More Relief Pitcher Analysis: This Time by Wins Above Excellence (WAE)

In addition to Wins Above Replacement (WAR), I’ve started using Wins Above Excellence (WAE) to help analyze career value. So far, I’ve applied WAE to Non-Hall of Fame third baseman. But you know I couldn’t go long without applying it to relief pitchers!

When Sean Smith introduced WAE, he added up any WAR above 3.0. In my third base analysis, I did 3.0, 4.0, and 6.0 to get a sense of both “excellence” and “awesomeness”. Relievers simply don’t pile up high-WAR seasons like hitters, so I’ve included columns for 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0. It is pretty rare for a reliever to pick up over 4.0 WAR in a season (unless you’re Mariano Rivera).

Here’s a table of the top relievers by WAR with their WAE2, WAE3, and WAE4.

Note: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, and Lindy McDaniel each had a season removed because the vast majority of appearances that year came as a starter. Only Dennis Eckersley’s relief career (from 1987 on) was included.

Player WAR IP WAE2 WAE3 WAE4
Mariano Rivera (B-R) 49.9 1090.0 22.2 10.3 2.5
Hoyt Wilhelm (B-R) 41.3 2254.1 6.0 0.7 0.0
Rich Gossage (B-R) 40.0 1809.1 16.0 9.0 5.3
Trevor Hoffman (B-R) 31.5 1042.0 6.4 2.0 0.0
Lee Smith (B-R) 30.3 1289.1 6.8 1.5 0.5
John Hiller (B-R) 28.2 1242.0 11.2 6.3 3.3
Billy Wagner (B-R) 27.0 833.2 6.0 1.8 0.0
John Franco (B-R) 25.8 1245.2 3.0 0.2 0.0
Bruce Sutter (B-R) 25.0 1042.1 11.2 7.1 3.6
Kent Tekulve (B-R) 24.8 1436.1 4.6 0.7 0.0
Rollie Fingers (B-R) 24.4 1701.1 5.5 1.8 0.1
Dan Quisenberry (B-R) 24.3 1043.1 9.1 4.0 1.4
Lindy McDaniel (B-R) 23.4 2139.1 6.2 2.5 1.0
Tom Henke (B-R) 23.1 789.2 4.2 0.4 0.0
Dennis Eckersley (B-R) 16.6 789.2 3.7 0.2 0.0

Interesting.

On the WAE2, WAE3, and WAE4 lists, the Top 5 (of each of them, but in varying order) are:

When factoring long-term dominance (career WAR) and demonstration of excellence (WAE), it becomes abundantly clear that not only is Mariano Rivera the best reliever ever, but Rich Gossage is quite clearly the second best reliever ever. The remaining three guys on this 5-player list are interesting. John Hiller is probably the most underrated relief pitcher of all time. He simply never gets talked about. Bruce Sutter is in the Hall of Fame, though some question whether or not he is deserving. I have long said that he is very much the equivalent of Dan Quisenbrerry, though Quiz dropped off after one Hall ballot appearance. WAR and WAE both show that they were, in fact, quite similar.

Like WAR, WAE isn’t particularly kind to Dennis Eckersley’s relief career, rating him similarly to pitchers like Tom Henke and John Franco (great pitchers, but not Hall of Famers). Eck’s career is so weird though. You have to remember that he didn’t become a reliever until long after his prime. He also pitched into a pretty advanced age, so in his last few seasons, he wasn’t used in very high leverage situations, which detracts from his WAR.

Lindy McDaniel and Hoyt Wilhelm actually ranked the opposite of how I thought they would, by WAE. Wilhelm put his WAR together through multiple solid but unspectacular seasons. McDaniel looks like he was more of a hit-or-miss guy, either having a great year or one that provided negligible value. While McDaniel had six relief seasons of 2.0+ WAR (plus one with 2.5 as a starter), he also had eleven seasons of 1.0 or less WAR. Wilhelm loses a tremendous 7.4 WAR season because it came as a starter. He also had a ten year stretch where each season fell between 1.0 and 3.0 WAR. Consistently solid, but without a couple of the really nice seasons McDaniel put together.