They’re the placekickers of Major League Baseball. The entire team goes out, does its job, and then one guy can screw everything up.
Closers are volatile fantasy creatures — it’s why this site exists, after all. But they’re far more fascinating as players, and that goes double when they’re especially weird or terrible. Over the years, so many of these guys have have made us laugh, cry, or shake our heads, and since we had nothing better to do over the All Star Break, we decided to chronicle our favorites.
So here’s our A to Z list of has-beens, never-wases, flameouts, headcases, and trainwreck relievers. We hope you’ll enjoy this trip down memory lane as much as we enjoyed compiling it.
See you tomorrow, when we’ll resume our regularly scheduled programming.
-The guys at Closer Monkey
Selected first overall in the 1997 draft, Anderson burst on to the major league scene just one year later, boasting a 100 mph fastball. Despite only posting an ERA+ over 100 in his rookie year, he was anointed the Tigers’ closer in his 2001 on the strength of his still-tantalizing raw stuff, and tallied 22 saves. After signing a big extension, he delighted us all by claiming that his first major purchase would be “An 18-wheeler with chrome rims. I’ll paint ‘Matt Anderson Trucking’ on the side and drive that sucker cross-country.” What would he haul? “Nothing.” Unfortunately, his career would be derailed the next season by injury (possibly due to an octopus-throwing contest) and he’d pick up exactly 3 saves the entire rest of his tenure in the bigs, which ended in 2005. The rest of his career numbers: a 5.19 ERA over 256.2 innings, with 224 Ks and 157 BBs.
“Daniel Baahhd throws haahhd,” was the gleeful refrain in Boston a few years back. A dominant reliever by his age 25 season and out of the league before he turned 30, Daniel Bard was the obvious candidate to take over as closer for the Red Sox… until September 2011, one of the most disastrous months in the history of the franchise. The Red Sox blew a nine-game lead and failed to make the playoffs after finishing the season 7-20. Bard was a huge reason for the collapse, finishing 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA in the final month. Still, after Jonathan Papelbon left via free agency, many called for Bard to become the team’s closer. Instead, he had designs on being a starter, and the team, up against the luxury tax with a glut of disgusting contracts, was happy to comply with his request so they could get a cheap, under-team-control starter. That move turned out to be a disaster, as Bard finished 2012 with a 6.22 ERA over 17 games (10 starts). He pitched in just two games in 2013 – and that was it. He never pitched a big-league game again before retiring earlier this year after a final comeback attempt. His short career still spawned some wistful pieces on what might have been.
In 2004, Shawn Chacon appeared in 66 games. In 29 of those games, he gave up at least one run, and in 13 of them, he gave up 2 runs or more. But despite being wholly ineffective by virtually any measure, the Rockies kept running him out there, game after game, 9th inning after 9th inning, and when it was all said and done, Chacon had posted the worst 35-save season (7.11 ERA!) in MLB history. This actually doubled as arguably the worst season of Chacon’s 8-year career as well, but it happened to come in the midst of what one Rockies blog calls the worst season for Colorado’s bullpen of all time. Chacon, whose last season in the bigs came in 2008, still holds the franchise record for most career hits allowed per 9 innings.
Honestly, we totally forgot that the current Mariners GM was ever actually a professional baseball player (much less a closer) until stumbling across his name in an old box score, but in the relatively recent past, Jerry Dipoto was a pretty solid relief pitcher. He wasn’t GREAT, mind you, but he was totally decent, and actually racked up 35 saves over the course of two seasons in Colorado in the late ’90s, which wasn’t an easy time to pitch in Colorado — or anywhere, really, given that it was the height of the steroid era. (We like to think he’s now giving tips from time to time to his current D-named closer, who happens to be leading baseball in saves.) Anyway, since we don’t have anything bad to say about Jerry — and, weirdly, we couldn’t think of a worse closer whose last name started with D — here’s where we’ll challenge our readers. Come up with your worst D-named closer in history and an explanation of why they are/were the worst. The winner gets a year of Premium. Go!
Carlos Estevez was a relatively unknown pitcher in the California Penal League. Despite struggling with his command, he was plucked from obscurity by Lou Brown to help lead the 1989 Indians to a victory in a 1 game playoff over the New York Yankees. He re-emerged in 2016 as the closer for the Colorado Rockies, but his command problems persisted and he posted a 5.24 ERA to go with 11 saves. Sent back to the minors after the 2017 season, there may still be time for Estévez to turn his career around for a 3rd time.
