Eric Gagne‘s run from 2002 to 2004 is historic. Over this three-year period, the goggled Canadian saved a staggering 152 games against only 6 blown saves, including a streak of 84 straight. Gagne was truly dominant, as he compiled FIPs of 1.80, 0.86, and 2.05, good for 3.3, 4.5, and 3.1 WAR, respectively, in 2002-2004. His 2003 season of 4.5 wins was over half a win better than the second best RP season, K-Rod’s 2004.
Any pitcher who can sustain 12+ K/9s for three years is likely to have a pretty dominant run, and in order to do that the pitcher has to be able to shut down hitters on both sides of the plate. Indeed, Gagne pitched quite well against LHBs with the platoon advantage against him – he struck out nearly 8 more batters per 9 innings than he walked, and never allowed a FIP greater than 2.36 to lefties.
To truly tyrannize the league like Gagne did, however, it takes more than a slightly human 12:3 K:BB ratio against one side of the plate. Without truly destroying right handed battters, we would have seen more of the 2003-2005 run of Tom Gordon – 6 wins in 3 seasons. Nothing to sneeze at, but certainly not historic.
Right handed batters just could not beat Gagne. Of the 463 righties that faced Gagne, only 81 reached base. That’s a .174 OBP. Gagne struck out 208 of these batters, 44.9% of them, good for a 14.8 K/9, to complement a sub-2 BB/9. Let the utter ridiculousness of those numbers sink in for a bit, as they’re tame compared to what’s next.
Ready? Now, let’s restrict ourselves to 2003. Gagne faced 151 right handed batters that season en route to 55 saves. 84 of them struck out – just over 55%. Over 55% of hitters failed to make non-foul contact against Gagne. He only had to rely on his fielders to make plays against 45% of the batters he faced, whereas the average pitcher needs help on over 80% of hitters.
Only 26 batters reached base. Only one hit a home run, and only four others recorded extra base hits. With a nearly 12 K/BB ratio against righties and a microscopic HR rate, his FIP was -0.04. That’s not a typo: -0.04. Of course, having a -0.04 ERA is mathematically impossible, but that number is truly representative of what little right handed hitters could accomplish against him at his best.
By dominating such a large population of the league, Gagne cemented his status as one of the best closers in the league. It’s disappointing that his career was derailed as it was by injury, as his potential at the time was seemingly limitless. We can only speculate as to what could have been, but we are still left with a historic run, and one we should not forget.