The concept of the closer has been one of much debate in the baseball industry. There have been numerous studies that claim that closers are generally overrated. If may be difficult to argue with those studies from an analytic standpoint. And readers of this website will already know that we typically have a strong analytic bent to many of our articles. But in this case, after watching and analyzing baseball closely for the last 50+ years of my life I will repeat something I’ve said many times:
Closers are overrated…….until you don’t have one
Here are the top five seasons by a closer in Diamondbacks history
Number 5: Matt Mantei, 1999
The Diamondbacks had a really good team in 1999, but something was missing. Greg Olson, who had done such a good job in 1998, was struggling with blown saves and a high ERA. It felt like the team was a good closer away from being dominant. They were 47-41, 3.5 game out of first on July 10th.
The D-backs traded Brad Penny for Matt Mantei, who made his first appearance with the team on July 11th, getting the save. The excitement when Mantei came into games rocked Bank One Ballpark, and solidified the bullpen. His 22 saves in 25 chances were a key to stabilizing the rest of the bullpen and team as they went 53-21 from the time he was acquired on their way to winning the division by 14.5 games.
Number 4: Jose Valverde, 2007
It was hard not to rank Valverde higher on this list. With a flair and panache that was unmatched “Papa Grande” swashbuckled his way to a franchise best 47 saves. His 23 one run saves are also the most in franchise history. But those came in 30 opportunities, and all seven of his blown saves were of the one run variety.
While his 87% save rate was not the greatest, there is no denying the importance of his role on a team that played 52 one run games, winning 30 of them. He was emblematic of a team that had one after another nail biting wins on their way to a division title.
Number 3: J.J. Putz
Signed as a free agent by Kevin Towers, Putz was the central piece to a bullpen overhaul. Simply put, he was an efficient machine. He recorded 16 straight saves to start the season, not blowing his first one until June 1st. His 45 saves are the second most in franchise history, as is his save percentage.
He didn’t walk batters, issuing just 12 free passes while striking out 61. There was little drama as he simply came in, got his three outs, and recorded the save almost every time. The only thing keeping him from the top of this list was the lower workload, which was carefully managed due to his injury history. He was only called upon to get more than three outs just one time all season, resulting in just 58 innings of work in 60 outings.
Number 2: Brad Ziegler 2015
Brad Ziegler was arguably the best reliever in Diamondbacks history. Whether operating in the closer role or as a fireman in the 7th or 8th inning, he was constantly called upon in the tightest situations and almost always delivered. Often times it came via a ground ball double play with men on base. But for this exercise I decided to honor his 2015 season.
His 30 saves in 32 chances resulted in the best save percentage in franchise history. He was also called upon to work in 34 non save situations, and allowed just 4-20 inherited runners to score. His 223 ERA+ that year is tied for the 3rd best of any pitcher in D-backs history. And he did all this while striking out less than 5 batters per nine innings.
Number 1: Byung-Hyun Kim, 2002
Kim was thoroughly over worked in 2001, throwing a franchise record 98 regular season relief innings and then 6 more in the playoffs prior to the world series. After being run into the ground like that, he was then asked to work multiple innings on back to back nights in the World Series, resulting in an epic meltdown that he is mostly but unfairly remembered for.
Often overlooked by D-backs fans is how strongly he bounced back the very next year. Manager Bob Brenly once again leaned heavily on him, getting 84 innings from the whirling submariner. All he did was put up a 223 ERA+, tied for 3rd best in franchise history and racked up the highest WAR total ever by a Diamondback reliever. In addition to his 42 save chances he was also asked to work in 30 non save situations, and 21 times called upon to record more than three outs. He allowed just 7-34 inherited runners to score. The combination of his whopping WAR and WPA (Win Percentage Added) are unmatched in franchise history.
Greg Olson was the team’s closer in their first year in 1998 and converted 30 of 34 while posting a 3.01 ERA. Fernando Rodney roller coasted his way to 39 saves in 45 chances in the team’s 2017 Wild Card run.