clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Best Braves Closers Since 1990

All-time, full-time or part-time, here is a look at the best relievers who spent time as Atlanta’s closer since 1990.

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks
Craig Kimbrel hold the record for most saves in Braves franchise history. His dominated as Atlanta’s closer in 2012.
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Since 1990, the Atlanta Braves have benefited from some of the best seasons produced by closers in MLB history. Hi there, John Smoltz and Craig Kimbrel, Hall of Famer and a possible Hall of Famer.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were seasons where the team tried to rely on Dan Kolb and Chris Reitsma.

Between those two extremes were a collection of seasons that found long-term, primary closers few and far between. Included in this group of closers were several fantastic trade-deadline additions, some multi-year relievers who assumed the closers role for a season or two, multiple prospect who had a shot at closing and a few relievers who found themselves thrust into a closer’s role unexpectedly.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to it. Unlike the look back at the best non-closing relievers since 1990, the only requirement for this analysis was a minimum of five saves in a single regular season. This allows for late-season call-ups, trade deadline acquisitions and injury-replacements to qualify.

As with the prior article, the focus will be on the following stats: ERA+, bWAR, Games, Inning Pitched, WHIP, SO9 and SO/W. Obviously, Saves will also come into play here. While there are many more stats available, these statistics from Baseball-reference provide a solid baseline.

Before jumping into the post-1990 data, a few notes about pre-1990 closers since that was a topic of comment conversation in the non-closing reliever article.

  • Gene Garber holds the Braves record for saves prior to 1990 with 141, a number that still ranks him third in franchise history. The underrated fireman spent ten years with Atlanta in the late 1970’s and most of the 1980’s, appearing in 557 games as a Braves reliever.
  • Cecil Upshaw ranks sixth with his 79 saves during his seven seasons from 1966 to 1973.
  • Also in the top 10 for Saves in franchise history is Rick Camp with 57. Known for his dramatic, 18th-inning home run on July 4, 1985, the Trion, Ga.-native appeared in 414 games for Atlanta between 1976 and 1985, including several seasons as the primary closer.
  • The 1980’s had a number of effective veteran relievers that provided excellent seasons - including work in the closers role. Terry Forster and Donnie Moore joined Garber as key members of the early ‘80’s closer committee.
  • Steve Bedrosian, who would win the NL Cy Young Award in 1987 as Philadelphia's closer, provided numerous excellent seasons partly spent as a closer before the Braves moved him into the starting rotation in 1985. They traded him the following season. He saved 143 of his 184 career saves outside of Atlanta.
  • Paul Assenmacher launched a successful 14-year MLB career with Atlanta. He was excellent in two of his three seasons before being traded, including a 159 ERA+ and seven saves as a rookie in 1986.
  • Joe Boever did post 22 saves in 1989, but with an ERA nearing 4.00 and an ERA+ of 92.
  • Lastly, Bruce Sutter was a marquee free agent signing before the 1985 season but injuries contributed to a disastrous 112 games for Atlanta. Although a Hall of Famer, his work with Atlanta was middling at best. Because of the structure of his contract, Atlanta continued paying Sutter more than $1M per season through the 2020 season meaning that for 36 total years, the Braves paid Sutter.
  • Seven Hall of Fame pitchers collected five or more career Saves for the Braves franchise, with only Smoltz appearing in the post-1990 list. The other HOF pitchers collecting Saves for the Braves were: Sutter (40), Phil Niekro (29), Warren Spahn (28), Hoyt Wilhelm (17), Kid Nichols (15), and Vic Wells (5).

There will be a lot of the expected names in the post-1990 list of closers but there are also a handful of surprises that are sure to make you say, “Really!?!” so loud that your co-workers, family or pets will wonder what the heck is going on with you.

Best Single Seasons Since 1990

Here is a look at the best single seasons by closing relievers since 1990.

Smoltz Delivers Pitch
John Smoltz and Craig Kimbrel both put up 3.2 bWAR in single seasons as a Braves closer.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by bWAR

John Smoltz, 2003, 3.2

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 3.2

Craig Kimbrel, 2013, 3.1

Jonny Venters, 2010, 3.0

Mike Stanton, 1991, 2.6

Diamondbacks v Braves
John Smoltz and Craig Kimbrel hold each of the top five Saves season for the Braves, with Smoltz setting the franchise record with 55 saves in 2002.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by Saves

John Smoltz, 2002, 55

Craig Kimbrel, 2013, 50

Craig Kimbrel, 2014, 47

Craig Kimbrel, 2011, 46

John Smoltz, 2003, 45

San Francisco Giants v Atlanta Braves
If you expected anyone other than Bob Wickman to post the best ERA+ while closing, you should have known better. Wickman dominated in his 28 games with Atlanta in 2006.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by ERA+

