Apr 19, 2010, 8:00 PM EST
We can speculate all we want about the methods he used to achieve it, but Eric Gagne’s three-year run of dominance as the Dodgers’ closer should never be forgotten.
From the time Los Angeles converted a struggling starter to relief in the spring of 2002 until the then 30-year-old right-hander got hurt at the beginning of the 2005 season, Gagne was a remarkably dominant force, even more so than his terrific ERAs indicated.
From 2002-04, Gagne saved 152 games in 158 opportunities. At one point, he converted 84 save chances in a row, a record that could stand for a long time even in such a highly specialized era. The previous best mark was 54, established by Tom Gordon, and the closest anyone has come since is Brad Lidge at 47.
Overall, Gagne had a 1.79 ERA in 247 innings over the three seasons. He struck out 365 and walked just 58. His WHIP stood at 0.822, and his ERA+ (ERA adjusted for the league average and ballpark factors) was 223.
Mariano Rivera has had a better three-season ERA run, but he can’t match the dominance when it comes to strikeouts or WHIP. In only one of his 15 seasons has he posted a WHIP better than Gagne’s three-year mark. The famous oddity from Gagne’s run is that he threw exactly 82 1/3 innings each year. Rivera only hit that total once, that coming in 1996 when he was serving as a setup man. That was also the only season in which he struck out 100 batters. Gagne reached triple-digits in strikeouts all three years.
There have been just 47 seasons in history in which a reliever has finished with an ERA+ of at least 180 and 100 or more strikeouts. Gagne did it three times in a row. Hall of Famer Goose Gossage (1975, ’77, ’78) is the only other pitcher on the list to show up three times.
Gagne’s 2003 season was arguably the most dominant ever by a reliever. His 1.20 ERA doesn’t beat Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 mark from 1990 or Jonathan Papelbon’s 0.92 in 2006, but his WHIP was an incredible 0.692. Even better, his OPS+ was the best mark for anyone in the expansion era, minimum 70 innings. The league hit .133/.199/.176 off him, good for an OPS+ of 4 (100 being average). The next best marks belong to Rivera in 2008 and Billy Wagner in 1999. They came in at 10. Eckersley finished at 13 in his 1990 season.
The .176 slugging percentage against is also the best in the expansion era by a significant margin. Ted Abernathy has the next best mark at .202 in 106 1/3 innings in 1967. Wagner’s 1999 season ranks third at .212.
Gagne has little to offer outside of the three seasons. He went 11-14 with a 4.61 ERA in 48 starts and 10 relief appearances from 1999-2001. He had an excellent half-season run with the Rangers in 2007, but he ended up with a 4.28 ERA in 113 2/3 innings over his final four years.
But for three years, he was one of the game’s most compelling figures, and while he’s admitted to cheating along the way, he was getting a lot of his outs against similarly juiced hitters. For a brief period, it was an incredible ride.
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