In his first season as full-time Angels closer, Frieri earned 37 saves, but his 3.80 ERA and 11 HR allowed were a warning sign. In 2014, everything fell apart; demoted from the ninth two separate times in Anaheim, he was traded to Pittsburgh in June and designated for assignment two months later with a double-digit ERA. Since then, Frieri has bounced around six different MLB organizations — including a 2017 trade for $1 — before touching down briefly in the Mexican League this spring.
During his eight years of minor-league baseball before his MLB debut, Kevin Gregg worked several odd jobs, including a grueling stint constructing airplane firewalls in a steel mill. Gregg could always handle the heat, which paid off during his famous showdown with Big Papi. As a closer, Gregg was good enough to earn a job, but never quite good enough to keep it — but even with a 4.24 career ERA, 177 saves beats wrestling titanium any day.
It isn’t JJ Hoover’s fault that he shares a last name with the world’s most famous vacuum cleaner, or that every would-be comedian and deranged ex-houseguest on Twitter thinks he’s the first one to discover that fact. Hoover started his career with great numbers, but after an awful 2016 — where he started as the Reds’ closer and ended with back-to-back five-run outings and a 13.50 ERA — he’s currently a free agent with as many career saves (six) as grand slams allowed.
We, uh, didn’t have very many options for this one, as the only other reliever we could think of whose last name started with I was Jason Isringhausen, who despite a few ups and downs was way too good, overall, to appear on a list like this. So despite never being a closer, sidearmer Jeff Innis gets the nod here. The last of Innis’s 7 seasons, 1993, was his most “successful” as a closer, as the righty finished the season with three saves. But he did so while walking more hitters (38) than he struck out (36). Here’s a gif of his stupid wind-up that we found on Twitter, which also includes the only time that Mackey Sasser made an accurate throw in his career.
A first-round draft pick of the Expos, Bob James broke into the majors one month after turning 20. After a few years spent at AAA figuring out his control, James backed up Jeff Reardon quite competently in 1984, picking up 10 saves with a very high (at the time) 8.5 K/9 rate. Traded to the White Sox in the offseason for Vance Law, James had a fantastic season as the full-time closer, racking up 32 saves and a 4.3 WAR — which only nine relievers have topped since. But (you knew there’d be a but) his 110 IP caught up to him — after blowing three of his last seven save opportunities that year, his next two seasons saw high ERAs and an eventual eclipse by some guy named Bobby Thigpen.
Just LOOK at what Danny Kolb managed to do for the Brewers in 2004: 57.1 IP, 2.98 ERA, 39 saves, 21 Ks(!!!!!). He had almost twice as many saves as strikeouts!!! How is that even possible!? Suffice it to say, virtually every advanced metric was pessimistic about his future outlook, and after he was dealt to Atlanta, his ERA ballooned to 5.93 the following season. He’d wrap up a 9-year career in 2007, finishing a career ERA/WHIP of 4.22/1.52. More than half of his career saves would come during that one magical season, when pretty much every batted ball found its way into a defender’s glove.
For most of 2008 (AKA the year 3 BCM [Before Closer Monkey]), Brandon Lyon closed for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Although he picked up 26 saves, his five blown saves, 4.70 ERA, and 1.48 WHIP eventually cost him his job. We don’t have much more to say about Lyon, but did you know that he earned over $26 million in his 0.5-WAR/year career? Get your kid signed up for T-Ball.
For a young, carefree website devoted to relentlessly tracking relief pitching, nothing was more exciting in the spring of 2013 than the unlikely rise and inevitable fall of the most unhittable reliever in history: Carlos Marmol. After two years as a lights-out setup guy, Marmol took the closer’s job from Kevin Gregg in 2009, and from that point on, every Cubs save was an adventure. Marmol’s 11.6 K/9 career rate was rivaled only by his stratospheric 13.0 H+BB+HBP/9 rate, and he never returned to high-leverage work after losing his job (to Gregg, of all people) in 2013. As a retiree, Marmol opened up Recta 49, a bar and restaurant in his hometown of Bonao, D.R., named after his jersey number and his elusive fastball.
