What was the best season ever recorded by a reliever in major league history? Many baseball experts point to Dennis Eckersley's 1990 season when the Hall of Fame closer for the Oakland A's posted the lowest ERA ever for a reliever - 0.61 - while recording 48 saves in 73.1 innings of work. His ERA+ of 603 is so far off the charts, it's ridiculous. In fact, MLB Network recently aired a Prime Nine episode highlighting the Top Nine Reliever Seasons of All-Time, and this particular effort was ranked Number One.
Apparently, Prime Nine doesn't believe in all that saber-metrics stuff like the Baseball Reference.com Wins Over Replacement (WAR) measurement. But we do, and Eckersley's 3.2 WAR is good for 9th-place on this list. Strangely enough, Eric Gagne's 2003 season (MLB-record 55 straight saves) may be Number Two on Prime Nine, but is 8th over here. Go figure.
Here's how Gagne and the others fared (Prime Nine's rank in parenthesis) - In ascending order by WAR - along with ERA, IP, CYA & MVP voting.
2003 - Eric Gagne (2) - 1.20 ERA - 82.1 IP - 3.6 WAR (Won NL CYA)
1998 - Trevor Hoffman (8) - 1.48 ERA - 73.0 IP - 4.0 WAR (2nd NL CYA)
1984 - Willie Hernandez (9) - 1.92 ERA - 140.1 IP - 4.6 WAR (Won AL CYA & MVP)
1996 - Mariano Rivera (6) - 2.09 ERA - 107.2 IP - 4.8 WAR (3rd AL CYA)
1977 - Bruce Sutter (4) - 1.34 ERA - 107.1 IP - 6.5 WAR (6th NL CYA)
1986 - Mark Eichorn (7) - 1.72 ERA - 157.0 IP - 7.1 WAR (6th AL CYA)
1973 - John Hiller (3) - 1.44 ERA - 125.1 IP - 7.9 WAR (4th AL CYA)
1975 - Goose Gossage (5) - 1.84 ERA - 141.2 IP - 8.1 WAR (T-6th AL CYA)
Not that the baseball writers who vote on MVP and Cy Young Awards are dumb, but the guys at the top of this list had the lowest Wins Over Replacement calculations - yet the strongest support for postseason awards - whereas the guys like Eichorn, Hiller and Gossage - with exceptionally high WAR totals - hardly received any support at all. Go figure.
Of course, back in the '70s and '80s, the concept of Wins Over Replacement had yet to be developed. Voters typically gave the pitcher with the most wins the most CYA support - or in the case of relievers - an unusually high saves total. Of course, those numbers can be misleading; when Gossage saved 28 games in '75 (he also won 9), he often worked more than just an inning or two to secure the win. Many of the games he entered were in the middle innings with runners on base; his job was to put out the fire, then keep the other team at bay until the last out was recorded. Now those were real saves; it also explains why he pitched about twice as many innings as Eckersley, Gagne and Hoffman; and why his WAR was more than two times higher than those other guys. But what can be expected from part-time help; aside from multi-million dollar contracts?
It's nobody's fault; this is how the game is being managed today. The art of securing saves has become a joint effort, for the most part, often employing the services of a 7th-inning specialist, then the set-up man, then the closer. It's an efficient system, since having three fresh arms coming in to pitch the last thee innings or so to secure a win makes perfect sense. Of course, Gossage used to perform all three functions by himself, thank you very much. Doing it the old-fashioned Gossage way not only freed-up a couple of spots on the roster, it probably saved his team (Chicago White Sox) a little bit of money on payroll expense. Of course, in 1975, that didn't amount to much.
However, in 2013, just about everybody working in the bullpen will be making anywhere from a couple of million to $15 million per year. These salaries are skyrocketing because most front offices in MLB have bought into the notion that relievers (part-time employees) are actually worth as much, if not more than a starting pitcher or position player (full-time employees).
Saves are nice, of course. However, when they come by rather cheaply, their significance is overrated; and for teams looking to trim the payroll, there appears to be no relief in sight - just plenty of relievers.