The role of “closer” has evolved in baseball over the years. The days of 3-inning saves by Goose Gossage or Rollie Fingers are over. The days of the 3 run lead, 1-inning save by Francisco Rodriguez are here. The Mets are no different from this standard, and the role of closer/game finisher has changed since 1962 through present day.
The Mets of the 1960s-1980s often employed dual closers. Tug McGraw is the best known of the late 60s-early 70s closers, but shared duties with Ron Taylor and Cal Koonce for several years. It should be noted that pitchers like Tug weren't considered exclusively closers, but he often finished games so we'll consider those type of relievers for this list. Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco memorably closed in the mid 1980s. Starting with Randy Myers in 1988, one pitcher was known as the closer. John Franco, Armando Benitez, Braden Looper, Billy Wagner, and lately Luis Ayala have followed since then.
To decide the top 10 best seasons by a Mets closer/game finisher, I looked at 37 individual performances which would reasonably have a shot to crack the top 10. The earliest is Jack Hamilton in 1966; the lastest Wagner in 2007. I did not consider postseason performance (to the delight of Benitez and Wagner), but did consider that closers from 40 years ago would pitch more innings than they do now. Here goes:
10. Armando Benitez, 1999
77 G, 78 IP, 1.85 ERA, 14.77 K/9, 3.12 K/BB, 1.04 WHIP, 240 ERA+, 42 GF
This performance is ranked so low because Benitez wasn’t the closer the whole year – John Franco started the season as closer. Benitez was ridiculously dominant in 1999, so much so that I couldn't ignore him. His ERA+ for the year is 3rd highest for a Met closer. Benitez is one of those guys that seemed to make every 9th inning an adventure (and he often did), but in 1999 he was one of the best in the game.
9. John Franco, 1996
51 G, 54 IP, 1.83 ERA, 8 K/9, 2.29 K/BB, 1.39 WHIP, 219 ERA+, 44 GF
John Franco – the bane of every Met fan’s existence during his rather long tenure as closer. I was surprised to look at his stats and see that he was probably more effective than most give him credit for. However, I cannot forget dreading every time he came in the game, as it would seemingly lead to 2 on, nobody out every time. He could’ve been even better in '96, as his BABIP was a very high .333.
8. Roger McDowell, 1985
62 G, 127.1 IP, 2.83 ERA, 4.95 K/9, 1.89 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP, 123 ERA+, 36 GF
Roger’s spot on this list is aided by the fact that he pitched a crazy number of innings out of the ‘pen. He pitched 255.1 innings in 1985 and 1986 – I’d be shocked if John Maine pitches that many in 2008 and 2009. His peripheral stats aren’t as good as some of the others, but he was quite effective for the 2 innings per appearance he averaged in ’85.
7. Skip Lockwood, 1976
56 G, 94.1 IP, 2.67 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 3.18 K/BB, 1.02 WHIP, 123 ERA+, 44 GF
Skip closed a few years during the dark age of Mets baseball – the late ‘70s. He posted the 3rd best single season WHIP for Met closers in ’76. His 1979 may have been more effective, but he only appeared in 27 games that season.
6. Bob Apodaca, 1975
46 G, 84.2 IP, 1.49 ERA, 4.78 K/9, 1.61 K/BB, 1.11 WHIP, 232 ERA+, 36 GF
Yes, this is the former Mets pitching coach famously fired in 1999 before the Mets playoff run. His peripherals in ’75 weren’t as good as most other guys on this list, but his ERA and WHIP are too good to deny. His ERA+ this season is 4th best for Mets closers.
5. Armando Benitez, 2000
76 G, 76 IP, 2.61 ERA, 12.55 K/9, 2.79 K/BB, 1.01 WHIP, 171 ERA+, 68 GF
Benitez is the only closer to make this list twice, although others (namely McGraw, Wagner, and Orosco) came pretty close. Including postseason, there is no way Benitez’s 2000 season would sniff this list. However, it’s tough to deny his stats here. His 2002 season was close to this one, but he pitched in 14 more games in 2000 with a slightly lower WHIP, and a higher K rate.
4. Tug McGraw, 1972
54 G, 106 IP, 1.70 ERA, 7.81 K/9, 2.30 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP, 197 ERA+, 47 GF
Tug just missed having multiple entries on this list. It was tough leaving off other seasons for one of the most beloved Mets ever, especially his 1971 season. Danny Frisella was the primary closer that year, so I took that into account. I wish the Mets had a guy like Tug, capable of pitching 100+ innings of highly effective relief. He had a rubber arm, and pitched for nearly 20 years.
3. Randy Myers, 1988
55 G, 68 IP, 1.72 ERA, 9.13 K/9, 4.06 K/BB, 0.91 WHIP, 189 ERA+, 44 GF
Myers was a hard throwing lefty who went on to win the World Series with the Reds in 1990. He was traded after the 1989 season to Cincinnati for Franco. It’s a tossup on who got the better end of the deal. Myers had more dominant years, but Franco lasted longer. Myers was a 4 time All-Star after leaving Flushing, and was an important part of the 1988 Mets run to the NLCS.
2. Billy Wagner, 2006
70 G, 72.1 IP, 2.24 ERA, 11.7 K/9, 4.48 K/BB, 1.11 WHIP, 195 ERA+, 59 GF
My emotional side remembers a Subway Series game he blew horribly in ’06, just 2 months into his Met tenure. My rational side realizes how important he was to the playoff chase. Billy gets credit for great peripheral stats, and was pretty unlucky too, with a BABIP of .321. Bill James and Rob Neyer’s “Cy Young Predictor” had Billy as the Cy winner in '06.
1. Jesse Orosco, 1983
62 G, 110 IP, 1.47 ERA, 6.87 K/9, 2.21 K/BB, 1.04 WHIP, 247 ERA+, 42 GF
It was a toss up between Billy Boy and Orosco for this coveted title. Jesse boasts the best ERA+ for his performance in 1983. Look at those numbers again: a 1.04 WHIP over 110 IP!?! Wow. One caveat here is that his BABIP was a fortuitous .244. Jesse’s 1986 season was very strong as well, but not good enough to make the cut. The deciding factors here were the staggering number of IP, and that Jesse's HR/9 was just 0.25, compared to Wagner's which was 0.87.
Honorable Mention: McGraw – 1969, 1971; Benitez – 2002; Ron Taylor – 1967, 1969; Cal Koonce – 1968; Danny Frisella – 1971; Doug Sisk – 1983, 1984; Orosco – 1984, 1986; McDowell – 1986; Franco – 1990, 1995, 1997; Braden Looper – 2004; Luis Ayala – 2008 (typo)
This was an extremely tough list to decide, and any of the top 4 could easily be the #1. Notice that the top 4 are all lefties as well. Feel free to comment if you agree or disagree with the picks.