hander spent a poor 1994 season with the Pirates before splitting the ’95 season with three different teams.  He struggled mightily in Boston and was released only to sign on, and get back on track, with the Florida Marlins.  In need of relief help again, Bobby Cox and his Braves dealt prospect Chris Seelbach to Florida to nab Alejandro and he went to his final World Series that year.  He pitched a combined six scoreless innings between the Division Series and NLCS and worked in two World Series games as the Braves toppled the Indians.  After the season he rejoined the Marlins and pitched briefly for the club in ’96 before calling it a career.

THE NUMBERS

W 56/L 52/PCT .519/ERA 3.11/G 503/SV 74/IP 1,058/H 959/BB 331/SO 839

A terrific and wildly eccentric relief pitcher, the southpaw affectionately known as “The Mad Hungarian” was an elite fireman of the 1970s.  A former first round pick, the southpaw liked to keep his teammates on their toes and is purported to have once carried a live grenade into the clubhouse–but he never removed the pin.  Al sported a Fu Manchu mustache and a mane of wild, dark brown hair and with his appearance coupled with his bizarre mound antics, many a batter questioned his sanity.  It was all an act however, in order to psyche himself up for late-inning work.

A first round pick by the Cardinals in 1969, Al shot to the Majors quickly.  Summoned by the parent club in 1970, Al worked in 16 contests that season.  He pitched sparingly for the Redbirds in 1971 and ’72 before enjoying a breakout year in 1973.  That season The Mad Hungarian had a 2.09 ERA in 44 relief outings.  He averaged a strikeout per inning and only surrendered 45 hits in 56 innings.  Since he proved that he could handle pressure situations, Al’s workload increased in 1974.  Al worked in 65 games and fashioned an amazing .889 winning percentage.  His value was noted by the sportswriters who voted him some shares in the Cy Young Award vote–he finished fifth.

Hrabosky’s best year came in 1975 when he led the NL in saves and winning percentage.  The southpaw saved 22 games and added 13 wins out of the bullpen.  More than just a one-inning gunslinger, Al pitched 97 innings and fashioned a great 1.66 ERA.  But Al wasn’t able to keep up his terrific pitching in the next two years as his strikeout rate fell and his hits allowed rate rose.  Before the 1978 season began Al had been traded to the AL West powerhouse Royals for Mark Littell and Buck Martinez.

The change of scenery worked wonders for Al who had one of his best seasons his first year in Kansas City.  The Mad Hungarian missed a lot of bats, indicated by his terrific 6.2 hits allowed over nine innings average.  He nailed down 20 saves for the AL West Champion Royals in a fairly strong bullpen that also featured Steve Mingori and Marty Pattin.  The Royals and Yankees had the best rivalry in baseball going at this time as the two teams seemed to clash in the ALCS every year in the late 1970s.  Al worked in three ALCS games against the Yankees, but in a losing effort.  The following season Al regressed and for the first time since his rookie season he surrendered more hits than innings pitched.

Although Al had a .692 winning percentage for the ’79 Royals, KC let him walk after the year via free agency.  He returned to the National League, signing a deal with the Atlanta Braves.  Used in a set-up capacity by the Braves, The Mad Hungarian had his final great season in the southern state of Georgia.  In the strike shortened 1981 season, Hrabosky fashioned a 1.07 ERA in 34 innings of work.  He played one final year in the Majors in 1982 before he embarked on a broadcasting career.  The Mad Hungarian can be heard doing play-by-play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

THE NUMBERS

W 64/L 35/PCT .646/ERA 3.10/G 545/SV 97/IP 722/H 619/BB 315/SO 548

Aggie began his career as a starting pitcher for the Cocaine Cowboys… or the New York Mets of the mid 1980s.  Later dealt to the Minnesota Twins he became one of the top closers in the game.  A three-time All-Star as a fireman, Rick currently rests 15th in career saves.  The product of Brigham Young had two seasons with 40 or more saves and finished his career with a lifetime strikeout-to-walk ratio close to 3-to-1.

As a rookie with the 1985 Mets, Rick won ten games in just 19 starts.  In the rotation again in 1986, the Mets captured the AL East and went to the postseason.  The club had a fine rotation and Aggie was used out of the bullpen during the postseason.  He pitched five brilliant innings of relief against the Astros in the NLCS but wasn’t as effective against the Red Sox in the World Series.  However, Aggie was credited with the win in the infamous Game Six. 

With guys like Gooden, Darling, Fernandez and Cone around, Aguilera was always upstaged.  He was serviceable in 1987 but after a dismal season in 1988 the Mets shifted him to the bullpen to begin the 1989 season.  Rick fanned 80 batters in 69 innings as he found a new home in the pen but at the trade deadline he was sent to the Twins with three other pitchers for All-Star Frank Viola.  Although he was exceptional for the Mets as a relief arm before the deadline the Twins placed him in their rotation.  However, in 1990, Minnesota converted him to a closer and his days as a starter were seemingly over.  In his first year as a closer he nailed down 32 saves in 1990.

Beginning in 1991, Aggie began a three-year string of All-Star appearances.  The right-handed closer saved 42 games for the ’91 Twins and averaged a stingy 5.7 hits allowed per nine innings of work.  Minnesota made it back to the postseason that year and Rick saved three games in the ALCS and added two more in the World Series.  The Twins won the title and Aggie earned a World Series ring in both leagues before he turned 30.  When he turned 30, Rick posted his second 40+ save season in ’92 by nailing down 41 games–2nd in the American League. 

Aguilera saved 34 games for the Twins in 1993–his final All-Star season.  The player’s strike came at the right time for Rick.  He was struggling through his worst season in 1994 when the game closed its doors.  When play resumed, Rick was back to his old self.  He had a 2.52 ERA for the Twins in 1995 but the team was changing direction, focusing on youth, and they dealt him to the Red Sox for failed uber-prospect Frankie Rodriguez.  Rick saved 20 games for Boston the rest of the way and showed impeccable control by walking all of seven batters in over 30 innings.  But Minnesota was still in Aggie’s heart and he returned to the Twins for the ’96 season.

Minnesota made a foolish move by converting Rick back to the rotation.  He hadn’t started a game since 1989 and his ERA swelled to 5.42 as a starter in ’96.  It was back to putting out fires instead of starting them in 1997 when he saved 26 games.  In 1998 Rick saved 38 games and fanned 3.8 batters for everyone he walked.  Minnesota was still eyeing youth at this time and they traded Rick to the Cubs for prospect Kyle Lohse in May.  He spent his last two years at Wrigley Field.  He stepped away from the game after saving 29 games for the 2000 Cubs.

THE NUMBERS

W 86/L 81/PCT .515/ERA 3.57/G 732/SV 318/IP 1,291/H 1,233/BB 351/SO 1,030