After successfully converting his first four save attempts with the team, new Indians closer John Axford blew one on Sunday, entering with a 3-2 lead, but giving up a walk-off home run to Chicago's Alexei Ramirez. These things happen. Even in those four saves, Axford allowed the tying run to reach base in two of them. These things happen, but (as many of us have probably done at various times over the years) I found myself wishing the Tribe could find themselves a real lockdown guy, who didn't just pile up the saves, but made the game feel like it was over as soon as he exited the bullpen. Chris Perez, Kerry Wood, Joe Borowski... these aren't guys I ever felt tremendous confidence in.
When I mentioned this the comments here, a few people replied to say that guys like Mariano Rivera and Craig Kimbrel are the exception, not the rule, and that most teams are trotting out someone shaky. I don't think that's really true though, at least not year after year the way, the Indians to seem to have. Just in the last five years, Kansas City has gotten excellent seasons from Joakim Soria and Greg Holland, Minnesota has had Joe Nathan and Glen Perkins.
The best the Indians have had was the second half of 2010, when Perez became the closer and did great for the final 10 or 11 weeks. By the time the following season began, he'd begun the tightrope act we'd seen from his predecessors. His save percentage was pretty good until 2013, but simply getting saves isn't really what I'm talking about here (though I understand saves are a closer's primary job). I don't need the 1990 version of Dennis Eckersley, but I want a guy who doesn't give up many runs, or many baserunners. I want a guy who doesn't stress me out so much.
It was possible I was wrong about this, and the Indians really have had a normal group of closers, so I wanted a more concrete answer. I went to Baseball-Reference and tracked down every pitcher who saved 25+ games at least once between 2004 and 2013. There have been 209 such seasons over those years, by 93 different pitchers (including Perez, Borowski, and Bob Wickman for the Indians).
There are some pretty terrible seasons in that collection (in 2004 Shawn Chacon somehow saved 36 games for Colorado despite an ERA of 7.11 and a WHIP of 1.94, and I'm sure most of you recall Borowski's crazy 2007 season for the Tribe, in which he saves 45 games while posting an ERA of 5.07), and my next step was to weed them out. I chose a pair of old-fashioned statistics, each of wish does a fine job of measuring the feel I'm talking about: ERA (don't allow runs) and WHIP (don't put guys on base)
My original plan was to take the top 100 (of the 209 seasons) from each category, but that gave me an ERA of 2.70 and a WHIP of 1.12, which was even better than I was really looking to identify. For the sake of roundness, I used 3.00 for ERA and 1.20 for WHIP. Those aren't spectacular, but they're solid, and they feel like what a good closer would put up. In the last ten years, there have been 117 pitcher-seasons with 25+ saves, an ERA of 3.00 or better, and a WHIP of 1.20 or better. That works out to 11.7 per season, which is right about what I was hoping to find. I'm not asking for an elite closer, just someone among the top 10 or 12 in baseball.
Those 117 seasons are what I will describe as a low-stress season by a closer.
117 pitcher-seasons for 30 teams works out to 3.9 per team. Some teams will have had more than their share, while others will have had less, but it turns out that every MLB team has had at least one low-stress season... except for the Indians. Even worse, Detroit is the only other team that hasn't had at least two of those seasons.
The Indians really have had fewer low-stress seasons than they've had the right to, meaning we've had to put up with more than out share of stress.
The @#$% Yankees have had 9 such seasons in the last ten years, due to Rivera. The Padres have had 7 such seasons, with Trevor Hoffman largely to credit. It doesn't have to be one guy doing great work for a long stretch of time though, because the Brewers have had 6 low-stress seasons by 6 different closers; the Mariners have gotten 6 low-stress seasons by 5 pitchers; the Dodgers and Cardinals and Dodgers have each had 4 different closers put up at least one low-stress season for them during the last decade.
Only the Indians haven't been able to find such a player even once.
11.7 low-stress seasons per year works out to 39% of all teams each year on average. The chances of a given team not having one season like that for 10 straight years is 0.7%, which is probably about the same as the chances of a team not having won a World Series since 1948. The Indians sure know how to buck the odds...