Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ten Worst Closer Seasons

  • Note 1: In this ranking, I define a "closer" as a pitcher with more than fifteen saves.  Due to the negative nature of this list, I wanted to allow for the possibility of a closer losing his job mid-season.  I wanted to be able to strike a good balance between the pitcher having established himself as both his team's closer and a bad man for the job.
  • Note 2: Much thanks, as always, to Baseball-Reference and their Play Index.  You'll be seeing a lot of this note over the course of this blog.

1. Brad Lidge, 2009 (PHI): 31 SV/7.21 ERA/1.821 WHIP
My God, what happened?  In 2008 Lidge was one of the best closers in baseball, posting a 1.95 ERA with an ERA+ of 226 and an OPS+ of 52.  In 2009, those last two numbers just about switched places.  Even I--a Mets fan, remember--felt bad for Lidge in 2009.  It was like watching a six-month car crash.  Lidge's ERA+ was 59, the lowest ever among all closers.  His OPS+ was 143, the second-worst single season mark of all time for closers. I don't put much stock in the "save" statistic, except to distinguish a team's closer, but Lidge's eleven blown saves is fairly impressive.  Making matters worse was that, while Lidge issued a normal number of walks (34), his strikeout numbers were way down (9.4 K/9, compared with his career mark of 12.0).  I could keep ranting about all the disgusting numbers Lidge posted in 2009, but I'll just recommend that you visit his Baseball-Reference page if you want more.  If you don't, just take my word for it: Lidge's 2009 was the worst closer season of all-time.  (Side-note: I'd like to think that this picture is of Lidge cursing the world for his 2009, rather than of him pitching the final out of the 2008 World Series.)

2. Dave Smith, 1991 (CHC): 17 SV/6.00 ERA/1.758 WHIP
Maybe I should switch to posting ERA+ and OPS+ instead of ERA and WHIP in the header stat lines.  Looking at Smith's 1991 numbers listed above, you might not think that he had an historically bad season.  No, his stats not good by any measure, but they're pretty great compared to Mr. Lidge.  When you know that Smith posted an ERA+ of 65 (fourth-worst) and OPS+ of 162 (worst), however, your perspective changes.  Smith's ERA+ is not substantially worse than Lidge's, but take a look at his OPS+.  Off of Smith, normal hitters were magically transformed into Mark McGwire (who posted a career OPS+ of 162).  That is not good.  Smith's K/BB ratio of 0.84 is also dismal.  One thing that clouds all of this is Smith's smaller sample size (he only pitched in 35 games in 1991), but he was the Cubs' closer in 1991, so he gets equal weight as Lidge and the other notables of this list.  If you google "Dave Smith" and "Cubs" you'll find quite a few Cubs blogs (such as this) bemoaning the Dave Smith era.  His second place is well deserved.

3. Shawn Chacon, 2004 (COL): 35 SV/7.11 ERA/1.949 WHIP
How Chacon found work after this season remains a mystery to me.  Unlike Lidge, who had an extremely strong career before his year from Hell, Chacon was just a journeyman pitcher who stumbled into the Rockies' closer role during their disastrous 2004 season.  His one saving grace is the fact that he had to pitch half of his games at Coors Field (an extreme hitters' park), so his ERA+ and OPS+--70 and 128, respectively--aren't terrible.  Still, it's hard to make excuses for a WHIP of 1.949, as well as a K/BB ratio of 1.00.  Also, as a SABR fanatic, I know ERA+ is the way to go, but it's hard to completely disregard Chacon's unsightly 7.11 ERA.  One last thing I don't understand: why the Rockies didn't take his job away from him before the All-Star Break.

4. Jose Mesa, 2003 (PHI): 24 SV/6.52 ERA/1.759 WHIP
Mesa's 2003 is the beginning of the "average" section of this ranking.  While the top three are all legendary in their awfulness, Mesa's mediocrity was more even.  One field in which he particularly excelled at not excelling was ERA+: his mark of 62 is the second-worst of all-time.  His 127 OPS+ is not horrible, but his .296 AVG and 6.98 K/9 are.  Mesa's season is a pretty good average of all things that could go wrong for a closer: nothing went well, but nothing was horrific.  It was just plainly bad.

5. LaTroy Hawkins, 2001 (MIN): 28 SV/5.96 ERA/1.918 WHIP
Hawkins' 2001 season is a doozy.  Before I get into the bad, let's look at what's not so terrible: his 77 ERA+ and his 108 OPS+.  That last stat is actually pretty decent, and it's mostly aided by the fact that Hawkins didn't give up a lot of extra base hits (13, or only 22% of his hits allowed).  Okay, now let's take a look at what went wrong here: his ERA; his WHIP; his .291 AVG; and his 0.92 K/BB ratio.  Hawkins is lucky that the top four seasons on this list were so bad, because his 2001 was really one for the all-time garbage heap.

