Best Cardinals of All-Time - Relief Pitching Edition

There have been 32 men lucky enough to have thrown 150 or more innings in relief for the St. Louis Cardinals organization - and not throw more innings as a starting pitcher. Of course, since this is the relief pitcher edition, I had to throw out any players who threw more innings as a starter than they did as a reliever - taking 8-10 very good players out of the equation.

Side note: After going through the research for this exercise, seeing Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Eduardo Sanchez, and more anchoring this current bullpen, we could be entering a Golden Era of relief pitchers here in St. Lousi!

From there, I used a very complicated formula involving:

  • Saves
  • Wins
  • Losses
  • IP
  • Games Finished
  • ERA
  • ERA+
  • FIP
  • WHIP
  • K
  • BB
  • HR
  • H
  • H/9
  • K/9
  • BB/9
  • K/BB
  • HR/9
  • BAA
  • K%
  • BB%
  • LOB% (left on base percentage)

I then took this data and ranked the players at each position against each other, accounting for small or large differences in each statistic in able to see who was the best of the best.

In the spirit of MLB Network's "Prime 9" show, we'll do the top 9 St. Louis Cardinals relief pitchers of All-Time today:

9) Al Hrabosky is known to many St. Louis Cardinals' fans today as "The Mad Hungarian" or "Hungo" (and sometimes as that crazy announcer that we don't know why is still announcing games.) Hrabosky was a first round pick in the 1969 January draft and quickly made it to the majors in 1970 - with a September call up. He was not great in his call up and spent the next two seasons in the minors earning late season call ups again. In 1973, Hrabosky made it to the big league club to stay - and he did not reliquish his position until the Cardinals traded him to the Kansas City Royals for Mark Littell (21st best reliever all time) and Buck Martinez (who then was sent to Milwaukee for George Frazie - another relief prosepct) after the 1977 baseball campaign. In his 5 full seasons with the club, he threw 400+ innings of 128 ERA+ ball from the left side. He struck out over two for every one he walked, rarely gave up the long ball, and finished the 6th most games in franchise history. He struck out over 20% of the men he faced, held opponents to a .223 batting average against, won twice as many games as he lost (40-20), and saved 59 games. That lands him at #9 of our top 9 Cardinals relievers of all time.

8) TJ Mathews was quite a bit of an unsung youngster when he was with the Redbirds. He is probably best known for being a part of what brought Mark McGwire to St. Louis - in a 1997 trade, during his third season in the majors. When the Oakland Athletics released him partway through the 2001 season, St. Louis was quick to jump on it and sign him to a contract to finish out that season with them - and Mathews came through quite well for those 10 appearances, before signing with Houston to play his last season just a couple of months later. In 174 innings over 140 appearances, the right-handed Mathews had a 167 ERA+, the best of the 32 men on our list. He struck out 22.8% of the men he faced, while walking 8.6% and stranding 78.8% of the men that were on base in his time in St. Louis. His 8.5 K/9 IP is tied for second to only Jason Motte (see later on the list) on our list of 32. A bit surprisingly, Tony La Russa (and Jorgensen/Torre his rookie year) did not often give Mathews the ball in the crucial situations. Mathews only finished 50 of the 140 games in which he pitched and earned 8 saves, when he could - but he pitched well enough (when given the opportunity) to earn 8th on this list.

7) Bruce Sutter might be the most well known closer to Cardinals fans of the 1980s. His vicious split finger is one of the most recognizable pitches of all time. His strikeout to end the 1982 World Series against the Milwaukee Brewers (then of the AL) is an image forever etched into the minds of St. Louisans - much like Waino's 2006 stirkeout of newly acquired Carlos Beltran to win the NLCS. After spending his best five years with the Chicago Cubs, Sutter traded in the losing ways of Chicago's north side for 2 great seasons, followed by 1 crappy season, followed by an incredible season in St. Louis. Sutter threw nearly 400 innings in the Birds on the Bat uniform of the Cardinals, finishing 203 of his 249 games played - and saving 127 of the 203 games he finished. He led the entire league in saves 3 out of the 4 years he was in St. Louis, and averaged 32 saves in those four seasons. In 4 years, he twice finished 3rd and once finished 5th in the CY voting - as a closer. He also finished 5th, 6th, and 8th in those three seasons in the MVP voting - again, as a closer! He did not have overwhelming other numbers. His K rate was a bit low on the list at 16.1%. His walk rate was fairly low at 6.9%, but not overwhelmingly so. His 78.6% LOB% was average on this list. Bruce Sutter simply got it done - and won a World Series in the process.

