Aug 6, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; MLB former pitcher Billy Wagner (left) talks to Atlanta Braves outfielder Evan Gattis (right) prior to the game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Braves' Closers: A Look Back

Need I remind fans that Craig Kimbrel, arguably the most dominant closer in Braves’ history, will enter arbitration hearings this month?  I doubt any reminder is necessary for fans though, and Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman have already settled their cases (for the most part), which we reported on this afternoon.

I mentioned Kimbrel first, because I’ve been hearing many talk about how disastrous it would be for the Braves to lose Kimbrel.  Many of us at Tomahawk Take, as well as writers all across the sports spectrum, have argued just the opposite – that now may be as good a time as any to lose Kimbrel, and certainly by 2015 at least, as his price tag will keep rising up into the stratosphere.

Personally, I believe that closers are not worth the exorbitant salaries they demand these days, as I also believe the Braves have other more affordable closers that could perhaps replace Kimbrel.  I’ll leave that argument for another article, or for debate in the comments section below.

Thinking about Kimbrel led me to think about other closers from the Braves’ past, closers who were arguably as good or better than Kimbrel, and who certainly had price tags a great deal less, even in adjusted dollars.  Let’s look at just a few, in no particular order …


Billy Wagner

Even though Billy played just one season (2010) for the Atlanta Braves, his work was so memorable that casual fans often fail to realize he was with the team for just one year.  In most cases, when a player has just one season with a club, he wouldn’t even be listed in such an article as this, but Billy Wagner has to be the exception.

As the Braves’ premiere closer in 2010, and a mentor to a young Craig Kimbrel, Wagner put together an amazing set of stats that include a 1.43 ERA, with just 2.9  walks per 9, almost 14 strikeouts per 9 across 69 innings, a 2.10 FIP, and recorded a whopping 37 saves!

That amazing final year in the majors was a boon for the Atlanta Braves, and earned Wagner a trip to the All-Star game in 2010.  Wagner would later earn a save for the Braves to clinch a wild card spot as well.  In Wagner’s final season in 2010, he was 38 years of age, and still nearing 100 MPH on some of his pitches, that included that insidious slider that batters all across baseball dreaded to see.  Yes, just one season for Wagner with Atlanta, but how can any of us forget it?  Here’s a quick look at Billy’s numbers for 2010, and over an amazing 16 seasons…

2010 38 ATL 7 2 1.43 71 64 37 69.1 38 14 11 5 22 104 0.865 4.9 0.6 2.9 13.5
16 Yrs 47 40 2.31 853 703 422 903.0 601 262 232 82 300 1196 0.998 6.0 0.8 3.0 11.9
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 2/4/2014.


Mark Wohlers

For die-hard Braves fans, there is a three year period where Mark Wohlers stands out as one of the best closers to ever hurl a pill off the mound for Atlanta.  A quick look at the table below shows the numbers…

1995 ATL 7 3 2.09 65 25 64.2 51 16 15 2 24 90 1.160 7.1 0.3 3.3 12.5 3.75
1996 ATL 2 4 3.03 77 39 77.1 71 30 26 8 21 100 1.190 8.3 0.9 2.4 11.6 4.76
1997 ATL 5 7 3.50 71 33 69.1 57 29 27 4 38 92 1.370 7.4 0.5 4.9 11.9 2.42
1998 ATL 0 1 10.18 27 8 20.1 18 23 23 2 33 22 2.508 8.0 0.9 14.6 9.7 0.67
1999 ATL 0 0 27.00 2 0 0.2 1 2 2 0 6 0 10.500 13.5 0.0 81.0 0.0 0.00
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 2/4/2014.

In 1995, when the Atlanta Braves won the series, Wohlers had an amazing 2.09 ERA over 65 games, with 25 saves, and 90 Ks!  He also averaged 12.5 SO’s per 9, while walking just 3.3 per 9.  He had very good years in 96 and 97 as well, with 77 and 71 saves respectively.  Unfortunately, it was pretty much all down-hill for the able closer from that point on, as you can see his ERA skyrocket in 1998-99.  Still, Braves fans remember Wohlers fondly, and specifically for the work he did in 1995 that helped propel the Braves to the championship!


Kerry Ligtenberg

I could throw in a good many names of closers you might not remember at all, but while most serious fans will remember Ligtenberg, some of you younger fans may not.  Since we just remembered Wohlers fondly, you should know that after Wohlers began to deteriorate, Kerry Lightenberg stepped in quickly to fill Mark’s rather large shoes.  In 1998, Ligtenberg put together a line consisting of a 2.71 ERA, including just 3 BB per 9, along with almost 10 Ks per 9 in 73 innings of work with 30 saves!  Take a look at his numbers below for 1998…

1998 ATL 2.71 75 30 73.0 51 24 22 6 24 1 79 1.027 6.3 0.7 3.0 9.7 3.29
1999 Did not play in major leagues (Injured)
2000 ATL 3.61 59 12 52.1 43 21 21 7 24 5 51 1.280 7.4 1.2 4.1 8.8 2.13
2001 ATL 3.02 53 1 59.2 50 22 20 4 30 8 56 1.341 7.5 0.6 4.5 8.4 1.87
2002 ATL 2.97 52 0 66.2 52 23 22 6 33 3 51 1.275 7.0 0.8 4.5 6.9 1.55
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 2/4/2014.

