Major League Baseball players say the postseason is entirely different than the regular season. It makes sense when you consider how some players rise to the occasion while others wilt in the spotlight. Certain playoff legends actually improve when facing the best in the game with a title on the line. However, some athletes can’t stand the pressure. There are players who fail for a run-of-the-mill reason and earn another reputation — that of the disappointing “choke artist.”
Postseason relief pitchers have a special sort of urgency in the playoffs. Managers may go to the bullpen for a couple innings when the game is on the line — and it’s not always the ninth inning. In the first game of the 2016 ALDS between Boston and Cleveland, Indians manager Terry Francona sensed the game was starting to move beyond their control. So, he called on Andrew Miller in the fifth inning. The unflappable Miller turned in two scoreless innings, striking out four Red Sox players to earn the win for an excited Cleveland team.
In his brief postseason career –now at 10.1 IP over seven games — Miller has yet to allow a run (0.00 ERA); he boasts a preposterous 0.39 WHIP while striking out 14. The left-hander is quickly becoming a postseason legend. If he keeps it up, the 31-year-old will be mentioned in the same breath as some of the best postseason relief pitchers to ever take the mound in October. Here are the six relievers on that list.
6. Ryan Madson
Compared to the most elite relievers, Ryan Madson doesn’t have the best ERA (2.91) or WHIP (1.33) in the postseason. However, he ranks third in history with 12.05 strikeouts per nine innings and sixth with 42 playoff appearances. Considering Madson posted a 4-1 record and participated in two World Series wins, he’s among the best ever. His biggest wins came in the 2008 NLCS against the Dodgers (for Philadelphia) and in the 2015 Fall Classic against the Mets (for Kansas City).
5. Mike Stanton
Mike Stanton ranks third in postseason history with 53 appearances (55.2 IP) for Atlanta, Boston, Texas, and New York. Along with Jeff Nelson (a contender for a spot on this list), Stanton saw the most playoff action serving as the bridge to Mariano Rivera for the late-’90s Yankees dynasty. In his 53 October games, the lefty compiled a 5-2 record with a 2.10 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 15 games finished.
Stanton’s best work came in the 2000 playoffs, when he went 3-0 and allowed one run in 8.2 IP (10 SO). If you win three games out of the pen in a single postseason, you’re officially an X-factor. Stanton may not have showcased utterly dominant stuff or gotten the glory the closers get. However, he played a major role in three Yankees titles, often when the game when was on the line in the middle innings.
4. Wade Davis
At 31 years old, Wade Davis has already experienced an extraordinary career out of the bullpen in the postseason. Davis ranks third all time with an 0.84 ERA in 32.1 IP. Meanwhile, his 12.80 strikeouts per nine innings is the best rate in MLB history. Because he was a setup man until 2015, he doesn’t have the save totals of other immortals. However, Davis sports a perfect (4-0) record to go with his other sparkling stats. Should he close for another contender, he might enter the top three. He already has one World Series finish under his belt.
3. Jeremy Affeldt
Jeremy Affeldt was the ultimate middle-innings weapon for Bruce Bochy during the Giants’ World Series wins of 2012 and 2014. How good was he during those title runs? Affeldt didn’t allow a single run over 21 IP across two postseasons. In fact, the big lefty retired with a streak of 22 consecutive scoreless appearances in the playoffs, dating back to the 2010 World Series (his third overall). Only Mariano Rivera had a longer run of dominance in October.
While Affeldt was good in the 2007 and 2010 postseasons, he was a league above the competition in the latter even-year championships. He retired with the fourth-best ERA (0.86) in playoff history, one tick ahead of Babe Ruth and a few ticks behind Wade Davis. Looking at his regular season stats (43-46, 3.97 ERA), it’s obvious Affeldt was built exclusively for the big stage.
2. Rollie Fingers
Since 1960, only three relief pitchers have won the World Series MVP Award. Rollie Fingers took home that honor for his four-game body of work (9.1 IP, 2 ER) in the 1974 Fall Classic he won with the Oakland Athletics — the third straight title by The Swingin’ A’s. Fingers posted a 2.35 ERA with nine saves in 57.1 IP (30 G) across six postseasons. Unlike many modern relievers, most of his appearances were of the two-inning variety, and he never blew a save in his best years for Oakland.
1. Mariano Rivera
There have been many brilliant postseason relief pitchers, but there was only one Rivera. The great Yankees closer started his playoff career as a setup man in 1996 and ended in 2011 after he threw a record 141.0 IP in a record 96 appearances. Across what is more than a full season for a reliever, Rivera posted an 8-1 record (second, all-time), a record 42 saves, and a 0.70 ERA (also the best ever recorded). His 0.76 WHIP is fourth-best in history; his .889 winning percentage is second only to Lefty Gomez (1.000).
He won the 2003 ALCS MVP for his series against Boston (8.0 IP, 1 ER, 2 SV) and the 1999 World Series MVP awards for his work against Atlanta (4.2 IP, 0 ER, 2 SV). But we could post numbers like these for any series in any year he pitched in the playoffs (there were 16). Working almost exclusively with a cut fastball, Rivera worked 23 consecutive scoreless appearances (of course, another postseason record) at one point in his career. We hope we’ll see another one like him, but we doubt it’s possible.
