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Astros' Top 5 relief pitchers: McTaggart's take

@brianmctaggart
June 8, 2020

HOUSTON – No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are

HOUSTON – No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Astros' all-time best: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RHP | LHP

Here is Brian McTaggart’s ranking of the top 5 relief pitchers in Astros history.

1) Billy Wagner, (1995-2003)
Key fact: 225 saves are the most in club history

When John Hudek and Todd Jones got hurt in 1996, the Astros were in need of a closer. Manager Terry Collins decided he’d give the ball to a young hard-throwing left-hander named Billy Wagner, who the club took in the first round of the MLB Draft in '93. “Billy The Kid” became the most successful closer in Astros history, saving a club-record 225 games in his nearly a decade in Houston.

Wagner didn’t get many college offers as an undersized lefty coming out of high school because he was throwing in the mid-80s. By the time he was a sophomore at Ferrum College in Virginia, he was throwing in the mid-90s and pro scouts were lining up, including Astros scouting director Dan O’Brien. The Astros drafted him as a starter but moved him to the bullpen before he was called up in '95.

Wagner holds four of the Astros’ top seven single-season saves totals, including a club-record 44 in 2003 (tied by Jose Valverde in ’08). He made three All-Star teams with Houston (1999, 2001, ’03) and finished fourth in the 1999 National League Cy Young race with 39 saves, a 1.57 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 124 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings.

The Astros traded Wagner to the Phillies after the 2003 season after he criticized management for not being fully invested in winning.

“You’re part of that community and then all of a sudden it changes, and it throws you for a loop,” he said. “Maybe I brought all this stuff on myself. I still, at the end of the day, the whole point was I wanted to win.”

After leaving Houston, Wagner went on to save another 197 games for the Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves and made four more All-Star teams. He retired having built a Hall of Fame resume with 422 saves, 11.92 strikeouts per nine innings and a .187 opponents’ batting average. The latter two are both by far the best career totals of any pitcher in Major League history.

“When you’re young, you don’t really know the ramifications of being good,” he said. “You have no damn idea of what’s going on, and I had no idea. And so I just rolled out there and let it eat. I didn’t even know that, ‘Hey, you do this long enough, somebody is going to say you’re good and there will be expectations.’ I just competed.”

2) Dave Smith, (1980-90)
Key fact: 199 saves are second-most in club history

With blonde hair that was in line with his southern California roots and possessing a deceptive changeup, Smith saved 199 games for the Astros, including 33 during an All-Star season in 1986. He spent 11 of his 13 big league seasons with the Astros, going 53-47 with a 2.53 ERA in Houston. Smith made two All-Star teams (’86 and ’90).

“When you fight your tail off for eight innings and you come up one run ahead, and to have Smitty coming in and have the rate of success he had, it keeps you in the game,” former teammate Bill Doran said. “It keeps you going that, ‘Hey, if we just claw one out here, we have somebody dependable who’s going to come and not give it away.’”

Smith wasn’t the hair-on-fire, blowtorch kind of closer you see in today’s game. He threw around 90 mph with his fastball but had a calm and cool demeanor on the mound. He died suddenly of a heart attack on Dec. 17, 2008, at 53 years old.

“He was a surfer boy who wasn’t crazy like most closers are supposed to be,” former Astros catcher Alan Ashby said. “He was quiet, and I think he was thinking about surfing most of the time. That’s kind of who Smitty was, but he was very effective.”

3) Brad Lidge, (2002-07)
Key fact: Ranks third on club’s single-season and career saves list

Lidge will be forever be remembered mostly by Astros fans giving up a game-winning homer to Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2005 NL Championship Series in Houston, but he put together a solid 11-year career that began with six years with the Astros, who drafted him out of Notre Dame.

Lidge pitched in 378 games for the Astros and saved 123 of them, which is third-most in club history behind Wagner and Smith. He saved 42 games in '05, making him one of only three pitchers in team history to reach 40 saves. He was traded to the Phillies following the ’07 season and had a perfect season in ’08 in helping Philadelphia win the World Series by going 48-for-48 in save situations, including the playoffs.

4) Joe Sambito, (1976-84)
Key fact: 72 saves are second-most in club history by a lefty

One of the most effective lefty relievers in baseball in the late 1970s, Sambito pitched eight seasons with the Astros, making the All-Star team in ’79 when he set a club record by tossing 40 consecutive scoreless innings. From ’77-81, he had four seasons in which his ERA was no higher than 2.33. He had a 33-32 record as an Astro with 72 saves and a 2.42 ERA.

5) Will Harris, (2015-19)
Key fact: Ranks eighth all-time in club history in appearances by a reliever

Claimed off waivers from the D-backs after the 2014 season, Harris became a steady and dependable presence in the Houston bullpen for five seasons. In 309 games with the Astros, he posted a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP in 297 innings and made the All-Star team in ’16, a season which included 12 saves.

In Harris’ final outing with the Astros, he gave up a game-winning homer to Howie Kendrick of the Washington Nationals in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park.

“All the things we accomplished there in my time, the golden era of Houston baseball, we changed it in 2015 going to the postseason for the first time in 10 years and building on that success, I’m going to carry that stuff with me forever,” he said. “My office is filled with Astros memorabilia. I’m not taking it off the walls. It’s going to be there for the rest of my life.”

Honorable mention

Octavio Dotel (2000-04) played for 13 teams in his big league career, but none longer than his five years in Houston. He appeared in 282 games as a reliever with the Astros, winning 20 games and saving 42 while posting a 2.40 ERA. He fanned a club-record 12.43 batters per nine innings in 2001, and he threw an inning in the Astros’ six-pitcher no-hitter on June 11, 2003, at Yankee Stadium.

Ken Forsch (1970-80) started 153 games for the Astros in his career but also appeared in 268 games in relief, posting a 2.78 ERA with 50 saves.

Fred Gladding (1968-73) spent the final six years of his 13-year career with the Astros and saved 76 games, which is fourth-most in club history. He led the NL with 29 saves in ’69.

Doug Jones (1992-93) was named the team’s Most Valuable Player and made the All-Star team in 1992 during a season in which he led the club in wins (11) and saves (36).

• Though he’s started 81 games with the Astros, Brad Peacock (2013-present) has left his mark as relief pitcher, posting a 4.08 ERA in 187 relief appearances with the Astros in the regular season and postseason. He saved Game 3 of the 2017 World Series.

Chad Qualls (2004-07, ’14-15) posted a 3.51 ERA with 29 saves in 380 career games during two stints in Houston. He ranks fifth all-time in games pitched for the Astros.

Jose Valverde (2008-09) saved 69 games during his two seasons in Houston, including a club-record-tying 44 in ’08.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.