Blue Jays' Top 5 relievers: Matheson's take

June 8th, 2020

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 favourite at this position.

Here is Keegan Matheson’s ranking of the Top 5 relief pitchers in Blue Jays history. Next week: managers.

Blue Jays' Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RH SP | LH SP

1) Tom Henke, 1985-92
Key fact: Blue Jays’ all-time leader in saves, with 217

It’s only fitting that this list opens with the classic duo of “Henke and Ward,” who overlapped for seven seasons in the Blue Jays’ bullpen.

In today’s game, Henke and Ward would still fit right in. Stacked bullpens have become the norm, with many teams -- especially in October -- leaning on multiple relievers capable of closing, with the idea of “shortening the game”. The Blue Jays were certainly doing this in 1992 when they won their first World Series championship.

“It kind of set up for what you’re seeing today with two or three closers out of a bullpen,” Ward said recently while reflecting on his time with Henke.

Henke was dominant over his eight years with the Blue Jays, and his one All-Star appearance barely scratches the surface on his story. Handling the majority of the closer’s duties alongside Ward, Henke was a high-strikeout pitcher (10.3 K/9) who combined longevity with impressive peaks.

Henke’s ERA slipped north of 3.00 just once in Toronto -- his second season (3.35) -- and his best may have come in 1989. That season, Henke posted a 1.92 ERA over 89 innings. His save total (20) wasn’t as high as other years, but few pitchers in baseball shut down a game like the bespectacled right-hander known rather fittingly as “The Terminator.”

2) Duane Ward, 1986-95
Key fact: Holds the single-season Blue Jays record for saves with 45, set in 1993

It would be fairer to rank Ward as No. 1b instead of No. 2, but his contributions to those great Blue Jays teams throughout the late 1980s and early '90s cannot be understated.

Ward took the smaller share of saves behind Henke, typically landing in the 15 range annually, but he was an absolute workhorse. From 1988-92, Ward averaged 112 2/3 innings per season. Doing that as a long reliever or swing man would be impressive enough, but as a back-end power arm? It’s difficult to wrap your mind around in a modern context.

Ward embraced the relationship he had with Henke, too, and knew that their success was crucial to one another’s.

“If I do my job right, Tom’s going to do his job right,” Ward said. “If I screw up, Tom’s not going to be seen.”

When Henke left following Toronto's 1992 World Series win, Ward moved into the closer’s role on a full-time basis and looked right at home. He saved 45 games in '93, still a club record, with a 2.13 ERA and 97 strikeouts over 71 2/3 innings. That was, somehow, the lone All-Star appearance of his career, and he finished fifth in American League Cy Young Award voting behind teammate Jimmy Key, Kevin Appier of the Royals, Randy Johnson of the Mariners and Jack McDowell of the White Sox.

3) Mark Eichhorn, 1982, '86-88, '92-93
Key fact: Pitched 157 innings in 1986, all out of the bullpen

Beyond the clear 1-2 of Henke and Ward, we enter a more crowded group of Blue Jays relievers stretching back through the club’s history. Saves won’t be given as much weight, given their situational nature, and peak seasons need to be valued far more than they are when we rank position players, for example, due to the volatile nature of relievers’ careers.

This brings us to Eichhorn, the right-hander who threw sidearm, bordering on submarine, with next to no velocity, and owns one of the most fascinating seasons in Blue Jays history.

In 1986, Eichhorn went 14-6 with a 1.72 ERA over 157 innings. In 2020, that’s a brilliant season from a starter who missed a few outings, and likely earns them some Cy Young Award consideration. But Eichhorn did it all out of the bullpen, even picking up 10 saves along the way. He finished sixth in that year’s AL Cy Young Award voting and third in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting behind Wally Joyner of the Angels and Jose Canseco of the A’s.

Eichhorn led the AL with 89 appearances the next season, and later returned for each of the club’s World Series years. He was particularly valuable in the 1993 run alongside Ward.

4) Paul Quantrill, 1996-2001
Key fact: Led the AL in appearances twice (2001, '04) and the National League twice ('02, '03)

Quantrill ranks fifth all-time in Blue Jays reliever WAR (FanGraphs) at 6.3. His WAR calculated by Baseball Reference, though, shines an even brighter light on Quantrill’s time with the Blue Jays, valuing him at 11.2 WAR over those six seasons.

His time in Toronto lives in that gap between the World Series years and the more recent playoff runs, two decades that tend to blur together at times, but he was a very valuable piece of those Blue Jays bullpens during the late '90s and early 2000s. Always a workhorse, Quantrill’s best season came in 1997, when he posted a 1.94 ERA over 88 innings. With excellent control and a durable arm, he pitched 14 years in the Major Leagues.

5) Casey Janssen, 2006-07, '09-14
Key fact: His 90 saves rank him fifth in club history

Janssen’s case as one of the top five relievers in Blue Jays history requires some framing, but it’s warranted.

The right-hander posted a 3.52 ERA over eight seasons with Toronto, but as we shave off some elements on either side, it becomes clear that Janssen is underrated. He debuted as a starter in 2006, posting a 5.07 ERA, and later bounced between the rotation and bullpen in '09, another difficult season with a 5.85 ERA. When Janssen was strictly coming out of the 'pen, though, he was excellent.

Add Janssen’s 2007 season (2.35 ERA over 72 2/3 IP) to his stretch from 2010-14, and you see his true value as a reliever. The '14 season was looking like his best yet, too, until Janssen fell ill during an All-Star break vacation and dropped weight quickly.

Janssen moved into the closer’s role for some of his best seasons (2012-14), and would have even higher save numbers to show for that time if those teams competed deeper into the season.

Honorable mentions:
Mike Timlin was worth 5.3 fWAR over seven years with Toronto, and recorded the final out of the 1992 World Series. … Jason Frasor, often underrated, filled some valuable roles over nine seasons. … Brett Cecil and his hammering curveball were very effective when he transitioned to the bullpen, and he barely misses this list. … Billy Koch ranks fourth in club history with an even 100 saves. … B.J. Ryan’s 2006 season (1.37 ERA, 38 saves) remains one of the best in club history. … Scott Downs was a fixture for six seasons and played for both Canadian teams. … Dale Murray gave the Blue Jays a couple of strong seasons after spending time with the Expos, too. …. Tony Castillo was an underrated piece of the Blue Jays’ bullpens from 1993-96 before being traded to the White Sox. … Roberto Osuna saved 104 games over four seasons and was later traded in 2018 while serving a 75-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse policy.

Trivia time: The first relief pitcher used in Blue Jays history? Jerry Johnson, followed by Pete Vuckovich for the save.