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…
 

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GF SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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…
 

Year Tm W L ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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…
 

Year Tm ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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.

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