By 1891, the St. Louis Browns had started to show signs of their impending descent to the bottom of the American Association standings (don’t even TALK to me about 1892-1898), but in this year, they were still clinging to their last shred of 1880s glory. Led by starter Jack Stivetts, who went 33-22 over 64 starts (440 IPs), and 3B Denny Lyons, who clubbed a career-high 11 HRs to go along with a tidy .315/.445/.455 slash line, the Browns managed a second place finish, going 85-51. But it was no thanks to closer Joe Neale, who — despite leading the league with 3 saves — managed just 24 Ks (and 36 BBs) in 110.1 innings of work. How anyone with ratios that terrible could lead the league in saves is beyond us, but this season would be Neale’s last in the majors, as the twilight of his career saw him bounce between the Class-B New Orleans Pelicans, Mobile Blackbirds, Memphis Giants, and Montgomery Grays. Neale would die in 1913, 47 years before the save was invented, but he disgusts us even today.
Ogando had an interesting start to his career when he was accused of being part of a human trafficking ring while applying for a work visa in 2005. After a federal pardon from George W. Bush, Ogando made his major league debut for the Texas Rangers, formerly owned by George W. Bush. Ogando was seen as a starter, but got a chance to close when Joe Nathan was injured. If his entire career was August 3 and 4 of 2012, he would be the greatest reliever in history, with a 0.00 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP and a perfect conversion rate in save opportunities. Unfortunately his career numbers, while not spectacularly bad, are very mediocre. He did break in with the Indians this year, but was shipped to the minors after only a single inning of work where he gave up 2 runs.
Parnell is a tough addition to this list, as the flame-throwing right hander drew comparisons to Aroldis Chapman, and for a while seemed like he would be able to live up to that hype. Boasting a 100+ MPH fastball, he saved 22 games in 2013 before being shut down in July, but injuries derailed his career shortly after that. He was named the Mets closer going into 2014 but only pitched in one game before needing Tommy John surgery. He came back in 2015 but wasn’t hitting triple digits anymore, and after posting a 6.38 ERA he was shut down again. Parnell is still listed as a free agent, but it’s hard to imagine him catching on with anyone else at this point.
Quackenbush’s story is a common one among young relievers: early success followed by mediocrity. He’s dominating the ninth right now for the Louisville Bats, though, and truth be told, the only reason he made this list is that he’s worse than Chad Qualls and Paul Quantrill. Oh, and Dan Quisenberry, but everyone’s worse than Dan Quisenberry.
Are you too young to remember John Rocker? Imagine Josh Hader’s tweets, but delivered proudly to a reporter recording the pitcher for a Sports Illustrated profile. Not a genius, this guy. Rocker — also an admitted steroid user — wasn’t nearly the same pitcher after the controversy, but since he was the same man, no one was too upset to see him go.
For the Red Sox, the Curse of the Bambino ended in 2004 after 86 long years, and one of the main reasons it ended was a rather pedestrian relief pitcher named Heathcliff Slocumb. In mid-1997, the Mariners were desperately looking around for relief help to bolster their bullpen for a playoff run, so they acquired Slocumb, who despite a 5.79 ERA at the time was serving as the Red Sox closer. In exchange, they sent the Red Sox a young sinkerballer who had just nine ineffective big league appearances to his name, and a plodding minor league catcher. Slocumb would have a slightly better second half — saving 10 games with a 4.13 ERA and getting the last out of what would be the Mariners’ only playoff victory in the ALDS — but he’d never again be an effective big league closer, as he bounced to three different teams over the next three seasons before his career ended in 2000. Meanwhile, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek would each go on to make multiple All Star teams and were among the core of the magical Red Sox team that finally broke the curse.
There once was a time when a man made the All Star team, then finished the year with a 6.87 ERA. The year was 2006. The man was Derrick Turnbow. The previous season, Turnbow had racked up 39 saves with a 1.74 ERA for the Brewers, and seems to have been selected largely on that past performance, as he was decidedly average in the first half of his All Star season (23 saves despite a 4.74 ERA before the break), and, of course, horrific afterwards, leading to that absurd ERA. After ’06, he would record just two more saves in his career, and he would last pitch in the majors in 2008. In addition to his spectacular flameout, Turnbow also holds the distinction of being the first major leaguer to test positive for a banned steroid. This happened in 2004 — which, LOL, I guess in the late 90s everyone really WAS clean — but weirdly, this only barred Turnbow from international play, as MLB had yet to ban the substance he was using (which, LOL again).