6) Jason "Applesauce" Motte closed out the St. Louis Cardinals' 11th World Series Championship this season with 5 saves in 12 post-season appearances. He struck out 8 and only walked 1 in 12 1/3 innings pitched in the post-season. He only gave up 5 hits in those 12 1/3 innings, although 1 of those was a home run in the World Series. Strangely enough, his best attribute is his fastball and his strikeout numbers were way down in the playoffs. Jason Motte leads our list of 32 with a 9.0 K/9 IP and K% of 24.6% (over 2 % better than the next best) in the regular season. He gives a new meaning to the word "Fireman" out of the bullpen, as he just throws 96 mph beebee after 96mph beebee after 96mph beebee. He does what "Wild Thing" in Major League wanted to do, except in real life. Over the last two seasons (120 1/3 innings), Motte has struck out 117 men and walked only 34. He has allowed only 90 hits in those 120 1/3 innings. His 2011 WHIP was under 1, at 0.956. This season he allowed only 49 hits and struck out 3.94 for every 1 that he walked. Another season like this - plus a full season of saves, as the de facto closer of the Cardinals, a label never given to him in 2011 - could catapult him higher on this list.

5) Todd Worrell could have been higher on this list. Much like Matty Mo (in the starters' category), Worrell's injuries and leaving St. Louis early hurt his chances to be higher. Worrell burst on to the scene in the World Series losing season of 1985 with 21 2/3 great innings in the regular season and 11 more very good innings in the playoffs. 1986 was his first full season in the majors and he won the Rookie of the Year Award in the NL, leading the league with 36 saves and 60 games finished - throwing over 100 innings in the closer role. He then threw 230+ innings over the next three years before getting injured and missing from September 5, 1989 until April 6, 1992. That's two full seasons (1990 and 1991 and the one month of 1989) missed with injury - and those two years were when he was age 30 and 31, pretty much the prime for a closer. Worrell became one of 3 setup men to Lee Smith (look further on this list) upon his return and pitched well enough to earn $17.25M over 5 years with the Dodgers to end his career. His 129 saves are still 3rd on the St. Louis Cardinals franchise leaderboard, just 2 ahead of Bruce Sutter and just one season (31) behind Lee Smith for second. The most amazing part about Worrell was that he stranded 81.7% of all runners - a Cardinal reliever best.

4) Bobby Shantz would be very hard for me to list at #4 if he weren't so darn good - the reasoning, he only spent one full season in the St. Louis Cardinals' uniform - 1963. He arrived early enough in the 1962 season to throw in 28 games (57 1/3 innings) and departed after 16 games (17 1/3 innings) of the 1964 season (which turned out to be his last.) First of all, in 2 of the 3 seasons he was in St. Louis he won the Gold Glove - as a reliever. He did that 6 other times as well. As expected, with such a short time in St. Louis, he led the list of 32 players in least walks allowed and hits allowed. However, Shantz held opposing hitters to Mendoza line numebrs - a .199 batting average against over 154 1/3 IP in St. Louis! That's 6.6 hits per 9 innings pitched! He did that while striking out over 20% of the hitters that came up to face the tough southpaw and walking just 7% of the batters. He also stranded 75% (3 of every 4) of the baserunners. He did it in very tough circumstances, too; he did it finishing 61 of the 99 games in which he pitched as a Cardinal. Welcome to #4 on this list, Bobby Shantz - and with the way you threw, I resent your short time here MUCH more than I do your being in my top 4.

