The closer's role has long been a topic of discussion. How high should they be valued? What kind of contracts should they receive? Are they Hall of Fame worthy? Is Mariano Rivera a machine disguised as a human?
The Braves are no different, as they have had several intriguing and entertaining pitchers to take the ball in the ninth inning since the run began in 1991. With a new closer set to take the role in 2011 in Craig Kimbrel, I thought I would make a positional ranking based on 1991-2010. Here is a rundown of the best and worst.
1. John Smoltz
After John Rocker left midseason of 2001, Smoltz, who was just returning from Tommy John Surgery, saw some late action out of the bullpen for the first time in his big league career. He took to it, recording a 3.36 ERA and 10 saves in 59 innings to close out the season. He stepped into the role full time in 2002 and began the best stretch a Braves closer has ever had, recording a 3.25 ERA and 128 ERA+ with a 2.7 BB/9 and 9.5 K/9 in 80.1 innings, good for a 2.39 FIP and a league-leading 55 saves. He went to the All-Star Game, finished third in Cy Young voting and eighth in MVP voting, also finishing with a 2.6 fWAR, tied for second-best mark by a Braves closer since '91. But 2003 was the high mark, as he posted a 1.12 ERA and 385 ERA+ with a 1.1 BB/9 and 10.2 K/9 in 64.1 innings, good for a 1.54 FIP and 45 saves. His fWAR of 3 is easily the highest of any Braves closer since '91. His innings were limited by elbow tendinitis, but it was the most valuable season by a Braves closer we may ever see. Smoltz had a 2.76 ERA and 157 ERA+ with a 1.4 BB/9 and 9.4 K/9 in 81.2 innings in 2004, good for a 2.72 FIP and 44 saves, along with a 2.3 fWAR. What may be the most amazing part of Smoltz's closing experience is that he returned to the rotation at the age of 38 in 2005 and threw 229.2 innings, and 232 the year after that, while posting fWAR's of 5.3 and 5.7, respectively. He was a freak of nature and gave the Braves three amazing years out of the bullpen.
2. Mark Wohlers
It had to take a great reliever to force Greg McMichael from his role after his stretch in '93 and '94, and Wohlers was a great one. For the championship team in '95, Wohlers had a 2.09 ERA and 206 ERA+ with a 3.3 BB/9 and 12.5 K/9 in 64.2 innings, good for a 1.88 FIP, 25 saves and 2.6 fWAR, which ties for the second-best mark by a Braves closer since '91. He came back strong in '96, recording a 3.03 ERA and 146 ERA+ with a 2.4 BB/9 and 11.6 K/9 in 77.1 innings, good for a 2.82 FIP, 39 saves and 2.2 fWAR. He also reached the All-Star Game that season. He had one more great year in '97, putting up a 3.50 ERA and 33 saves with a 11.9 K/9, but he was never the same after that, at times throwing the ball 10 feet over the catcher's head and constantly notching extremely high walk rates. For the time he was the closer in Atlanta, Wohlers was one of the best.
3. Billy Wagner
While it is tough to rank a player based on one season, Wagner made it pretty easy for me considering what he did in 2010. In his final tour through the majors, he posted a 1.43 ERA and 275 ERA+ with a 2.9 BB/9 and 13.5 K/9 in 69.1 innings, good for a 2.10 FIP and 37 saves. It was his sixth career ERA below two and fourth season with 100+ strikeouts. He went out in style, earning a trip to the All-Star Game and sealing the Wild Card-clinching save in game 162. Wagner was still touching 100 MPH at times and displaying the nasty slider that gave him such tremendous success as a closer for so long. It may be just one season, but it was a memorable one.
4. John Rocker
Kerry Ligtenberg's arm troubles opened the door for the most controversial closer in Atlanta history. Rocker took the role at 24 years old in 1999 after a 2.13 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 38 innings the previous year. In '99, he posted a 2.49 ERA and 181 ERA+ with a 4.6 BB/9 and 12.9 K/9 in 72.1 innings, good for a 2.73 FIP and 38 saves. His 2.3 fWAR ties for third-best mark by a Braves closer since '91. He helped carry the Braves to the National League pennant despite the numerous remarks that made headlines. The Braves put up with it mainly because he was so good in the ninth inning. In 2000, he posted a 2.89 ERA and 160 ERA+ with a 8.2 BB/9 and 13.1 K/9 in 53 innings, good for a 4.29 FIP and 24 saves. The walk rate was outrageous, and Rocker was so shaken at times he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, but he continued to post a tremendous strikeout rate. Ligtenberg and Mike Remlinger each had 12 saves in 2000, as well. Atlanta's patience ran out after 32 innings in 2001, posting a 3.09 ERA, 10.1 K/9 and 19 saves in 32 innings, but the walks remained high at 4.5 BB/9. He was shipped to Cleveland and saw just 60 innings for the rest of his career.
5. Rafael Soriano
Soriano was the better-known and more successful member of the closing tandem between him and Mike Gonzalez. He came to the Braves in 2007 and gave them 72 innings of strong relief, recording a 3.00 ERA with a 1.9 BB/9 and 8.8 K/9. His 2008 season was lost due to elbow inflammation and eventually surgery. He returned in 2009 and gave the Braves a great year, posting a 2.97 ERA and 139 ERA+ with a 3.2 BB/9 and 12.1 K/9 in 75.2 innings, good for a 2.54 FIP and 27 saves. If not for Gonzalez getting some work, Soriano could have racked up more saves, but it doesn't take away from his tremendous season in any way. Soriano was never given a complete chance to close for the Braves due to injury and Gonzalez, but he did give the Braves two solid years.