Unfortunately, Kerry’s arm apparently couldn’t hold up to the stress of being a closer, as Kerry had to undergo the dreaded Tommy John surgery the following year in 1999, missing that entire season.  When Kerry returned, he gave closing another go, but ended up moving to a middle-relief spot where he continued to show pretty good work with respectable ERAs.  Kerry was a great closer for a short time, a good reliever for a long time, and will always be remembered by serious Braves fans.


John Smoltz

I couldn’t write an article looking back at great closers without mentioning John Smoltz!

In 2001, Smoltz was returning from Tommy John surgery, and took on some work out of the bullpen for the first time in his storied career.  No problem!  Smoltz put together a 3.36 ERA w/ 10 saves in almost 60 innings of work to close out the 2001 season.  Pretty good for a pitcher normally in a starting role!  Smoltz wouldn’ t stop there though.

John became a full-time closer in 2002, and began what many will argue (including myself), was the best work by any Braves’ closer ever, putting up the following numbers…

Year Age Tm ERA G GF SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
2000 Did not play in major leagues (Injured)
2001 34 ATL 3.36 36 20 10 59.0 53 24 22 7 10 57 1.068 8.1 1.1 1.5 8.7 5.70
2002 35 ATL 3.25 75 68 55 80.1 59 30 29 4 24 85 1.033 6.6 0.4 2.7 9.5 3.54 AS,CYA-3,MVP-8
2003 36 ATL 1.12 62 55 45 64.1 48 9 8 2 8 73 0.870 6.7 0.3 1.1 10.2 9.13 AS,MVP-18
2004 37 ATL 2.76 73 61 44 81.2 75 25 25 8 13 85 1.078 8.3 0.9 1.4 9.4 6.54 MVP-21
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 2/4/2014.

In 2002, John put together a 3.25 ERA over 75 games, with 55 saves, 85 Ks, allowing just 6.6 hits per 9, and walking just 2.7 per 9.  He was selected for the All-Star game that same year, and was a Cy Young and MPV candidate!  As you can see, Smoltz did similar work in 2003-2004, before he begin to wind down a touch.  He did return to the starting rotation in 2005 at 38 years of age, and continued to do good work!  Smoltz was simply amazing!


Final Tomahawk Take

Who was your favorite closer?  Is there some obscure name you would put on such a list?  What are your memories of the pitchers I have mentioned, or perhaps someone else?  As we listen for news from Craig Kimbrel’s arbitration case, rather than worry about whether Atlanta wins the case or not, let’s remember fondly the work he’s already done, and the legends that paved the way.

Next Braves Game View full schedule »
Friday, Aug 2929 Aug7:35Miami MarlinsBuy Tickets

Tags: Atlanta Braves FanSided

  • Lee Trocinski

    Where’s Rocker?!? Oh wait, we should probably just try to forget him…

    • Chris Headrick

      haha. You know, I “almost” included him, just to be a touch annoying. Despite what the Braves had to put up with in Rocker, he was a good one for a small window. He just couldn’t shut the hell up!

  • Matthew Jones

    Everyone claims that Wohlers’ problem was all head, but I remember that he had a bad oblique injury that caused him to change his mechanics after ’97. Basically, he wasn’t able to get back to form, at least as a closer. He ended up in Cincy and regained part of his form as a middle reliever, then was traded to the Yankees in the early ’00s to be their setup guy for Mariano. Ended up getting to another WS with them in ’01, then finished his career in ’02 with Cleveland.

    • Chris Headrick

      You are correct. It wasn’t his head, but something physical. He had a tendency to throw extraordinarily wild pitches in 98-99, and I think he just got a extreme case of tired arm. Sometimes that can lead to a confidence problem, which is why all the head theories at the time.

      • amorelle

        Many people forget that when John Smoltz started with the Braves he couldn’t do ANYTHING right and spent a LOT of time with a sports psychologist to get him to the point where he was so dominant.

        • Chris Headrick

          You’re correct, and contend often with my colleagues that there are at least a couple of others currently on the Braves’ 25 man that may need some serious sessions with an SP. It worked for John.

  • fireboss

    One thing overlooked during the streak was the number of pitchers serving as “closers.” Between 91 and 2005 twenty (20) different pitchers had seasons of 3 or more saves, fourteen (14) had seasons of 5 or more saves. I remember cringing when Bobby brought Jeff Readon in against Toronto who promptly handed his Readon to him. Who can forget the Braves casting about for someone to finish games and landing on Steve Karsay, Brad Clontz,, Kyle (choke of the month club winner) Farnsworth or the Dan Kolb and Chris Reitsma experiments? While a lights out closer doesn’t guarantee victory having a Wagner, Kimbrel, Rivera type is preferable to sending out someone and seeing fans cover their eyes and pray.

    • Chris Headrick

      Maybe I’ll extend this article into a 3-4 parter and look at some BAD closers as well. There are certainly enough of them to go around! :)

  • amorelle

    Why does nobody ever mention Bruce Sutter?

    • Bryan Allen

      LOL I just did. But I didn’t read your question, till after I posted. LOL By the way, I have his autograph. Turns out, he was a rather nice feller to talk to. Just another great baseball memory I’ll always cherish.

    • Chris Headrick

      I’ve gotten a bunch of tweets asking my why I didn’t mention such and such and so and so. That said, I’ll probably extend this article to a two or three part series, and try to cover many more. With the pending case on Craig Kimbrel, the retros are timely.