The final three outs are the hardest to get.
Over the last two decades, as the closer position has become more defined and specialized, a pitcher fitting the bill has often proved elusive for the Indians.
The numerous Indians who either struggled so mightily as closer or were deemed inadequate to keep the role were perfect examples. David Riske, Steve Karsay, Jensen Lewis, John Rocker, Fausto Carmona, John Axford, Rafael Betancourt, Vinnie Pestano and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few more.
Now that it appears that the Tribe has possibly found a keeper in Cody Allen (fingers crossed), let’s take a look at those who have (or tried to) shut down the ninth inning over the last 20 years. Note that I am only ranking those who have occupied the role for the entirety of a season, thus eliminating the aforementioned closers from the rankings.
1. Bob Wickman, closer: 2000-02, 2004-06
The Wick may seem like a curious pick for the top spot considering his less-than-stellar stuff and propensity for drawing drama out of mundane save situations with the Tribe. However, as Cleveland’s all-time saves leader (139) on mostly mediocre clubs, Wickman is worthy of the top spot for his production in some of the Indians’ leaner years.
Wickman had two seasons that stick out when looking at his tenure with the Indians: 2005 and the 2001 season, his first full year with the team, he collected 32 saves and went 5-0 with a 2.39 ERA in 70 appearances. Even after missing the 2003 season and the first half of 2004 due to elbow surgery, Wickman came back in 2005 to convert 45-of-50 saves with a 2.47 ERA and earned his second career all-star appearance.
The Indians paid a steep price for Wickman when they dealt Richie Sexson to the Brewers at the trading deadline and some might say the Tribe lost that trade given Wickman’s lackluster pitching style.
However, when considering Wickman’s nearly identical save percentage during his time with the Indians (.891) to the game’s premier closer today, Craig Kimbrel (.897), across a similar amount of opportunities (139 saves, 17 blown saves for Wickman versus Kimbrel’s 166 and 19), one can’t argue with the results. Wickman’s stats are even more impressive considering the significantly more offensive-dominated era of the early 2000s.
If Wickman’s effectiveness wasn’t appreciated during his time in Cleveland, he likely earned a few retroactive fan points following his trade to Atlanta midway through the 2006 season when then-Fausto Carmona inherited the closer role. We all remember how that ended.
T-2. Jose Mesa, 1995-97
Mesa had, in all likelihood, the greatest season for a Tribe reliever when he racked up a club-record 46 saves in 48 chances to go along with a miniscule 1.13 ERA for a 1995 squad that was probably the best Indians team of the 90s. Unfortunately, however, “Joe Table” will be remembered mostly for his inability to nail down a World Series title for Cleveland when he blew a one-run lead in game 7 in 1997.
Mesa quickly fell out of favor the following season with the Tribe as he struggled mightily, lost the closer job and was traded to the Giants midway through the season. Mesa did enjoy a resurgence later in his career when he thrived in non-pressure closer roles for non-contenders Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for stretches of time. Sadly, though, Mesa again struggled the two final times—2000 and 2007— he played in the postseason, never fully atoning for his hiccup in ‘97.
If it was just about pure stuff, Mesa would likely take the top spot on the list thanks to a mid-90s fastball as well as an excellent splitter and slider. Unfortunately, Mesa’s failure to lock down the elusive championship loses him points on the list.
T-2. Mike Jackson, 1997-99
By the time the oft-forgotten Jackson came to the Indians in 1997, most baseball people thought his best years were behind him. Jackson had suffered a slew of arm injuries and had never held a closer’s role for an entire season.
However, when the mercurial Mesa began to melt down midway through the ‘97 season and again in ‘98, the Indians found their rock in Jackson at the back end of the bullpen. Jackson didn’t possess an upper-90s fastball but made up for whatever he lacked in velocity with a bulldog mentality.
With the bill of his cap pressed down right above his eyes, Jackson exhibited a stone-faced stoic demeanor while he went right at hitters.
