The Top Five Tribe Bullpens of the Last 20 Years


Which, if any, late-inning units topped the Bullpen Mafia?

No portion of a Major League Baseball team’s roster experiences more in the way of volatility than a bullpen. One year you think you have it perfect, the next, the same guys look like they don’t belong in the same roles. Sometimes its injury; sometimes its just plain ineffectiveness. But year to year, the ultimate success rate of a bullpen is close to impossible to predict.

Terry Francona’s Indians went into the 2013 season with the back end mostly defined: Chris Perez would return for his fourth season as closer. In front of him was the two-headed, right-handed set up monster in Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano. That trio spent the previous two seasons as the rock of the pitching staff. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Perez was out as closer, Pestano went from automatic in the eighth to a guy who spent half the season in AAA and made three September mop up appearances, and Smith was seemingly out there every day. Youngsters Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw essentially took the late inning spots of Pestano and Perez with Justin Masterson, an All-Star starting pitcher, throwing out of the pen due to injury.

As the games now begin out in sunny Arizona, the late inning relief core is close to set. Newly signed John Axford will be the closer. Allen and Shaw will be the right-handed set up men paired with lefties Marc Rzepcynski and Josh Outman. What happens after those five will be determined over the next month. The group has the making of being special. Then again, they could flop. You just never know. I mean, who had Pestano becoming a completely lost soul last season?

This got me to thinking. It is the 20-year anniversary of Jacobs/Progressive Field. We have seen a lot of bullpen groups come and go. Who were the best of the bunch? Let us take a look at the top five Indians bullpens of the past 20 years.

5. 2011 – Chris Perez, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Chad Durbin, Frank Herrmann 

Ah…The Bullpen Mafia. I may be underselling this group a bit, most likely because the team they pitched for went 80-82. With that said, the Mafia was deep, talented, and stuck together the entire year, something that rarely happens during a season. Perez was at the peak of his powers as an Indian. His personality was still being adored, and we only heard positives coming out of his mouth, win or lose. Smith was once again a rock, making 71 appearances and finishing the season with an ERA of 2.01. Despite being almost a right on right specialist at that point, Smitty killed lefties (.152) in 2011. Pestano was the real story. Almost out of nowhere, the rookie emerged to take over the eighth inning and doing so in grand style. He struck out 82 in 62 innings and became the prefect bridge to Perez.

Raffy Perez was back again as that left with the unhittable slide piece. He was once again as dependable as they come, making a team high 71 appearances. Raffy Left wasn’t wowing anyone anymore, but he simply just got the job done. His partner in crime was Tony Sipp, who took over as the key late inning lefty. 2011 was Sipp’s peak. He was 27 and could get both lefties and righties about at close to the same clip. He gave up too many homers (10), but The Sipper handled his business with Smith and Pestano in the seventh and eighth. The long men were Durbin and Herrmann, who both rarely pitched with a lead, but did exactly what they were supposed to do: give the Tribe quality length when called upon.

4. 2001 – Bob Wickman, Paul Shuey, Danys Baez, Ricardo Rincon, Rich Rodriguez, Steve Karsay, David Riske, Steve Reed, John Rocker

Rocker, rocking.

Here was another group that had lots of quality depth but didn’t get the chance to really shine in October as the Indians lost to the Mariners in the ALDS. Wickman saved 32 games and posted his best ERA as an Indian (2.39 in 70 appearances), while averaging just under a strikeout per-inning. Shuey, the Tribe’s former first-round pick, was supposed to have been the closer by this point, but he proved he could never handle the ninth. He was a solid set-up man, however, and ’01 was his most productive season. Handling the eighth, Shuey struck out 11.6 per nine with a 2.82 ERA. Manager Charlie Manuel had a solid Plan B set-up man in the form of Cuban fireballer Danys Baez, who struck out 52 in 50 innings and carried an ERA of 2.50.

You also had a rookie in Riske who arrived looking like a future back-end piece in his 26 appearances (1.98 ERA/9.5 K per 9). Veterans Karsay and Reed did their parts as well, until Karsay was traded for the one and only John Rocker (that didn’t work out too well, did it). From the left side, you had Little Ricky Rincon, he of the infamous Brian Giles trade in 1999, still performing at a high level as one of the top left-handed specialists in the game. A 38-year-old Rich Rodriguez was the other lefty in the mix.

32007 – Joe Borowski, Rafael Betancourt, Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, Aaron Fultz, Tom Mastny

This was one of those seasons where the front office threw a bunch of guys up against the wall and hoped they would stick. They were two years removed from winning 93 games, and only one guy remained in Betancourt. Borowski was picked up along with (the original) Roberto Hernandez in the winter on incentive-laden deals. The hope was that one of these two would be able to handle the closers role. Borowski made us all feel like he was the second coming of Wickman, saving 45 games but none of them came easy. How many closers save over 40 games and post an ERA of 5.07?

Betancourt and Perez were and forever will be known as “Raffy Left” and “Raffy Right.” Those two just didn’t let a lead slip through their fingers as they manned the seventh and eighth innings, depending on the situation. Where the group really came together was when Jensen Lewis arrived from AAA riding his White Horse, striking out hitters with his deceptive fastball. Fultz was steady from the left side most of the season and Mastny will forever hold a special place in my heart for when he mowed down Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and  Mike Lowell in order in the 10th inning of ALCS Game 2 in Boston, which the Tribe would win 13-6 in 11 innings.

