The Dodgers re-signed Eric Gagne to a $550K contract today, APreported.
They further offer that Gagne is "Coming off one of the best seasons for a reliever in the big-league history." Gagne did save 52 (out of 56 chances) last year with a 1.97 ERA in 82.1 innings. Those 52 saves are the fifth highest all-time, though only good enough for second place last year (behind John Smoltz' 55 saves).
Anyway, aside from the high save totals, was his season really that impressive, I wondered. Opponents batted .189 against him, he has a .89 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), and he had 16 and 114 strikeouts, which translate into a 7-1/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings. All very worthy numbers, but are they among the best "for a reliever in the big-league history"?
Well, I have a table of team closers from my reliever history study. It contains all of the team save leaders from the dawn of time. Since what constitutes a closer has changed over time, this, probably the definition, is what I use. Anyway, there are 210 such "closers" with ERAs under 2.00.
If you want to limit this definition to something more closely matching the definition of a closer from the late-Seventies until today, we can limit this group to just those pitchers who recorded 20 saves in the season discussed. That gets us down to 83. Here they are in ascending ERA order:
The things about Gagne's 2002 campaign that impress me more than the saves are the strikeout-to-walk ratio and the strikeouts per nine innings. I thought, how rare is it to have a closer with at least five times as many strikeouts as walks, at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings, a WHIP under .90 and an ERA under 2.00.
Of the list above, nine besides Gagne exceed five strikeouts per walk with Dennis Eckersley twice exceeding ten (18.33 and 18.25).
14 besides Gagne top 10 strikeouts per nine innings (and Rob Nenn barely misses at 9.98) with Billy Wagner (14.95) and Armando Benitez (14.77) leading the list.
Eleven besides Gagne have a WHIP under .90, with Dennis Eckersley twice leading the pack (with .61 in 1989 and '90, he's the only person under .78).
Finally, there are just three other men who meet all three criteria (BB:K, K/9 IP, and WHIP). They are Bruce Sutter in 1977, Billy Wagner in 1999, and Bryan Harvey in 1991. Harvey just missed (9.52 K/9 IP) in 1993, and Dennis Eckerlsey was even closer (.91 WHIP) in 1992.
That's a pretty unique set of circumstances. However, I do not know if that means that he had one of the greatest seasons by a reliever all-time. For my money the Eckersley 1989-'90 seasons, and even his 1992, blow away Gagne's 2002 year. Gagne's numbers are not that much better than Troy Percival's and even Jorge Julio's last season (and Byung-Hyun Kim wasn't far behind). But that you can make an argument for Gagne's 2002 being among the best still cannot be ignored.
That said, the Dodgers get off easy with Gagne's salary in 2003. One has to wonder if the strategy is penny-wise and pound-foolish. We'll have to see when Gagne becomes arbitration-eligible next year (Rotowire reports he was just 18 days shy of qualifying this year) and a free agent to follow.