The series I began last week on “best” and “worst” pitching rotations for the Cubs through their history proved to be fun to do and popular.
So I’m continuing it with a look at relief pitchers.
To have a reasonable selection that resembles the way relievers are used in modern baseball, I am limiting this to post-1969 relievers. That’s the year the save rule was made official and relievers began to be used the way they are today (though we didn’t really see the one-inning, with-a-lead-only closer until the 1990s).
The other limit I put on this search was that the pitcher had to throw at least 60 innings in a season. That, I figured, would be the way most relievers who spent the entire season with the Cubs would have been used over the 48 seasons since 1969.
Here, then, are the five worst Cubs reliever seasons since then, again using baseball-reference’s version of WAR. I’ve got them ranked from “highest” WAR (that’s in quotes for a reason) to worst.
Mitch Williams, 1990: 66⅓ IP, 1-8, 3.93 ERA, 1.658 WHIP, 16 saves, 4 blown saves, 0.0 bWAR
One year after Williams, pitching “like his hair was on fire” according to his teammate Mark Grace, helped lead the Cubs to the N.L. East title, he was awful in 1990. It got so bad that not only was he removed from the closer role, Don Zimmer actually gave him two starts in September. The results were not pretty. In fact, the eight runs Williams allowed in those two starts were 21 percent of his season total. He was traded to the Phillies a day before Opening Day in 1991.
Oscar Zamora, 1975: 71 IP, 5-2, 5.07 ERA, 1.394 WHIP, 10 saves, 1 blown save, -0.2 bWAR
Zamora had a decent year in 1974 and got off to a good start in 1975, but then was absolutely horrific from the middle of June on, posting a 7.64 (!) ERA in 33 innings, including this ridiculously bad outing against the Reds June 13. Zamora allowed 17 home runs in those 71 innings, leading some Cubs bleacherites to start singing (to the tune of “That’s Amore”):
When the pitch is so fat
That the ball hits the bat
He is not the only pitcher from that 1975 season to appear in this list. Read on, if you dare.
Ryan Dempster, 2006: 75 IP, 1-9, 4.80 ERA, 1.507 WHIP, 24 saves, 9 blown saves, -0.4 bWAR
Dempster had been pretty good closing games in 2005, but 2006 — different story. The worst of the blown saves was probably this game — July 1 against the White Sox at Wrigley Field. After getting the first two outs in the ninth, Dempster gave up a single and a walk and then A.J. Pierzynski hit a three-run homer. You can imagine how well that went over at the ol’ ballyard.
Dempster recovered from this disaster to have some good years after he returned to the Cubs rotation in 2008.
Terry Adams, 1997: 74 IP, 2-9, 4.62 ERA, 1.770 WHIP, 18 saves, 4 blown saves, -0.6 bWAR
The blown save count here is as low as it is because Adams wasn’t even made the closer until August, after Mel Rojas was traded to the Mets. Rojas doesn’t make this list because he missed the inning cutoff by one — and Rojas’ 1997 season is probably worth a post all its own, as he was awful for two teams that year.
Adams gave up a lot of hits and walks, but did manage to keep the ball in the park — just three homers allowed.
Darold Knowles, 1975: 88⅓ IP, 6-9, 5.81 ERA, 15 saves, 6 blown saves, -1.6 bWAR
This is almost inexplicable. Three years earlier, Knowles had been among the best relievers in baseball and in 1973, he appeared in all seven games of the World Series for the A’s (he’s still the only reliever ever to do that). He pitched fairly well for the Cubs in 1974 after being acquired (along with Bob Locker and Manny Trillo) in the deal that sent Billy Williams to Oakland.
But ‘75? Ugh. Awful. Those were the days when an ace reliever was known as a “fireman,” in other words, coming in to put out the fires other pitchers had left for them. Knowles became known among bleacherites as “The Torch,” the guy who would make things worse when he came in.
The 1975 Cubs set a franchise record for walks in a season that stood until it was broken in 2016, and was third in the National League with 712 runs. But between Knowles, Zamora and some other awful relievers who I won’t name here but who you can look up if you dare, the team allowed 827 runs, 88 more than any other N.L. team that year.
Just missing this list: Kevin Gregg (2009), Ryan Dempster (2007) and Phil Regan (1970), all with 0.1 bWAR.