6. Rob Dibble, 1993 (CIN): 19 SV/6.48 ERA/1.845 WHIP
If you're not familiar with the legend of Rob Dibble, here's a brief primer: from 1988-1992 he was one of the most feared relievers in baseball; in 1993, however, he broke his wrist and had a steel plate inserted so he could get back to playing baseball as soon as possible (though he only pitched in 45 games, compared to 67 the year before).  As you can see, that was not the wisest choice.  Dibble's ERA+ of 63 is god-awful, as is his WHIP.  His AVG of .225 is deceptively good: while he did allow slightly more hits than usual (7.3 H/9; career avg.: 6.3), his 1993 walk rate was more than double his career number (9.1; 4.5).  It might be better to examine his OBP, which was .400 (just barely third-worst all-time).  Dibble should have taken 1993 off to rehab his wrist so he could prepare for a hopefully strong 1994.  Instead, he earned himself sixth place on the list of worst closer seasons of all-time.  You tell me which outcome you'd prefer.

7. Matt Capps, 2009 (PIT): 27 SV/5.80 ERA/1.664 WHIP
I found this one to be the strangest entry, since I thought I remembered Matt Capps having performed well in 2009.  In any case, I was wrong.  Capps' opponents treated their confrontations with him like tee-ball, and he was rocked for a .324 AVG and 146 OPS+.  One thing he did manage to do well was keep his walks low.  His 2.71 K/BB certainly isn't good (especially for a closer), but it's a whole lot better than any of the other entries on this list.  That, along with his relatively low WHIP (the lowest on this countdown, in fact) is enough to keep him out of the top five, but everything else guarantees him a spot somewhere in the top ten.  Seventh seemed rather fair.

8. Matt Herges, 2004 (SF): 23 SV/5.23 ERA/1.705 WHIP
Did you know that Herges spent a year as the Giants' closer?  Yeah, me neither.  And it's no wonder: he was awful.  His ERA numbers (ERA+ of 84) were not so bad, but his offensive stats were terrible.  His AVG of .338 boggles the mind, as does his 5.37 K/9.  The man just couldn't get hitters out.  He gave up 12.4 H/9, which is the highest such mark out of all the pitchers on this list.  My opinion on Herges fluctuates, and sometimes I wonder if he should be on here at all due to his ERA numbers... and then I remember his .338 AVG.  Eighth it is, then!

9. Willie Hernandez, 1989 (DET): 15 SV/5.74 ERA/1.672 WHIP
One thing that confused me as I was compiling my closer countdowns was why most of the good and bad closer seasons seemed to come in the past ten years.  I just thought I'd share that musing.  Willie Hernandez is one example that bad closing was alive and well before the 21st century.  Hernandez won the 1984 Cy Young and MVP awards for a rather brilliant year.  By 1989, however, he was clearly on the decline and, as it turns out, it would be his last year in baseball (he was released in mid-August).  Anyway, it's pretty clear why Detroit would have done such a thing.  In his limited (but qualifying!) time as the Tigers' closer in 1989, Hernandez was pretty bad.  Like Mesa in 2003, none of his stats stand out as particularly awful, but there aren't any bright spots either.  His worst stats are probably his 136 OPS+ and his 68 ERA+, which work together to earn him the dubious honor of ninth place.

10. Derrick Turnbow, 2006 (MIL): 24 SV/6.87 ERA/1.693 WHIP
Yes, I know, I can't believe that I'm ranking a man with those stats this low either.  But if you look past the muck--and believe me, there's a lot of it to get through--Turnbow has some redeeming stats, the foremost of which are his offensive numbers and 11.02 K/9.  The problem here is that, despite having all of those strikeouts, he also had a lot of walks.  In spite of what might seem like an obvious top-five candidacy, I'm sufficiently impressed by his 115 OPS+ and .255 AVG to drop him to tenth place.  But, you know, if you were to ask me tomorrow I would probably change my mind.

Others worthy of consideration: Keith Foulke, 2006 (BOS); Doug Henry, 1993 (MIL); Jay Howell, 1987 (OAK); and Mike Williams, 2003 (PIT/PHI).


  1. Closers as a whole are the BIGGEST DRAIN on a team's payroll.

    Lidge was paid over $11M for that gem of a season in 2009. What a waste.

  2. Dibble's might have been the worst decision by a pitcher to try to pitch around injury since Dizzy Dean and his broken toe. Both basically blew up their careers with their decisions.

  3. If you're looking at this subjectively, you have to give strong consideration to Ambiorix Burgos' 2006 campaign, where he somehow managed to blow 12 saves on a 62-win team. The other guys on this list may have had worse seasons statistically, but this guy was simply an awful real-life pitcher. No one else on this list even came close to giving up the 16 HRs Burgos allowed that season.