A history of Cleveland Indians closers

Jared Wickerham

A look at those who've finished off games for the Tribe during the era of the Closer™

The Indians have signed John Axford to a 1-year, $4.5 million deal (plus incentives) to serve as the team's closer in 2014. We've already looked at Axford's production in recent years and looked at how the Tribe bullpen is shaping up (see the sidebar below for both of those articles). Today I thought I'd take a trip down Memory Lane (Nightmare Avenue?) and revisit various closers from Tribe history.

The save didn't exist as an official statistic until 1969 (when it became the first new statistic in MLB since 1920), and wasn't being even casually tracked until 1960, when sportswriter Jerome Holtzman came up with the idea. The Closer™ wasn't a thing before then either. Relief pitchers existed, but they weren't used the way they are today. When the save was retroactively applied to earlier years, only 2 seasons from before 1960 were found in which a pitcher had 25+ saves, compared to 23 pitchers with that many in 2013 alone. Top relievers averaged ~110 innings during the 1970s, whereas in 2013 no closer pitched more than 76.2 innings and the average was ~62.

It was in the late 1980s that the Closer™ was created. Prior to 1988 the Indians all-time leader in saves was Ray Narleski, who compiled a whopping 53 of them between 1954 and 1958. As I've already said, the save wasn't even a concept then, so don't be fooled by his low save total, Narleski could pitch. He was an All-Star in 1956 and 1958.

The Tribe's first Closer™ was Doug Jones who joined the team in 1986 and began being used in save situations late in 1987. He held the job until mid-1991. He recorded 129 saves with the Indians, with a 3.06 ERA (137 ERA+) in 452.1 innings. He was an All-Star in 1988, '89, and '90; his 10.6 bWAR is the best of any Indians closer, giving him a strong case as best in franchise history.

Submariner Steve Olin took over as closer in August of 1991. He was great in 1992, throwing 88.1 innings in 72 games, with a 2.34 ERA. He was only 26 years old that season, but during Spring Training the following year, he was one of two Indians pitcher killed in a boating accident. For the next two seasons, the Tribe had no set closer, with 4 different pitchers finishing 20+ games in 1993, and 6 different pitchers finishing 10+ games in 1994.

Jose Mesa was named closer for 1995, and he went on to have the best season ever by an Indians closer, with a 1.13 ERA (418 ERA+) and a league-leading 46 saves (still a team record). He was pretty good in 1996, but after a rocky beginning to 1997 he lost the job for a few months, before getting it back for the final weeks of the season. Shortly after that though, his time as Indians closer ended for good when he lost a 9th-inning lead in Game 7 of the World Series.

Mike Jackson took over for part of 1997, and then full time in 1998, when he was one of the best closers in baseball. He also held the job in 1999, though he was not as dominating. He left via free agency at the end of that year.

Next came Bob Wickman. The Indians traded for Wickman at the deadline in 2000. He held the job until being traded away in July of 2006, though he missed more than a year and a half due to an elbow injury and recovery from Tommy John surgery. He collected a team-record 139 saves, with a solid 3.23 ERA (138 ERA+) in 248.1 innings with the Tribe.

Danys Baez filled in while Wickman was out for the entire 2003 season. He was not especially impressive.

Joe Borowski was signed a 2-year, $8 million deal before 2007. That turned out to be the best year the Indians have had in the 2000s, but I have a hard time giving Borowski much of the credit, despite his league-leading 45 saves, because his 5.07 ERA was the worst by any pitcher in history with 40+ saves (a total of 147 seasons). He was even worse in 2008, and was released halfway through the season.

The Tribe went with a committee for the rest of the year, then signed Kerry Wood to a 2-year, $20.5 million deal, at a time when only four relievers in history has ever earned $10 million in a season before. He was mediocre in 2009 (4.25 ERA, 100 ERA+ in 55 innings), then awful in 2010 (6.30 ERA, 64 ERA+) before being traded away fro a bag of chips.

Thus began the Chris Perez era. Perez was great in 2010, then so-so in 2011 and 2012 (though he defied his mediocre peripherals to put up a solid save percentage each of those years). His held his season together with duct tape and good luck for much of 2013, but things imploded for him on August 5, when he blew a 2-run lead against Detroit by allowing 4 runs, and from that point on he allowed 16 earned runs in 18.1 innings. He was non-tendered at season's end.

Now, we get John Axford, who's been successful in the past, but had a hard time of things for much of the last two seasons. The company he's joining is not particularly storied, and it wouldn't take all that much for him to be remembered as one of the team's better closers.

We'll see what happens.

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