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Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
9 Relief Pitchers Who Won the Cy Young Award
Zach Britton made a strong case for receiving the American League Cy Young Award in 2016. The Orioles closer entered the final week of the season with a 0.56 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and 46 saves without blowing a single save opportunity. Aside from being perfect on that front, Britton allowed a total of four ER in 64.1 IP. Imagine throwing six complete-game shutouts, and then having one 10-inning stretch in which you allowed four runs. Feel free to think of Britton’s season that way.
This performance prompted Cy Young buzz for Britton among writers, which in turn reignited debates about relievers getting an award often reserved for the best starting pitcher. Should a sustained run of dominance out of the bullpen earn a pitcher the award? We’ve heard convincing cases on both sides. Regardless of who wins, Britton deserves to be part of the conversation for his spectacular year.
Still, if Britton wins the award, it won’t be anything new. The last closer to take home the prize did so in 2003 — not exactly ancient history. Yet a win by a reliever only happened once after 1992, making it a rarity this millennium. Here are the nine relief pitchers who won the Cy Young Award since Don Newcombe received the first trophy in 1956.
1. Rollie Fingers, Milwaukee Brewers
Milwaukee only played 109 games during the strike-abbreviated 1981 season. Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers appeared in 47 of them. He threw 78 IP while allowing just nine ER the entire season — good for a 1.04 ERA in mostly two-inning appearances. Fingers, whose name is almost as cool as his mustache, led the AL (Milwaukee transitioned to the NL in 1998) with 28 saves and sported an obscene 333 ERA+. Not only did he win the Cy Young that season; he also won AL MVP.
2. Bruce Sutter, Chicago Cubs
Looking at the career stats of Bruce Sutter, who split most of his playing days with the Cubs and Cardinals, you see people’s change of perception concerning relievers. Sutter placed in the top 10 in MVP voting five times in his 12-year career and became a member of the Hall of Fame after accumulating just 300 saves. Granted, most were of the two-inning variety, including his 1979 campaign, when Sutter nabbed the Cy Young with 37 saves and a 2.22 ERA after throwing 101.1 IP for the Cubs.
3. Willie Hernandez, Detroit Tigers
Willie Hernandez’s 1984 season for the Detroit Tigers stands out both in the left-hander’s career and among relief seasons in general. The closer threw 80 games and a whopping 140.1 IP out of the pen that season at a 1.92 ERA. He led the league in appearances and games finished (68), racking up nine wins along the way. Voters gave Hernandez both the AL Cy Young and MVP for his work. Though voters already cast their ballots, Hernandez validated both by closing three games in Detroit’s ’84 World Series win over San Diego.
4. Dennis Eckersley, Oakland Athletics
By 1992, the closer role was more defined. Dennis Eckersley had one of the best years shutting the door for the Oakland A’s that season. The right-hander converted 51 of 54 save opportunities while finishing 65 games (80.0 IP). Voters could not ignore his final record (9-1) and ERA (1.91), and Eckersley won both AL Cy Young and MVP. Oakland’s first-place finish in the West likely had a lot to do with it.
5. Eric Gagne, Los Angeles Dodgers
Since Eckersley’s win in ’92, only Eric Gagne has swayed voters enough to wrest the league Cy Young Award away from a starting pitcher. But look at Gagne’s season: 77 G, 82.1 IP, 55 SV, 137 SO, 1.20 ERA, 337 ERA+. Among the more amazing stats, the big right-hander was a perfect 55-for-55 in save opportunities and racked up 15 SO per nine innings. Britton’s 2016 candidacy takes a bit of a hit after checking on this masterpiece. Had it been the ’80s, Gagne likely would have taken home MVP, too.
6. Steve Bedrosian, Philadelphia Phillies
If you’re gonna close and want a shot at the Cy Young, you better have good facial hair. Steve Bedrosian fit the bill when he took home the award in 1987, closing for the Philadelphia Phillies. “Bedrock” logged 89.0 IP and 40 saves with a 2.83 ERA. Those numbers do not seem terribly special, and they pale even further when noting that the Phils came in fourth. By those standards, we figure Mariano Rivera would have won four or five Cy Youngs pitching in the ’80s. The year Mo saved 53 with a 1.94 ERA, he came in third on the ballot.
7. Mark Davis, San Diego Padres
Mark Davis may not have had cool facial hair, but the southpaw did join the top ’80s relievers in taking home a Cy Young for his work in 1989. Davis saved 44 while notching a 1.85 ERA in 65 games finished that season. It was by far his best year in baseball. The very next season, his ERA hit 5.11. Mike Scott, who went 20-10 with a 3.10 ERA, came in second that season among the NL’s top pitchers. Greg Maddux took third.
8. Sparky Lyle, New York Yankees
These days, starters who go 13-5 with a 2.17 ERA might get Cy Young consideration. In 1977, Sparky Lyle did that out of the bullpen in an impressive 137 IP for the Billy Martin-era (i.e., Bronx Zoo) Yankees. The big southpaw finished a league-best 60 games that year. It was only the second time in history a reliever took home the Cy Young, and Lyle’s appearances usually lasted two innings.
9. Mike Marshall, Los Angeles Dodgers
Until 1974, no reliever ever took home a Cy Young trophy. LA’s Mike Marshall changed all that. Though he is not a household name among baseball fans, Marshall’s ’74 stats jump off the screen. The right-hander went 15-12 in 106 games out of the pen while posting a 2.42 ERA. If you think 106 appearances sounds absurd (it’s a record), just check his 208.1 IP in relief. That’s insane. To put it in perspective, Britton will get Cy Young votes throwing fewer than 70 innings this season; Clayton Kershaw won the award in 2014 throwing 198.1 IP.
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