2. 1995 – Jose Mesa, Julian Tavarez, Eric Plunk, Paul Assenmacher, Jim Poole, Alan Embree

A close second here. Like the ’05 group, the roles were perfectly defined. Mesa had the greatest closing season in Tribe history, saving 46 games in 47 chances with a 1.13 ERA. Tavarez was money and a guy who would give Mike Hargrove two innings of set up relief. Plunk was in the midst of a solid three year run in the back of the Tribe pen (2.67 ERA in 56 appearances). Assenmacher (2.82 ERA in 47 appearances) neutralized the lefties (.177) while taking his sweet time getting to the mound. Poole and the on-coming youngster Embree interchanged as matchup lefties and middle men.

While Mesa was as dominant a closer as we had ever seen here in Cleveland, the ’95 pen would come up short to the team’s best ‘pen due to depth.

1. 2005 – Bob Wickman, Bob Howry, RH Rafael Betancourt, Arthur Rhodes, Scott Sauerbeck, David Riske, Matt Miller, Fernando Cabrera

This happened.

This group had it all: A dependable closer, two interchangeable power-armed set up men (Howry & Betancourt), a pair of veteran lefties (Rhodes and Sauerbeck), and three young middle men who all contributed. Wickman saved 45 games. Howry (2.47) and Betancourt (73 K’s and 67 IP) were all but automatic with a lead. Sauerbeck was murder on lefties (.162). Rhodes (2.08 ERA in 47 appearances) had his best season since 2002.

Remember, Cabrera was supposed to be the next big thing in the Tribe pen. It turned out that ’05 was his only really great small sample size (1.47 ERA in 15 appearances). Even Matt Miller was money (1.82 ERA in 29.2 IP).

That particular Indians team won 93 games, the most ever at the time for any team not making the playoffs since the format expanded in 1994, and a large part of their success was attributable to the lock-down bullpen. It would have been nice to see what they could have done in October had the team not collapsed during the final week of the season.

  • Harv 21

    I have trouble putting the ’05 pen at #1 because they weren’t tested under fire. I could go with either ’95 or ’07 pens at #1. Raffy Left and Right were so dominant in tense playoff games that it was ridiculous.

  • Hypno_Toad

    I have to agree with you there. The ’07 boys were tested under some serious pressure.

    Does anybody remember how dominant Raffy B was that year? Jim Leyland was using a stop watch when he’d pitch just to try and find a way to stick it to him.

  • Alex Painter

    Yes! Betancourt was incredible in 2007. Incredible. Still pull for the guy, hope he is able to make it back from injury next season.
    Perhaps even more was between the two Raffy’s: 140 IP, 142/24 K:BB ratio. 1.61 ERA, 0.828 WHIP.

  • Ed Carroll

    Not sure a pen should be penalized just cause the rest of the team fell apart that last week. After that year, Howry got an absurd three-year deal, the team (regrettably) extended Sauerbeck, and the other guys either broke (Miller) imploded (Cabrera) or we’re traded (Rhodes, for Jason Michaels). Nice list, TD.

  • Ed Carroll

    Fernando Cabrera is the man who made me finally give up on getting excited about relievers. Jerk.

  • Harv 21

    Not penalizing them, we just don’t know. Archie Manning looked every bit the QB that Fran Tarkenton was, maybe more. But since his crappy teammates meant he never got Tarkenton’s chance to perform well under the greatest pressure against the best defenses, I’m left to surmise. Lots of great athletes die a little in the moment.

  • Ed Carroll

    So one needs postseason success to be considered great? Not sure I agree with that at all. We do know they were a great bullpen, they proved it over the course of a 162-game season.

    By this logic, Craig Kimbrel can’t be considered the best “closer” ever for the Atlanta Braves because he hasn’t had a ton of postseason success (cause Fredi Gonzalez is a slave to the idea of “closers” in the 9th inning mostly). Just not sure that matters, unless you’re talking about best postseason relievers, which is making a small sample of a small sample.

  • Harv 21

    hmm, not what I said, and now not sure if you’re arguing just to argue. Issue here is not greatness but rather ranking performances side by side. My last word: it’s hard to do if circumstances – the pressure, the quality of opponent – is not comparable. September baseball features expanded rosters and teams tanking, the playoffs are a different animal. In ranking hitters, we will remember the gaudy regular season stats of Alex Rodriguez, but also how he choked in the post-season while other great hitters did not. Again: not saying the ’05 didn’t pitch great, saying the other pens had more success to throw on the pile of consideration.

  • Ed Carroll

    Not arguing just to argue. We certainly can compare year to year stats, particularly with years so close together like we have here. You’re correct in that September stats are usually a tad inflated, but the postseason seems to have little to do with TD’s rankings, as it should be,

    And Alex Rodriguez wasn’t a choker. That’s just the silly narrative. The body of his work proves otherwise. Gaudy regular season stats tell us far more than the small sample of the postseason.