Bob Wickman, 2006, 434

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 399

John Smoltz, 2003, 385

Craig Kimbrel, 2013, 311

Alejandro Pena, 1991, 286

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
Craig Kimbrel posted a WHIP of 0.654 in 2012 across 63 games as Atlanta’s closer.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by WHIP

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 0.654

Alejandro Pena, 1991, 0.724

Kyle Farnsworth, 2005, 0.805

Rafael Soriano, 2007, 0.861

Billy Wagner, 2010, 0.865

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals
The only season Craig Kimbrel didn’t qualify for SO9 based on the minimum of five Saves was 2010. If he had qualified, he would have had the best season of SO9 with 17.4. He also posted a 0.44 ERA in 21 games in 2010.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by SO9

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 16.7

Craig Kimbrel, 2011, 14.8

Craig Kimbrel, 2014, 13.9

Billy Wagner, 2010, 13.5

Craig Kimbrel, 2013, 13.2

Milwaukee Brewers v Atlanta Braves
Bob Wickman’s was down-right filthy after being acquired via trade in July 2006. The three-time All-Star also pitched for the Braves in 2007.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by SO/W

Bob Wickman, 2006, 12.5

Mark Melancon, 2019, 12.0

John Smoltz, 2003, 9.13

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 8.29

Billy Wagner, 2010, 7.73

Braves v. Nationals
Craig Kimbrel’s 2012 season was stupid-good. A 0.78 FIP? Ridiculous.
Chuck Myers/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by FIP

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 0.78

Craig Kimbrel, 2011, 1.52

John Smoltz, 2003, 1.54

Craig Kimbrel, 2014, 1.83

Mark Melancon, 2019, 1.83

Florida Marlins v Atlanta Braves
Jonny Venters saved five games for the Braves in 2010. His stellar work out of the bullpen produced 3.0 bWAR, one of the best seasons ever for a Braves reliever.
Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by Games

Jonny Venters, 2010, 85

Mike Gonzalez, 2009, 80

Craig Kimbrel, 2011, 79

Rafael Soriano, 2009, 77

Mark Wohlers, 1996, 77

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Greg McMichael took over the closer role from Mike Stanton late in 1993, saving 19 games. Both McMichael and Stanton appear in the Top 5 for Innings Pitched for their totals in 1993.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Top 5 Seasons, by IP

Greg McMichael, 1993, 91.2

Jonny Venters, 2010, 88

John Smoltz, 2004, 81.2

John Smoltz, 2002, 80.1

Mike Stanton, 1993, 78

Best Single Seasons by Decade

Here are the best single season performance by Braves’ closers by decade.

Pittsburgh Pirates Barry Bonds, Atlanta Braves Mike Stanton, 1991 NL Championship Series
Mike Stanton led the decade of the 1990s with bWAR in 1991. Shown in the ‘91 NLCS, Stanton found great post-season success in his career, with a 60.8% cWPA in 20 total World Series games.
Set Number: X42016 TK3

Top 5 bWAR, 1990s

Mike Stanton, 1991, 2.6

Greg McMichael, 1993, 2.5

Mark Wohlers, 1995, 2.5

Kent Mercker, 1991, 2.4

Juan Berenguer, 1991, 2.4

Braves v Cardinals
Mark Wohler’s regular season total of 39 Saves was the highest single-season total in the 1990s.

Top 5 Saves, 1990s

Mark Wohlers, 1996, 39

John Rocker, 1999, 38

Mark Wohlers, 1997, 33

Kerry Ligtenberg, 1998, 30

Mike Stanton, 1993, 27

Atlanta Braves v San Francisco Giants
Alejandro Pena was phenomenal after he was acquired in 1991. He picked up 11 Saves in 15 games after in taking over the closers role.

Top 5 ERA+, 1990s

Alejandro Pena, 1991, 286

Mark Wohlers, 1995, 204

Greg McMichael, 1993, 195

John Rocker, 1999, 181

Juan Berenguer, 1991, 176

Atlanta Braves John Smoltz...
John Smoltz posted an all-time great season in 2003 with a 3.2 bWAR.
SetNumber: X68417 TK2

Top 5 bWAR, 2000s

John Smoltz, 2003, 3.2

John Smoltz, 2004, 2.1

Rafael Soriano, 2009, 1.9

Mike Gonzalez, 2009, 1.5

Mike Remlinger, 2000, 1.4

Atlanta Braves John Smoltz...
John Smoltz saved 55 games in 2002, his first full season as the Braves’ closer.
SetNumber: X65720 TK1 R1 F21

