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Can Rafael Soriano Top The Greatest Closing Season In Rays History?

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Kind of a loaded question, but we hope so. We can argue about designated roles, and who is really the Rays best relief pitcher, but Rafael Soriano will hold the title. The team, as well as the other relievers, should benefit from that fact. That also means that he'll get a chance to answer the question posed in the title.

Like catcher and right field, the Rays search for a closer more often than not has come up empty handed. While Mariano Rivera has racked up 478 saves since the (Devil) Rays debut  in 1998, 39 different Rays' relievers have comprised the franchise's 427 saves. We now turn to Soriano and hope #40 is the charm.

Looking back on Rays closers, the list is a mixed bunch. Ranging from one of the all-time save kings in Troy Percival down to Lance Carter, the list is hardly a picture of relief aces.  Since we know a closer shouldn't be limited to, or just measured by, saves, I decided to set the criteria for a closer as such: The reliever must have pitched at least 40 relief innings in a season with a pLI minimum of 1.60. Here is the list:

Year

Player

IP

pLI

2009

J.P Howell

66.2

1.82

2008

Troy Percival

45.2

1.79

2008

Dan Wheeler

66.1

1.72

2007

Al Reyes

60.2

1.66

2005

Danys Baez

72.1

2.16

2004

Danys Baez

68

1.7

2003

Lance Carter

79

1.73

2002

Esteban Yan

69

2.05

2001

Esteban Yan

62.1

1.82

2000

Roberto Hernandez

73.1

1.95

1999

Roberto Hernandez

73.1

2.21

1998

Roberto Hernandez

71.1

1.73

 

You'll notice that 2006 is missing; that's because there was zero qualified candidates. No reliever with a minimum of 40 innings even topped a 1.2 pLI. Depending on which part of that season you're looking at, the Rays "closer" could've been any one of the following: Tyler Walker, Dan Miceli, Brian Meadows, Seth McClung, or Shawn Camp. Atrocious.

Now that we have our list, here is how those pitchers performed by FIP:

Year

Player

FIP

1999

Roberto Hernandez

2.94

2001

Esteban Yan

3.23

2009

J.P Howell

3.71

2000

Roberto Hernandez

4.13

2005

Danys Baez

4.2

2004

Danys Baez

4.25

1998

Roberto Hernandez

4.44

2008

Dan Wheeler

4.49

2003

Lance Carter

4.69

2002

Esteban Yan

4.7

2007

Al Reyes

4.85

2008

Troy Percival

5.87

 

Going with this quick and easy method of analysis, Roberto Hernandez's 1999 season is the golden standard for all Rays' relievers. Hernandez not only had the highest pLI in Rays history, but also the lowest FIP for a closer. A quick check of CHONE's historical WAR database says Hernandez was worth 3.1 wins above replacement that season. Nonetheless, the D-Rays finished in last place that season with a record of 69-93.

The surprise on the list has to be Esteban Yan in 2001. More famous for being referenced in the Simpsons than anything on the field, Yan had the second best closing season according to FIP. Despite what some believe, save percentage does not tell you the whole story. 2009's version of J.P. Howell finished third on the FIP list, and had the Iceman not melted late in 2009, he probably would've given Yan and Hernandez a run for their money.

While the older, oft-injured closer approached has worked in short doses, Troy Percival and his predecessor, Al Reyes, are among the worst closing seasons in the franchise's history.

In 2009, Rafael Soriano posted a pLI of 1.66 for the Braves. He finished with 75.2 innings pitched and a fantastic FIP of 2.54. If he can some how duplicate last season's success in 2010, we will witness the greatest closer season in Rays' history. Not to put to much pressure on the man's right arm (it's fragile, after all), if Soriano can give the Rays 65 high leverage innings and maintain an FIP in the 3.5 season, I'll gladly take that.