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Indians’ Top 5 relief pitchers: Bell’s take

@MandyBell02
June 8, 2020

CLEVELAND -- 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

CLEVELAND -- 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.

Here is Mandy Bell’s ranking of the top 5 relievers in Indians history. Next week: managers.

Indians' all-time team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RH SP | LH SP

1. Cody Allen, 2012-18
Key fact: Indians’ all-time saves leader

Allen may not have been as sharp in his last season with the Tribe in 2018, but from ’14-‘17, he was as successful as the team could have asked for. In those four seasons, Allen never posted an ERA above 2.99, fanned 369 batters in 274 1/3 innings, posted a combined 1.097 WHIP, a 2.82 FIP and recorded 120 saves. During the postseason, he was absolutely dominant, making 10 appearances (13 2/3 innings) during the Tribe’s playoff run in ’16 without allowing a run.

After a shaky 2018, Allen became a free agent. Despite a 4.70 ERA that year, he ended his seven seasons with Cleveland with a combined 2.98 ERA, averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings. His 149 saves are the most in club history and his 564 strikeouts lead all other Indians relievers. He ranks 15th in franchise history in ERA, ninth in FIP (3.17) and fourth in strikeout percentage (30.9).

“His strikeouts to innings, he's right there with all those [top relievers],” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Allen in 2015. “Career-wise, his strikeouts to innings is silly.”

2. Doug Jones, 1986-91, ‘98
Key fact: Owns third-most saves and second-best bWAR of Indians relievers

During his first stint in Cleveland, Jones was a three-time All-Star and received MVP votes after the 1988 and ’90 seasons. During those three All-Star years, Jones’ highest ERA was 2.56 and he made more than 50 appearances. His 129 saves during his Indians tenure (with one coming in ‘98) was the club record until 2006.

Jones’ 10.7 bWAR and 2.64 FIP are the second highest among relievers in club history. His 5.5 walk percentage is the fourth lowest, while his 367 strikeouts rank ninth and his 3.06 ERA is tied for 17th. His success stemmed from his ability to change speeds, as he was often known for his “slow, slower, slowest” method of attacking hitters. It was an approach that served him well enough to extend his career into his 40s, rejoining the Tribe at age 41 before he played two more seasons in Oakland, ending his career at 43.

3. Andrew Miller, 2016-18
Key fact: Leads all Tribe relievers in FIP

Miller may not have been around Cleveland for long, but he certainly made his time count. Like Allen, Miller’s 2018 season wasn’t up to par with his previous two, posting a 4.24 ERA in 37 games, but his dominance in ’16 and ’17 was enough to earn his spot on the list. The left-hander was acquired from the Yankees at the ’16 Trade Deadline, and he went on to post a 1.55 ERA in 26 appearances (29 innings) with a 1.53 FIP and a 0.55 WHIP. His 11 2/3 scoreless frames during the American League Division and Championship Series led the Tribe to the World Series, earning him the ALCS Most Valuable Player Award. He tossed two more scoreless outings in the Fall Classic before giving up one run in Game 4 and two in Game 7.

The lefty came back just as dominant in 2017, pitching to a 1.44 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings before his injury-marred ‘18 season. In just 120 games with Cleveland, Miller struck out 186 batters, placing him 25th on the Indians’ all-time list among relievers. He sits atop the leaderboard in career FIP (2.30), strikeout percentage (37.1) and WHIP (0.915).

“We were positioned to win this year,” Indians owner Paul Dolan said during the 2016 playoffs, “and it's very clear now that Andrew Miller was the big difference in terms of getting us there, because of what he meant to our pitching staff and our bullpen, particularly."

4. Jose Mesa, 1992-98
Key fact: Won Reliever of the Year Award in 1995

When Indians fans read his name, their mind will likely go straight back to Mesa’s blown save in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. But let’s not forget that there was more to the reliever than that moment. It’s hard to have a better year than Mesa did in ’95. The then-29-year-old recorded a Major League-best 46 saves and posted a 1.13 ERA (418 ERA+) in 64 innings. He earned his first All-Star selection, finished fourth in the AL MVP vote and second in the AL Cy Young Award race. That postseason, he owned a 2.70 ERA in eight appearances (10 innings) with a save in the ALCS and a save and a win in the World Series.

Mesa’s 10.4 bWAR ranks third among all Indians relievers. He tossed the second-most frames (647 1/3), owns the fifth-most saves (104) and struck out the fifth-most batters (447). Although his 1995 season was undeniable, the rest of his time in Cleveland was not nearly as dominant. Still, the righty was a solid reliever, compiling a 3.88 ERA, 3.84 FIP and 1.361 WHIP in 341 games with the Tribe.

5. Ray Narleski, 1954-58
Key fact: Owns highest bWAR of all Indians’ relievers

It wasn’t until 1969 that saves became official, marking the transition into the modern era of relief pitching. When Narleski toed the rubber in the ‘50s, it was much more difficult to identify just how effective a reliever was, but that didn’t mean great relievers didn’t exist.

In his first three seasons, Narleski strictly came out of the ‘pen, starting just three of 134 games. In 1955, his 60 appearances were the most in the Majors, and he placed sixth in AL MVP voting. He made more starts in ’57 and ’58, but most of his appearances still came in relief. The right-hander was a two-time All-Star in five years with the Tribe and accumulated a 12.4 bWAR, which is the highest of all relievers in franchise history. He also threw the third-most innings (597 2/3) and recorded the seventh-most strikeouts (383).

Honorable mentions
Dave LaRoche appeared in 135 games from 1975-77. In those 197 1/3 frames, he tallied the third-best ERA in club history among relievers who appeared in at least 85 games (2.51). His 2.86 FIP ranks fourth, while his 26.3 strikeout percentage is ninth.

Rafael Betancourt accumulated a 7.8 bWAR (eighth-most among relievers) in seven years with the Tribe. He finished his time in Cleveland with a 3.25 ERA, an identical FIP, 409 strikeouts and a 1.139 WHIP. He fanned the sixth-most batters of all relievers and posted the 11th-best FIP.

Bob Wickman owns the second-most saves in club history with 139. In his All-Star season in 2005, he collected the most saves in the AL with 45.

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.