Top 5 Saves, 2000s

John Smoltz, 2002, 55

John Smoltz, 2003, 45

John Smoltz, 2004, 44

Rafael Soriano, 2009, 27

John Rocker, 2000, 24

Colorado Rockies v Atlanta Braves
Bob Wickman’s outstanding 2006 stint with Atlanta led to the team re-signing him in 2007. A run-in with Bobby Cox over his role in late August 2007 led to his release.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Top 5 ERA+, 2000s

Bob Wickman, 2006, 434

John Smoltz, 2003, 385

Kyle Farnsworth, 2005, 217

Mike Gonzalez, 2009, 171

Rafael Soriano, 2009, 146

St. Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves
Craig Kimbrel had four of the five best seasons for bWAR for the Braves in the 2010s.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Top 5 bWAR, 2010s

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 3.2

Craig Kimbrel, 2013, 3.1

Jonny Venters, 2010, 3.0

Craig Kimbrel, 2011, 2.5

Craig Kimbrel, 2014, 2.5

Billy Wagner, 2010, 2.5

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves
While Craig Kimbrel was the run-away leader in Saves for the 2010, Billy Wagner’s 2010 season was also outstanding.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Top 5 Saves, 2010s

Craig Kimbrel, 2013, 50

Craig Kimbrel, 2014, 47

Craig Kimbrel, 2011, 46

Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 42

Billy Wagner, 2010, 37

85th MLB All Star Game
Craig Kimbrel was a four-time All Star while with Atlanta, including the 2014 All Star Game.

Top 5 ERA+, 2010s

Craig Kimbrel 2012, 399

Craig Kimbrel, 2013, 311

Billy Wagner, 2010, 275

Arodys Vizcaíno, 2016, 242

Craig Kimbrel, 2014, 223

Best Cumulative Qualifying Seasons

Here is a look at the best cumulative numbers for closing relievers in qualifying seasons.

Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers
Craig Kimbrel’s 11.3 bWAR during his time as Atlanta’s closer is by far the best of any closer since 1990.
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Top 5 bWAR, Qualifying Seasons

Craig Kimbrel, 2011-2014, 11.3

John Smoltz, 2001-2004, 7.2

Mark Wohlers, 1995-1998, 3.5

Arodys Vizcaíno, 2015-2018, 3.5

Kent Mercker, 1990-1992, 3.3

MLB: MAR 10 Spring Training - Mets at Braves
Craig Kimbrel was traded before the 2015 regular season as Atlanta began a rebuild. Here he is pitching in a Spring Training game on March 10, 2015.
Photo by Douglas Jones/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Top 5 Saves, Qualifying Seasons

Craig Kimbrel, 2011-2014, 185

John Smoltz, 2001-2004, 154

Mark Wohlers, 1995-1998, 105

John Rocker, 1999-2001, 81

Jim Johnson, 2015-2017, 51

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta Braves
Arodys Vizcaíno collected 49 Saves between 2015 and 2019. Still active and only 31 years old, six of his seven MLB seasons have come with Atlanta. He last appeared in the Majors with Atlanta in 2019.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Most Qualifying Seasons

Arodys Vizcaíno, 2015-2018, 4

Craig Kimbrel, 2011-2014, 4

John Smoltz, 2001-2004, 4

Mark Wohlers, 1995-1998, 4

Youngest and Oldest Qualifying Closers

Lastly, here are the youngest and oldest qualifying closers.

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
Kent Mercker was tied for the youngest qualifying reliever when he pitched in 1990 at age 22.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Top 5 Youngest

Kent Mercker, 1990, 22

Mauricio Cabrera, 2016, 22

Kent Mercker, 1991, 23

Craig Kimbrel, 2011, 23

Six tied at 24

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
During his age 38 season, Jason Grilli converted 24 saves as the Braves’ closer before rupturing his Achilles tendon against Colorado on July 11, 2015.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Top 5 Oldest

Jason Grilli, 2015, 38

Billy Wagner, 2010, 38

Bob Wickman, 2006, 37

John Smoltz, 2004, 37

John Smoltz, 2003, 36

Juan Berenguer, 1991, 36

Notable Tidbits

Here are a few tidbits of information on the qualifying closers, including a look at some of the worst qualifying statistics.

