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Red Sox's Top 5 relief pitchers: Browne's take

@IanMBrowne
June 8, 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

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 Ian Browne’s ranking of the top 5 relief pitchers in Red Sox history. Next week: managers.

Red Sox Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RHP | LHP

1) Jonathan Papelbon, 2005-11
Key fact: 197 ERA+ is the best for any Red Sox pitcher with at least 200 innings

Papelbon was such a entertaining character that it probably overshadowed how dominant a pitcher he was. And make no mistake about it -- throughout Papelbon’s time with Boston, he was utterly dominant. It’s hard to remember now that his first three appearances after being called up in 2005 were starts. After that, he never started another game again -- save for an unsuccessful experiment of moving him back to the rotation in Spring Training of '07.

Before the 2007 season started -- at his request -- Papelbon was back in the bullpen. He had a 1.85 ERA in '07 and struck out 84 over 58 1/3 innings. The season ended with him striking out Seth Smith in Game 4 of the World Series at Colorado, then firing his glove away in jubilation as his teammates mobbed him. Papelbon was equally amazing in his rookie year of '06, notching a 0.92 ERA.

Papelbon collected 219 saves for Boston -- easily the most in Red Sox history. Four of his six All-Star appearances came with the Red Sox. He is also the only pitcher in team history to do an Irish step dance on the field in boxer shorts after clinching the AL East title in 2007.

2) Dick Radatz, 1962-66
Key fact: His 18.2 bWAR is best in Red Sox history for a pitcher used exclusively in bullpen

If you were a Red Sox fan in the early to mid-1960s, Radatz was your favorite player. He brought a sense of excitement to the mound every time he pitched during a time period when Boston was not very good as a team. They called him "The Monster" because of his intimidation factor. How good was Radatz? He struck out Mickey Mantle in 12 of the 16 at-bats between the two.

The first true closer the Red Sox ever had, Radatz compiled 102 saves in his four-plus seasons in Boston. He finished 53 of the 62 games he appeared in during his rookie year of 1962 and finished 67 out of 79 appearances in '64. And keep in mind that Radatz wasn’t used like a traditional closer: he had 10 relief appearances of five innings or more from '62-65. That included a nine-inning performance against the Yankees on Sept. 9, 1962, in a 5-4 win for the Red Sox.

Unfortunately, arm injuries limited Radatz's peak to four seasons. If he had been able to stay on top a little longer, he might have vaulted ahead of Papelbon on this list. In each of his first three seasons for the Sox, Radatz boasted at least 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

3) Bob Stanley, 1977-89
Key fact: His 552 relief appearances stand as a club record

Talk about a reliever who could do it all. If a starter was knocked out in the first inning, Stanley would come in and finish a game. If the game was on the line in the seventh through ninth innings, Stanley would often come on and get a key double play that led to one of his 132 saves for the Red Sox. The "Steamer" pitched his entire career for Boston.

In 1982, Stanley logged a whopping 168 2/3 innings while working exclusively as a reliever. That is a team record that could stand forever. In ’83, the season Stanley notched a career-high 33 saves, he pitched 145 1/3 innings.

Stanley was a gamer who always wanted the ball. His out pitches were a sinker to righties and a palmball to lefties. One Stanley relief appearance holds a special place in Red Sox lore. In May 22, 1983, he went 10 innings out of the bullpen against the Twins and allowed only one run. On Oct. 4, 1980, he got 28 outs in a relief appearance. Stanley went eight innings or more in two other relief outings. In '78, when every game was so important to the Red Sox, Stanley went 15-2 while making 49 of his 52 appearances as a reliever.

4) Koji Uehara, 2013-16
Key fact: His 4.3 walk percentage is best for a Red Sox reliever with at least 100 innings

The Japanese righty came to Boston as a setup man leading into the 2013 season. By June of that championship campaign, Uehara elevated himself to the closer role, where he had a season for the ages. All Uehara did for the American League East champs was post a 1.09 ERA with 101 strikeouts and just nine walks in 74 1/3 innings. When Uehara came into a game, the Red Sox pretty much knew they had a win. The stat sheet says he blew three save opportunities, but it’s hard to remember any of them.

Not only did Uehara have pinpoint control, but he worked fast, and his teammates loved playing behind him. In each of the four champagne-soaked clinching celebrations the Sox had in 2013, Uehara ended the proceedings with a strikeout. He was wildly popular with fans and teammates alike for his emphatic high fives and unwavering smile.

Uehara had an ERA above 3.00 in just one of his four seasons with the Sox.

5) Craig Kimbrel, 2016-18
Key fact: His 16.43 strikeouts per nine innings in '17 is the best single-season mark in franchise history (minimum 65 innings)

The first major acquisition for Dave Dombrowski in his memorable tenure as president of baseball operations, Kimbrel delivered as expected. He was a flame-throwing All-Star for all three of his seasons with Boston, highlighted by his ridiculously dominant 2017 season. Kimbrel had an immaculate inning in Milwaukee on May 11, but his entire season felt immaculate. Over 69 innings, he had 126 strikeouts and just 14 walks.

Though Kimbrel struggled mightily in the World Series-winning postseason of 2018, the righty helped make the club-record 108 wins in the regular season possible by saving 42 of them. Much of his success in Boston stemmed from a wicked knuckle-curve. There were few players in Red Sox history who matched Kimbrel’s work ethic. He would often spend hours working out after a game.

Honorable mentions
Righty Ellis Kinder moved back and forth from the rotation to bullpen frequently in his eight seasons (1948-55) with the Red Sox and was solid in both roles. In 276 relief appearances, Kinder had a 2.55 ERA and 93 saves. ... Keith Foulke only had one strong season in Boston, but it was one of the most important for a closer in team history. In 2004, he was a standout performer in the regular season and downright heroic in October. ... Sparky Lyle was traded to the Yankees for Danny Cater after the 1971 season. What a bad move. Lyle had a 2.85 ERA and 69 saves over five seasons for the Sox. ... Tom Burgmeier was one of the most reliable lefties the Sox ever had, compiling a 2.72 ERA from 1978-82. ... Dick Drago’s 8.4 bWAR is fifth among Sox relievers. ... Mike Timlin got many big outs for the championship-winning teams of 2004 and '07. ... Hall of Famer Lee Smith stopped through Boston and saved 58 games from 1988-90.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.