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Brantley's All-Time MLB Team Part 3: Relief Pitchers




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In case you're new to the series, welcome to the third and final installment of my All-Time MLB Team series!


This post deals with relievers, and I'll provide the same explanation included in the first post, which included position players.


This 3-part series is inspired by Bill Simmons, who, in his wonderful Book of Basketball, described a great way to evaluate true all-time teams when talking about sports.


Let's say aliens invade and threaten to blow up the Earth, but they're going to play us in a seven-game baseball series to give us a chance to win back our planet.


They give us a time machine and tell us to go get whoever we want, to fill out a 25-man roster (because I like 25 more than 26 as a number) as we see fit, with a group of players from across eras.

Of course, not only would we have to pick the player, but we'd also have to pick the specific season from which to pull him, a 2-pronged dilemma focusing more on players at the peak of their talents than careers.


The more savvy amongst you might think, "Wouldn't you just pick the best players from our current era and some steroid guys?" Yeah, if that scenario played out, that would probably be our strategy.

But let's set aside the idea of human evolution, meaning players today are far more talented than the players of the past, and assume the aliens perform drug tests before this Universal Series, so to speak, begins.


Now, relief pitchers are a bit like kickers in the NFL.


They're volatile, prone to sudden and unexplained fall-offs, and it can be difficult to predict or project their performances over time.


Not only that, their sample sizes are often so small that even their result stats can be misleading or incomplete because one blowup outing does even more damage to a reliever's stats than a starter's.


So when deciding this, I might be a bit less focused on the typical process stats I talked about for starters and more focused on results stats. But that doesn't include saves.


Let's rip the band-aid off right now; saves are a useless and ultimately harmful stat that has set bullpen use methodology back decades. The way saves are calculated and decided upon is so weird and arbitrary that it just makes no sense to focus on them other than for the trivial knowledge of who closed out a game.


Unfortunately, teams focused on it quite a bit following the stat's invention in 1959, leading to sub-optimal relief pitcher usage and leading to elite "relief aces" being turned into closers that only pitch in the 9th for some arbitrary reason (even though the game can be decided earlier in the game when your highest-leverage arms should actually be deployed).


So, while I don't care about saves, it will seem like I do because very often, a team's best relievers will rack up a fair amount of them simply because of the way they were deployed.


Alas, I digress. I'll be focusing on stats like Win Probability Added, ERA+ (shudder, I miss FIP- already), shutdowns (a stat where if a reliever added 6% of WPA to their team in their appearance, they get credit for a shutdown, so still not as useful as we'd like but it's better than saves) and other more appropriate stats for relief pitchers as opposed to starters (notice I didn't call them closers; that's on purpose).


But that's enough chit-chat; let's get to the bullpen arms that will fill out the rest of this team.


Fernando Rodney, 2012


Am I letting my bias as a Rays fan show here?


More than a little, but Rodney did have a 0.62 ERA (I know FIP is more important, but throw me a bone here; his ERA- was 16 if that makes anyone feel better), 43 shutdowns, and a WPA of nearly 5. Compared to the other pitchers on this list, these numbers are going to look a bit mediocre, but I'm going to include a Rays player, damn it.

Plus, his Bugs Bunny change-up was working wonders that year, combined with his high-90s fastball, and the coolness of his off-kilter hat and the arrow celebration was just too much to pass up.


Zach Britton, 2016


An ERA- of 13, a FIP- of 44, and a 6.33 WPA, yet he might be more remembered for being left in the bullpen during the Orioles' Wild Card loss to the Blue Jays that year (not at all his fault).


Britton had one of the most dominant seasons of any lefty reliever in baseball history, and he did it with a filthy sinker that induced an 80% ground ball rate. He wasn't the strikeout machine that some of these other guys were, but he got the job done a whole lot.


Bruce Sutter, 1977


This Sutter season has the highest WAR of any relief pitcher season ever at 5.2, so we had to include him based on that alone.


But, let's try not to get lost in the stats (I know that might seem like what I'm doing, but I promise I do watch baseball. I don't just look at spreadsheets and Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs all the time); Sutter's split-finger is still one of those HOF pitches that you'd probably want your Franken-pitcher throwing if you could choose 4 or 5 pitches from any pitcher in history for a guy to throw (we'll get to another one of those types of guys later; want to guess who?).


He used it to great effect in '77, submitting a 39 FIP- in 107.1 innings, a workload we probably won't see too often from a reliever moving forward. Sutter was a classic fireman-type bullpen arm, someone who could be incredibly valuable as a mult-inning relief man.


Sutter also had an 83% left-on-base rate, 39 shutdowns, and a WPA of 5.18.


Billy Wagner, 1999


Another guy left out of the Hall that I'm totally not including to try and further his case, Wagner's WAR suffered at the hands of improper relief pitcher usage (coming in at 3.6), but his 37 FIP- and 43% K-rate both more than makeup for it.

Wagner had that high-octane fastball from the left side with a super slider to contribute to his 37 shutdowns for the year and 5.32 WPA for the season.


Dennis Eckersley, 1990


By this point of his career, Old Eck was a savvy, 35-year-old vet, but he submitted his best season as a pro in '90, with a 16 ERA- and 35 FIP-.


While pitch data wasn't quite what it is now back in '90, Eckersley had the reputation of possessing a dominant slider (which might be referred to as a sweeper in today's game, but who knows) and a great sinker.


He could be a tremendous late-game option for an inning, but maybe not someone who you'd want going out there for more than that.


Andrew Miller, 2016


Another 2016 guy in a group that skews a bit more modern than the others, Miller, was just too nasty not to be included on this team. Miller was truly at the height of his powers this season, getting traded to Cleveland mid-year and helping them secure an AL pennant.


While I've mentioned previously that postseason performance shouldn't influence your thinking too much, Miller was so good in the regular season (a 14.89 K/9 that exploded my brain looking at it), his ALCS heroics were legendary, earning him the MVP for the series due in no small part to his usage as a throwback type of reliever that would come in at any point in the game to shut down any potential rallies by opponents.


His 6'7 frame and lanky, funky delivery made his already plus-plus pitches that much more deceptive. Think of the middle ground between Chris Sale and Randy Johnson. Continuing to get as many different looks out of this pen as possible, Miller just gives us another multi-inning relief option to throw off the aliens' timing and make them uncomfortable at the plate.


Mariano Rivera, 1996


"What? '96 Rivera wasn't even the Yankees' closer!" Boo. Stop it. Reducing Rivera's amazing career to "he got the last three outs of the game a lot" ignores what truly was the best year of Rivera's accomplished career.


He threw over 100 innings and had a 40 FIP- (a big deal for this year; it's maybe not the height of the steroid era, but hitters were certainly starting to look a lot more jacked), as well as a 5.26 WPA, by far the highest for his career.


If Rivera had been used this way the rest of his career, I have no doubt that people would remember him a bit differently, but he may have been way more valuable for some already great Yankee teams.


I will give them credit, though; Rivera was used far more creatively than most other closers of his time period, being an expert in the multi-inning save (yuck, I can't believe I just wrote that).


Regardless, give me Rivera and that impossible-to-hit cutter.


That does it for the All-MLB Team. Feel free to disagree as much as you'd like, but at least this could spark some baseball conversations at a time when baseball talk is a bit limited. I mean, when the hell is Blake Snell going to sign anywhere?

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