San Diego Padres v Atlanta Braves
Ken Ray was among the unlikeliest of pitchers to assume the role of closer, even on a temporary basis. Riding solid performances in May 2006, he saved four games over approximately three weeks from late-May to early-June that year.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
  • No Braves closer recorded double-digit saves in 1990. Joe Boever led the team with eight saves.
  • Alejandro Pena appeared in the fewest games of any qualifier. He appeared in 15 games in 1991.
  • Mark Melancon appeared in 23 games in both his 2019 and 2020 seasons with Atlanta.
  • Bob Wickman was missing part of a finger on his pitching hand. He followed his stunning 12..5 SO/W in 2006 with a 1.75 in 2007. He saved 20 in 2007 before losing the closers roll.
  • Will Smith, A.J. Minter and Jackson are qualifying pitchers expected to be on the Braves roster in 2022, whenever the season starts.
  • Two seasons saw three pitchers post more than 10 saves: 2000 (John Rocker, Kerry Ligtenberg, Mike Remlinger) and 2005 (Chris Reitsma, Dan Kolb, Kyle Farnsworth)
  • Farnsworth was acquired twice by Atlanta (2005 and 2010). In 2005, the Braves traded for him after his legendary incident with Jeremy Affeldt while Farnsworth was a member of the Detroit Tigers. Farnsworth was quite notorious.
  • Amongst the most unlikely pitchers to save more than five games in a season were Joe Hesketh (1990), Steve Karsay (2001), Chris Reitsma (2006), Ken Ray (2006), Mauricio Cabrera (2016) and Luke Jackson (2019).
  • Of the 60 qualifying closer seasons, 10% posted an ERA above 5.00.
  • Of the 60 qualifying closer seasons, 20% posted a bWAR below 0.0.
  • Mike Stanton saved 27 games in 1993 despite posting a 4.67 ERA.
  • Not to be outdone, Jim Johnson saved 22 games in 2017 with an ERA of 5.56.

Worst Qualifying Stats

  • bWAR: Mike Stanton, 1993, -1.7
  • ERA: Mark Wohlers, 1998, 10.18
  • ERA+: Mark Wohlers, 1998, 42
  • FIP: Mark Wohlers, 1998, 7.27
  • WHIP: Mark Wohlers, 1998, 2.508
  • SO/W: Mark Wohlers, 1998, 0.67
  • SO9: Chris Reitsma, 2006, 4.2
  • Worst Cumulative bWAR: Dan Kolb, -1.3

Final Thoughts

Rummaging through the data uncovered a few final acknowledgements.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
“Senor Smoke” Juan Berenguer and the 1991 qualifying closers of Pena, Mercker and Stanton produced 8.5 bWAR between the four of them.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images
  • The 1991 Braves qualifying closers, Berenguer, Stanton, Mercker and Pena, posted a combined 8.5 bWAR for the season.
  • The approximate half-seasons of Jason Grilli and Bob Wickman, likely now forgotten, are great examples of veteran closers re-finding their magic. Wickman’s was short lived, as he only pitched one season after 2006. Grilli came back in 2016 after recovering from his Achilles injury, but wasn’t as effective as he was pre-injury. He retired after the 2017 season at age 40.
  • Mark Wohlers’ 1998 season was derailed when suffered through “Steve Blass disease” with his inability to throw strikes. That season saw him demoted to AAA as he attempted to work through his issues. Although he did return to the Braves, he was traded to Cincinnati. Playing for several teams, he appeared in more than 60 games in 2001 and 2002 - including saving seven games for Cleveland in 2002 at age 32. Wolhers, fourth all-time in Saves for the Braves with 112, would not appear in another MLB game after 2002.
  • Luke Jackson’s assentation to the closer’s role in 2019 was a remarkable story given how much he struggled to stay on the Braves’ roster the seasons before (including being released and re-signed). Jackson played a key role in 2021, posting the best overall numbers of his career, to date.
  • Chris Reitsma struggled mightily as closer in 2006 - several of his key stats would have been the worst among qualifiers if not for Wohler’s issues in 1998. However, Reitsma pitched well in 2005, picking up 15 Saves an posting 0.5 bWAR.
  • The 2005 season was just bizarre. Dan Kolb was an unmitigated disaster. Kolb had been an All Star for Milwaukee the season before (although with less-than-inspiring underlying stats). His numbers with Atlanta were amongst the worst of any qualifiers with a -1.3 bWAR and a 5.93 ERA.
  • Kolb’s struggled led to the Braves picking up Kyle Farnsworth, who dominated after his arrival. He produced a 1.0 bWAR and a 1.98 ERA in 26 games. His 10.5 SO9 almost doubled that of Reitsma, and anchored the bullpen as the “Baby Braves” won their last Division Championship of the streak.
  • Last, but not least, there is Billy Wagner. He was outstanding for the Braves in 2010. The possible HOFer ended his career in Atlanta, mentoring Craig Kimbrel late in the season. At age 38, he posted a 1.43 ERA and struck out 13.5 batters per nine innings. An All Star for the final time in 2010, his 0.865 FIP and 3.0 bWAR underscore just how good he was.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Battery Power Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Atlanta Braves news from Battery Power