Ugueth Urbina holds a seemingly unbreakable record: number of initials that start with the letter U: three. Like Johnny Vander Meer, who would need someone to throw three consecutive no-hitters to break his record, Urbina would need someone to show up with FOUR U-starting names to break his. Anyway, Urbina was actually a pretty solid relief pitcher. A 2-time all star, he led the league in saves in 1999 and won a World Series ring in 2003. He followed his baseball career with a quiet life of having his mother kidnapped and held for ransom, and then attacking 5 employees with a machete and attempting to pour gasoline on them. Urbina was released by Phillies in 2005, and released from a Venezuela prison in 2012.
We know, we know: You were expecting Jose Valverde. But to be fair, there was a decent amount of good mixed in with all of that bad, as Papa Grande led the league in saves three times, and he’s currently 31st in MLB history with 288 in his career. Instead, we’ll pick on Brandon Villafuerte, who got his first career save in the final game of the Padres’ 2002 season. Apparently the performance was so convincing that they went into 2003 thinking that he’d be their closer. Villafuerte proceeded to give up 11 runs in his first 12 appearances, nabbing the second and third saves of his career before being removed from the role. Spoiler alert: he finished his career with three saves.
Before Carter Capps spawned dozens of thinkpieces about how his cheat-y delivery could ruin baseball, Jordan Walden got away with it for years without generating nearly as much rancor. Perhaps owing in part to that motion, Walden was actually pretty good for the entirety of his Major League career, unlike most others on this list. He was actually only a full-time closer for one season, as 32 of his 39 career saves came in 2011, and he last pitched in the bigs in 2015. He isn’t officially retired, and was about to start a minor-league stint with the Braves as recently as last February, but after his contract was voided over health concerns, he seems to have fallen completely off the map, as we couldn’t find a single news story about him since then. Earlier this month, he did return from a year-long Twitter absence to retweet a few things about the D-Bat Elite Baseball League, so maybe he’s coaching there or something? If you’re reading this, Jordan, we hope you are doing well, and we miss your silly crow hop.
As far as we can tell, there has never been a major league baseball player, at any position, whose last name started with X. But in its place, this a good opportunity to link to this 10-year-old article about why Brian Wilson always used to make an X with his arms after he got a save. (TLDR: It’s part religious gesture, part MMA.)
Esteban Yan’s career spanned 11 seasons, and he appeared in 472 games for a total of seven different teams. But we’ll always remember him as the closer for those awful, awful, post-expansion Devil Rays squads. Yan’s best season as a stopper came in 2001, when he saved 22 games for the likes of ace Tanyon Sturtze (who had a team-high 11 wins) and fireballer Ryan Rupe (who got 26 starts despite a 6.59 ERA). A 37-year-old Fred McGriff was HANDILY the best hitter in this lineup, but injuries held him to just 343 ABs, which meant more playing time for the likes of Jason Tyner and Brent Abernathy. It is amazing that this team managed to win 62 games.
In 2006, Zoom-Zoom was nothing short of a phenomenon. The Tigers, 71-91 the year before, saw their young staff suddenly put it all together, as Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander led the team to a 95-win season, good for 2nd place in the AL Central and a Wild Card berth. And throwing absolute gas out of the bullpen was set-up man Joel Zumaya, who wow-ed baseball with his intense mound antics and the fastest pitch ever recorded at the time — 104.8 mph. Zoom-Zoom was the Tigers’ best bullpen weapon, and they used him like a modern-day relief ace, as he racked up 97 strikeouts in 83.1 innings. (The often-lower-leverage 9th was left to the aging Todd Jones, who threw about 20 fewer innings than Zumaya.) The strategy carried over to the postseason, as the Tigers shocked the Yankees in 4 games, with Zumaya facing six Yankees over the course of the short series and retiring all six of them, three via strikeout. But then, something happened. Zumaya hardly pitched in the ALCS, and while he threw a few innings in the World Series — which the Tigers would lose in 5 games to the Cardinals — he wasn’t the same pitcher. GM Dave Dombrowski said that Zumaya got a wrist injury after the ALDS from playing too much Guitar Hero, though years later Zumaya would semi-dispute this account, saying that he knew what had really happened, but was content with the Guitar Hero narrative. At any rate, after 2006, he’d never be anywhere near as dominant, and his wild pitching mechanics led to six different arm surgeries. Zumaya officially retired in 2014.