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Best of the best, historical Rays seasons by position: Relief pitcher

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Cap askew, this Rays reliever had a season for the record books

Tampa Bay Rays Vs. Boston Red Sox At Fenway Park Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

With another month until pitchers and catchers even start reporting, it’s time for another Rays history series. This series will focus on the best-ever production from a Rays player in a single season at each position around the diamond.

On Friday we began a new series focusing on the best single-season performance by a Rays starting pitcher. Today we will move on with the series to tackle the question: which relief pitcher had the best single season in a Rays uniform?

Once again, there is a large pool from which to cull, as nearly half a team’s roster each year is made up of relief pitchers. From the 20 years the Rays have been in existence, there were over 350 potential relief pitcher seasons that had to be narrowed down to just a top five. This was not as easy as simply choosing the five highest saves total in Rays history. As the majority of the readers here will agree, saves don’t always tell the story of reliever effectiveness, and there is one particular example we’ll discuss in a second. With that in mind...

Here are the candidates for best season from a relief pitcher in a Rays uniform:

Best seasons from Rays relief pitchers

Name Year W-L SV IP SO K:BB ERA ERA+ FIP xFIP fWAR rWAR
Name Year W-L SV IP SO K:BB ERA ERA+ FIP xFIP fWAR rWAR
Roberto Hernandez 1999 2-3 43 73.1 69 3.00 3.07 161 2.94 xxx 2.2 2.7
Grant Balfour 2008 6-2 4 58.1 82 3.42 1.54 287 2.22 2.91 2.1 2.9
Rafael Soriano 2010 3-2 45 62.1 57 4.07 1.73 226 2.81 3.62 1.8 2.2
Fernando Rodney 2012 2-2 48 74.2 76 5.07 0.60 641 2.13 2.67 2.4 3.8
Jake McGee 2014 5-2 19 71.1 90 5.63 1.89 197 1.73 2.58 2.6 2.7

The most controversial decision (going with 2008 Balfour over 2017 Alex Colome) came down to the aforementioned weighing of saves. While Colome led the league in saves last season, there was no time when Rays fans truly felt safe with him in the ninth. We have seen managers begin to tinker with having their truly-best relievers pitch before the ninth, and there were times last season when it felt like Colome wasn’t even the best reliever on the Rays, let alone determining that he was in the midst of one of the five best seasons from Rays relievers all-time. His 47 saves led the league (the third time a Rays closer has led the league in saves), but Balfour had the far superior numbers in just about every other category. He was worth more by both valuations of WAR, and he had a lower ERA and FIP. While there is something to be said for the added challenge of the ninth inning (hold that thought), it wasn’t enough to push Colome ahead of Balfour in this debate.

Now that we have covered the one possibly debatable candidate, it’s time to shine a light on the rest.

There are many different ways we can go about comparing these five seasons. The most straight-forward is to compare value, as measured by Wins Above Replacement. Of course, we are dealing with a one-season sample of fewer than 100 innings in each of the above cases, so I’m not sure simple WAR comparisons are enough. However, it is at least worth noting that 2014 Jake McGee posted the highest fWAR while 2012 Fernando Rodney posted the highest rWAR.

If we look at saves, Rodney is once again on top, while 2008 Balfour is now last. It’s also worth noting that it was 2010 Soriano who was one of the two Rays to lead the league in saves prior to Colome last year (along with 2015 Brad Boxberger who didn’t make the cut here).

While many may dismiss the save, I do think there is an added challenge that comes with facing batters in the ninth of a close game instead of the eighth inning or earlier. Sabermetric research has shown that batters become more reticent to swing in the ninth, which means a pitcher has to attack the plate more, which means he has to have nastier stuff. Batters are as focused as they ever will be, and for that reason we are going to eliminate Balfour. He was able to face batters before the ninth for nearly all of his 2008 campaign, and while that shouldn’t take too much away from his excellent season, it’s going to have to serve as our tie-breaker here.

Jake McGee’s 2014 season falls into a similar category. If we add his 14 holds to his 19 saves that season, he stands at 33 saves+holds, which still doesn’t come close to the 40+ from Soriano, Hernandez, and Rodney. He also blew more saves (4) than either Rodney (2) or Soriano (3) in their respective seasons (Hernandez also blew four saves). As such, McGee is eliminated.

Hernandez is an interesting case. His 1999 season was strong, but not elite. His 66 games finished led the league, but his strikeout rate was the lowest of any pitchers in the chart above, and in fact, he finishes last in numerous categories above. He just never gave a real dominant vibe while on the mound. At this point in the competition, we need dominance. Sorry, Roberto.

And then there were two - and these were dominant. However, the choice becomes obvious once the two are in a direct, head-to-head comparison. Soriano had a hell of a season in 2010, but look at the chart above, he loses to Rodney in literally every category except win-loss record, which even the staunchest of old-school types wouldn’t argue makes a difference for relief pitchers.

Rodney’s 2012 season was one for the ages. His 0.60 ERA stands as the record for lowest ERA among any pitcher in MLB history with at least 70 IP. He saved 48 of his 50 opportunities for the club, and his 2012 season is one of the highlights of the Rays history to this point. I’d make the case that if this exercise were to be repeated in 20 years, the odds are no one is taking this crown from Rodney.

How do the readers feel, though? Will any of you dare cast a vote for a non-Rodney dissenter? Vote below.

Poll

Which season was the best from a Rays relief pitcher in club history?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    1999 Roberto Hernandez
    (1 vote)
  • 4%
    2008 Grant Balfour
    (5 votes)
  • 4%
    2010 Rafael Soriano
    (5 votes)
  • 86%
    2012 Fernando Rodney
    (95 votes)
  • 3%
    2014 Jake McGee
    (4 votes)
110 votes total Vote Now