6. Greg McMichael
After a tremendous rookie season in '93, in which he was runner up for Rookie of the Year, McMichael earned the closer's job in '94. In '93, he put up a 2.06 ERA and 197 ERA+ with a 2.8 BB/9 and 8.7 K/9 in 91.2 innings, good for a 2.42 FIP. In '94, it was a 3.84 ERA and 111 ERA+ with a 2.9 BB/9 and 7.2 K/9 in 58.2 innings, good for a 2.72 FIP and 21 saves. McMichael was lethal when he was on. The high number of innings early probably killed his chances for a long career, as he never surpassed 33 innings in a season after 1998. He left Atlanta after the '96 season.
7. Kerry Ligtenberg
The Braves didn't miss a beat following the fall of Wohlers, as Ligtenberg stepped in at 27 years old in 1998 and provided one of the best seasons the Braves have had from their closer. He recorded a 2.71 ERA and 154 ERA+ with a 3 BB/9 and 9.7 K/9 in 73 innings, good for a 3.03 FIP and 30 saves. The load was probably a shock on his arm, as he underwent Tommy John Surgery following the season and missed all of 1999. He returned in 2000 and provided three more years of solid work in middle relief, with ERA's of 3.61, 3.02 and 2.97, but he never regained full command or strikeout ability, nor did he regain the closing role. He was only in the role one year, but it was one of the best the Braves have seen.
8. Mike Gonzalez
Gonzalez provided some dominating moments in a Braves uniform, but he also left us wondering what could have been. He was traded to the Braves in 2007 but only threw 17 innings before having to undergo Tommy John Surgery. He returned for 33.2 innings in 2008, posting a 4.28 ERA and 14 saves. He did have a 3.7 BB/9 and 11.8 K/9, both career bests in the small sample size. This was encouraging for the 2009 season, and he did well, recording a 2.42 ERA and 171 ERA+ with a 4 BB/9 and 10.9 K/9 in 74.1 innings, good for a 3.51 FIP and 10 saves. The save total was low because the injury brought forth Rafael Soriano as a fellow closer mate, but also because despite the ERA, he fell out of favor at times due to erratic pitching. If not for the injury, Gonzalez could have provided some good years for the Braves as closer, but nothing great.
9. Juan Berenguer
Berenguer picked up 17 saves and a 2.24 ERA in 64.1 innings at 36 years old in '91. He never had great walk rates, yet he had a 2.8 BB/9 between years of 5.2 and 4.2. His K/9 also spiked to 7.4 between years of 6.9 and 5.2. According to ERA+, it was his best season at 176. According to fWAR, it was his sixth-best season at 0.8. Berenguer only lasted 33.1 innings with the Braves in '92, recording a 5.13 ERA and just one save before getting shipped out. It proved to be his final season.
10. Mike Stanton
Stanton recorded 55 saves in 289.2 career innings for the Braves, but the majority (27) came in '93. He had a 4.67 ERA and 5 BB/9 compared to 7.4 K/9, so oddly it was perhaps his worst season as a Brave, yet it was his one season as the main guy. Stanton's best season in Atlanta came in '91, when he had a 2.88 ERA and 136 ERA+ in 78 innings, including a 2.4 BB/9. The fact that he began his career with the Braves in 1989 and just retired in 2007 makes it seem like he pitched forever.
11. Alejandro Pena
Pena was one of several to share the saves in '92, recording a 4.07 ERA and team-high 15 saves in 42 innings at 33 years old. He only picked up 34 strikeouts but walked 13. He was gone the next season, but he did return for 13 innings in 1995.
12. Bob Wickman
A not-so-favorite reliever that pitched 69.2 innings for the Braves, Wickman came in midseason of 2006 and lit the National League up for 26 innings, posting a 1.04 ERA, 0.7 BB/9 and 8.7 K/9 with 18 saves. However, he fell out of favor in 2007, recording a 3.92 ERA and 112 ERA+ with a 4.1 BB/9 and 7.2 K/9 in 43.2 innings. He blew several leads in the ninth and was apparently not well liked by the team, so he was shipped to Arizona for the rest of the season. He never pitched again.
13. Chris Reitsma
Reitsma only had 25 saves with the Braves, but he was a savior of sorts in 2005 after the disaster that was Dan Kolb. He pitched 73.1 innings that season, recording a 3.93 ERA and 2.98 FIP, including a 1.7 BB/9. He was a ticking time bomb due to no strikeout ability, as well as no ability to induce grounders, all while doing it out of the pen. But for 2005, Reitsma was the go-to guy when Kolb imploded. His own implosion came in 2006 when he was given the closer's role out of Spring Training. He provided a 8.68 ERA and eight saves in 28 innings before losing the job.
14. Dan Kolb
Kolb was a pure disaster that Braves fans would like to forget. He was traded to the Braves after the 2004 season when it was apparent Smoltz was returning to the rotation. He was coming off back-to-back seasons with ERA's below two and three, but the problem was a career 4.2 BB/9 and 5.6 K/9 to that point. He was a ground ball pitcher, yet he struggled with walks. However, the Braves gave him a shot in 2005, and he posted a 5.93 ERA, 4.36 FIP, 4.5 BB/9, 6.1 K/9 and 11 saves in 57.2 innings. He went back to the Brewers in 2006.
Top Five Seasons According to fWAR:
1. John Smoltz (3)
t-2. John Smoltz (2.6)
t-2. Greg McMichael (2.6)
t-2. Mark Wohlers (2.6)
t-3. John Smoltz (2.3)
t-3. John Rocker (2.3)
t-4. Billy Wagner (2.2)
t-4. Mark Wohlers (2.2)
5. Rafael Soriano (2)