The “five best” series concludes today with a look at the five best relievers in Chicago Cubs history. This series is based on last year’s all-time top 25 rankings. Unless otherwise noted, statistics are for each player’s tenure as a Cub, and references to WAR are to the Fangraphs version unless otherwise noted.
None of these guys appear in the all-time top 25; it’s just very difficult for relievers to accumulate lots of WAR unless they are enormously durable. Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, generally viewed as the best reliever in baseball history, leads the reliever WAR totals with 38.6, the same as Hall of Really Quite Solid member Mark Gubicza.
A lot of trails lead out of this clearing, involving questions such as the value of WAR as a statistic and whether relievers should be in the Hall. For the purposes of this post, we’ll ignore those. Relievers are in the Hall, and WAR is at least one way of ranking them. The philosophical debates can (and will) take place elsewhere.
#5 Sean Marshall 2006-11, 2.67 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 112 ERA+, 4.9 WAR
Take that 112 ERA+ with a grain of salt because Marshall began his career a a starter. For the years he was primarily a reliver (2008-11) his ERA+ was a robust 132. Marshall seldom closed for the Cubs, but he was a reliable late-inning reliever over that four year span. The only lefty in the top 5, Marshall was no LOOGY; he regularly faced righties and particularly in 2010 and 2011 was extremely effective at getting them out.
#4 Pedro Strop 2013-19, 2021, 2.88 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 142 ERA+, 5.7 WAR
Where is Scott Feldman now? The Cubs should at least do him a solid and have a bobblehead day. Strop was the buy-before-midnight bonus in the trade for Jake Arrieta, and like Arrieta he became a key piece in the curse-breaking pitching staff. A heavy groundball pitcher, Strop kept the ball in the yard while coming in third in strikeout percent for Cubs relievers (28.1) and second in WHIP (1.05).
#3 Carlos Marmol 2006-13, 3.15 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 124 ERA+, 6.8 WAR
As an outfielder in the minors Marmol couldn’t hit, so he spent the rest of his career exacting revenge on those who could. The right-hander leads all Cubs relievers in a number categories, including games (470), strikeouts (657) and walks (311). Unlike Strop, Marmol was flyball pitcher, but he did a good job keeping those flies on the right side of the ivy. Toward the end of his career Marmol shifted to a groundball approach, perhaps in response to diminishing stuff. It didn’t work; balls started leaving the yard with alarming frequency and he was done at age 31.
#2 Lee Smith 1980-87 2.82 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 134 ERA+, 14.9 WAR
Quick: name five Black pitchers on any team’s 26-man roster. While you’re thinking, I’ll write this note about Lee Smith.
Smith was built like a main battle tank; he is one of the first pitchers I remember seeing who personified “mound presence.” I can still see his remarkable facial expression as he got ready to deliver: a forbidding mix of scowl, wince, and snarl. (Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko theorized that this reflected Smith’s agony at having to pitch for the Cubs.) If I can still see Smith’s expression, I imagine several hitters who faced him still can as well.
Smith leads all Cubs relievers in saves (180) and he’s third in the majors (478). He had at least one save with eight different teams, which I’m guessing is a record, and in any case is damn impressive. I wouldn’t argue much if you wanted to put him at number 1.
Ok, here are five of the most notable Black pitchers on active rosters (there aren’t a huge number more): Marcus Stroman (Cubs – if you missed this one, go to your room); Triston McKenzie (Guardians); Justus Sheffield (Mariners); Taijuan Walker (Mets); Javy’s BFF Amir Garrett (Reds).
#1 Bruce Sutter 1976-80, 2.39 ERA, 2.32 FIP, 171 ERA+, 16.1 WAR
Another Hall of Famer, Sutter is second all-time in Cubs saves (133); he edges Smith because of his more dominant rate stats. He’s often credited (or blamed) for being the first of the one-inning closers who would become fixtures in the game. Sutter was part of a transition in bullpen usage that would culminate with Tony LaRussa’s usage of Dennis Eckersley in the late 1980s, but the trend away from starting pitching has been around since the 1920s.
The days of Sutter-ish relievers may be waning. In 2021 neither league’s saves leader amassed 40; the last time that happened in a full season was 1982.
Chicago Cubs: Looking at some honorable mention candidates
The days of Paul Assenmacher (1989-93, 4.7 WAR) have also probably drawn to a close. While with the Cubs, Assenmacher pitched two seasons of over 100 innings each, almost all in relief. Seasons like this are now rare, though that may change if roster rules are changed to limit the number of pitchers.
While rummaging around his attic in January 2016, Hector Rondon (2013-17, 4.0 WAR) found a strikeout pitch. Rondon would whiff nearly 30% of the batters he faced in 2016 and 2017.
Trailblazing Willie Hernandez (1977-83, 3.9 WAR) would get to a World Series just 33 years before the team that brought him up. He sent the Cubs a postcard.
While he only pitched 26 2/3 regular season innings for the Cubs, Aroldis Chapman (2016, 1.3 WAR) certainly deserves a mention as the closer for the World Series squad. He had a video game ERA (1.01) during the regular season, but put up slightly more mortal numbers in the postseason. Joe Maddon very belatedly admitted what anyone watching the games could see: he overused Chapman in the playoffs. But flags fly forever, and most Cubs fans have probably come to terms with that.