3) Jason "Izzy" Isringhausen's success in St. Louis has been slightly overshadowed by his late career failures in 2006 and 2008 with the Cardinals. We'll start with the bad. At the age of 33 in 2006, Adam Wainwright burst onto the scene late in the year. We all know how incredible he has become - one of the top 3-10 starters in the majors when healthy - and he was that good early on. Waino came out of the bullpen in that year, however, and Izzy lost his job to Waino during the championship run. In 2008, Izzy was 35 and his body finally broke down. Jason Isringhausen also had 5 of the best seasons at closer that St. Louis has ever seen. In his 7 total seasons in St. Louis, Izzy garnered 217 saves, which leads the franchise. From 2002 to 2004, when the Cardinals won 302 games, Izzy saved 101 of them. In those 3 years, Izzy had a 159 ERA+ and gave up 7 total home runs in 182 2/3 innings pitched. To put that in perspective, Salas gave up that many in 75 innings this year. Ryan Franklin gave up 9 in 27 2/3 innings this year. He gave up 0 HR in 2002 and 2 HR in 2005! His three year total was 0.3 HR/9 - a dead ball era stat - in the middle of the steroid era. In 2004, when the Cards won 105 games, he led the league with 47 saves. His 300 career saves are still in the top 25 all time for MLB, while his games finished are only in the top 40. That's a great rate of conversion and why he is at #3 on this list.

2) Lee Smith was a man who was larger than life as a Cardinal. Like others on this list, he left his best years in other cities, coming to St. Louis well after his prime. That doesn't mean that he did not have good - or great, or incredible - seasons here in the Lou. It does not sit well with me, looking back, that Smith only threw most of 4 seasons with the Cardinals - joining them near the beginning of the 1990 season and leaving near the end of the 1993 season. Lee Smith pitched in a time when closers were almost omnipresent (not to blaspheme here). He finished 209 of his 245 games in a Cardinal uniform and got a save in 160 of those 209 finishes. His 160 saves with the Cardinals are second to only Jason Isringhausen (#3 on the list). Not only was Lee Smith known for his blazing fastball, with the Cardinals he walked only 2.3 batters per nine innings. That was tops amongst our 32 contestants for "best reliever" and also gave him the lead in the K/BB category at 3.62. Wow. Smith left over 78% of the runners he either inherited or allowed to reach base on said bases. He also struck out 22.5% of the batters he faced - 2nd on the list to Jason Motte (#6). Great career - and great 4 seasons in St. Louis.

1) Joe Hoerner came to the St. Louis Cardinals for his 3rd through 6th seasons in the big leagues at the age of 29. He threw with the Cards from 1966 to 1969. This was an era in baseball where 20 saves was phenomenal. In the 4 seasons Hoerner pitched in St. Louis, he threw 61 innings per season. He finished 34 games a year, earning saves in 15 games per season. He struck out 3 men for every one that he walked. His ERA+ was 161 over those four seasons - or about what Jason Motte did in 2011 (his best season), but for four straight years. His WHIP was a miniscule 1.019. Out of the 32 men on this list, he had the best ERA, FIP, ERA+...oh, and he stranded over 80% of baserunners - one of only 4 men to do that. He was absolutely incredible with the Cards and tops our list of best Cardinals relievers of all time!

Congratulations to those great Cardinal firemen coming out of the bullpen!

The entire list of 32:

  1. Joe Hoerner - 26.88
  2. Lee Smith - 26.77
  3. Jason Isringhausen - 25.59 (large drop off)
  4. Bobby Shantz - 25.46
  5. Todd Worrell - 24.73 (medium drop off)
  6. Jason Motte - 24.50
  7. Bruce Sutter - 24.27
  8. TJ Mathews - 24.25
  9. Al Hrabosky - 23.94
  10. Diego Segui - 23.18 (medium drop off)
  11. Lindy McDaniel - 23.02
  12. Ken Dayley - 22.91
  13. Ryan Franklin - 22.26 (medium drop off)
  14. Steve Kline - 22.17
  15. Buddy Schultz - 22.14 (no relation to Barney, according to b-r)
  16. Barney Schultz - 22.02 (no relation to Buddy, according to b-r)
  17. Dave Veres - 22.00
  18. Mike Garman - 21.80
  19. Mike Timlin - 21.75
  20. Frank DiPino - 21.70 (okay, the continous "rounded numbers" ending in 0 and 5 are getting a bit ridiculous here)
  21. Mark Littell - 21.46 (that's better)
  22. Mike Perez - 21.34
  23. Hal Woodeshick - 21.30
  24. Cal Eldred - 20.94
  25. Randy Flores - 20.56
  26. Jeff Lahti - 20.46
  27. Cris Carpenter - 20.35 (no, not THAT Chris Carpenter)
  28. Kyle McClellan - 20.14
  29. Ron Willis - 19.76
  30. John Frascatore - 18.73 (large drop off)
  31. Jim Kaat - 18.65
  32. Brad Thompson - 18.61
Thanks for reading, everyone!
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