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Building The Best Bullpen In Chicago Cubs History

These guys had great relief years in a Cubs uniform.

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I certainly wasn’t going to post a “worst bullpen” article without also researching its companion piece.

The same criteria are used here. I limited this search to post-1969 relievers, as that’s the year the save rule became official and the trend toward using relievers differently began. To qualify for this list a relief pitcher had to throw at least 60 innings in the season in question, though as you’ll see, all of these guys cleared that bar, some by quite a bit.

The ranking is by baseball-reference WAR, with the best in this ranking listed last.

Les Lancaster, 1989: 72⅔ IP, 4-2, 1.36 ERA, 1.032 WHIP, 8 saves, 3 blown saves, 3.9 bWAR

Lancaster was one of the big reasons the Cubs won the N.L. East in 1989. He didn’t walk guys, gave up just two home runs, and for good measure won a game against the Giants July 20 with an 11th-inning single.

For Lancaster, that was his only hurrah. He never had another season nearly as good.

Bill Caudill, 1980: 127⅔ IP, 4-6, 2.19 ERA, 1.245 WHIP, 1 save, 3 blown saves, 4.4 bWAR

Caudill’s kind of the odd-man-out here; he piled up this WAR figure primarily as a middle reliever, and he got two starts as well, accounting for 12 of those innings. Later in his career he piled up some saves for the Mariners, eventually saving 106 games in his career. For a while the Cubs were known as the team that would develop closers and trade them away: Willie Hernandez, Donnie Moore and Caudill were all young reliever with the Cubs who had greater success elsewhere.

Lee Smith, 1983: 103⅓ IP, 4-10, 1.65 ERA, 1.074 WHIP, 29 saves, 4 blown saves, 4.8 bWAR

This was the year Smith burst on the national scene. Relievers in this era were still often being used in tie games, thus the 10 losses with just four blown saves. Smith issued a lot of walks — 41 (14 of those intentional) — but made up for that by allowing just 70 hits. It was the first of seven All-Star appearances for him that year, and the 29 saves led the league.

Personally, I think Smith should be in the Hall of Fame. When he retired his total of 478 saves was first all-time, and it’s still third. Only K-Rod, among active closers, appears to have a career that might come close to passing Smith.

Smith had 30+ saves 10 times. Only two other relievers have done that: Mariano Rivera, who will be in the Hall when he’s eligible, and Trevor Hoffman, who should be there.

Bruce Sutter, 1979: 101⅓ IP, 6-6, 2.22 ERA, 0.977 WHIP, 37 saves, 10 blown saves, 4.9 bWAR

Sutter won the Cy Young Award in 1979, the first N.L. reliever to do so (Sparky Lyle had become the first A.L. reliever to win it, two years earlier), and check out that blown-save total — he could have had many more saves, but the 37 saves led the major leagues. Six of the blown saves were in September, when the Cubs went 9-22. Clearly, Sutter was gassed by then, even though relievers like this were used to heavier workloads in that era.

Bruce Sutter, 1977: 107⅓ IP, 7-3, 1.35 ERA, 0.857 WHIP, 31 saves, 9 blown saves, 6.5 bWAR

This was the year that Sutter’s splitter dominated the game. Now it’s a common pitch; at the time no one had ever seen anything like it. You can see that pitch “drop off the table” in this video:

He really was nearly unhittable. Through August 1 he posted a 1.06 ERA and 0.765 WHIP in 85 innings. The Cubs were in first place on that date, 1½ games ahead of the Pirates.

And then Sutter got hurt, and missed three weeks. While he was out the Cubs went 9-11 and fell to 7½ games out of first. They simply didn’t have anyone else who could close games the way Sutter could.

By bWAR, Sutter’s 1977 season is the fourth-best in major-league history (for a reliever using these criteria). Mark Eichhorn (1986, 7.4), John Hiller (8.1, 1973) and Goose Gossage (8.4, 1975) are the three higher. It should be noted that modern relievers likely won’t ever get to these levels because they don’t throw as many innings. The best reliever in 2016, Zach Britton of the Orioles, posted 4.3 bWAR. Britton’s year was in some ways better than Sutter’s 1977 season, but in two-thirds as many innings.