Jackson transitioned seamlessly as closer for the Indians, saving 15 games in a part-time role in ‘97 before registering 39 and 40, respectively, as the full-time closer in 1998 and ‘99. After his three solid seasons with the Indians, Jackson left via free agency only to once again fall victim to the arm troubles that had previously besieged him.
4. Joe Borowski, 2007
I’ve yet to see a pitcher get by on sheer grit and guts to compensate for deficiencies in stuff the way Borowski did on his way to 45 saves for the Indians in 2007.
Armed with a mid-80s fastball and a backdoor slider—typically a mistake pitch—as his best offering, “Jersey Joe” may have been the best embodiment of the better-lucky-than-good closer that has occupied Cleveland in recent years.
Most of his saves were out-and-out hideous. Even Admiral Ackbar had to close his eyes at times.
Although he did blow more than his fair share of saves that season—eight to be exact— he more often than not got the job. This, despite registering the highest ERA (5.07) ever for a closer who amassed 40-plus saves in a season.
Borowski’s white-knuckle approach was probably best characterized by former manager Bob Brenly, who provided commentary in the Indians’ ALDS win over the Yankees. In the clinching game four, after Borowski surrendered a homer to Bobby Abreu that cut Cleveland’s lead to 6-4, Alex Rodriguez belted a drive that actually cleared the right-field foul pole but soared just right.
“For any other pitcher, giving up a foul ball that close to being a home run might have them rattled,” Brenly said. “But for Borowski, it’s strike two.”
5. Chris Perez, 2009-2013
Indians fans often overlook the fact that Perez was a back-to-back all-star and recorded consecutive seasons of 30-plus saves as well as a couple more 20-save seasons.
But it’s understandable given how his on-the-field successes were often overshadowed by his idiosyncrasies (ie. Criticizing fans, picking fights on Twitter, not speaking to the media, sending, ahem, mail to his dog).
In his first appearance with the Indians after he was traded by the Cardinals for Mark DeRosa midway through the 2009 season, Perez hit two batters, walked another and gave up a grand slam to the next. In a way, it was a microcosm of what to expect from Perez in the future: anything.
Perez was as maddening a pitcher I’ve ever seen. He could blow games that didn’t seem like it was possible. At other times, he worked out of jams better than Smuckers.
But by the time Perez had relinquished the closer’s role last season, his stuff had visibly diminished and most Cleveland fans were all-too-happy to hold the door for him as he departed.
6. Danys Baez, 2003
Long before baseball saw the likes of Chapman, Cespades, Puig and Abreu, there was Danys Baez.
The Indians’ foray into the Cuban talent pool yielded largely mixed results despite Baez possessing nasty stuff. After splitting time between reliever and starter his first two seasons, Baez inherited the closer role in 2003 while Bob Wickman recovered from arm surgery.
Baez struggled with the part. Though he did collect 25 saves, he blew a whopping 10 more and managed just a 2-9 record on the year. In hindsight, perhaps Baez just wasn’t ready to take on the closer role, a possibility that bore out in his two subsequent years as closer with the Devil Rays when he saved 30 and 41 and made an All-Star game appearance in the latter season.
In any event, the Tribe was happy to hand the ball back to Wickman in the ninth inning the next season.
7. Kerry Wood, 2009-2010
Arguably the worst free agent signing in Tribe history, Wood was a shell of the young flame-thrower he had once been by the time the Indians inked him to be closer in 2009.
Wood was coming off a successful first season as the Cubs’ closer the previous year when the Indians signed him to a two-year, $20-million contract. It appeared that the Wood’s infamous frailty was finally mitigated with his new role in the bullpen.
Though Wood’s fastball was still hitting the mid-90s with the Tribe, his injuries were once again at the forefront. Even when he was pitching, Wood seemed disinterested. This was illustrated by his 2010 season, when a 6.30 ERA he carried for the Indians measured at 0.69 after Cleveland traded him to a contending Yankees team at the deadline.