Wickman Remains Atop Tribe’s All-Time Saves List

On Friday, former Indians closer Bob Wickman celebrated his 46th birthday, which saw his age finally surpass his career-high saves total of 45 with Cleveland in 2005.

When Wickman hung up the cleats for good following the 2007 season split with the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks, he was the Indians all-time leader in career saves with 139. He had taken ownership of the title on May 7th, 2006, moving past Doug Jones for the top spot on the list with a typical Wickman save.

“Wicky Time” was not always a pleasant time for Indians fans, but the Tribe’s closer always seemed to get the job done, especially towards the latter end of his stay in Cleveland. On that particular May day in Seattle, Wickman came on in relief of C.C. Sabathia, who had thrown eight innings of seven-hit shutout ball. Wickman struck out former Indians slugger Richie Sexson, who was part of the package sent to Milwaukee for Wickman, before giving up a single to deep right by Carl Everett. A line drive single to center by Adrian Beltre put the Mariners in a prime spot to challenge the 2-0 lead Wickman inherited. But with the pressure on, Wickman got a double play grounder to short from Kenji Johjima to escape with his sixth save of the season and the 130th of his Indians career.

Wickman secured nine more saves after that one, including saving a 6-4 win in his last Cleveland appearance on July 19th. The victory improved the Indians record to 42-52, but the team was a disheartening 21 games in back of Detroit in the American League Central Division and were owners of the third worst record in the AL overall. On the 20th, with the season a disappointment, he was dealt to Atlanta for minor league catching prospect Max Ramirez.

The Indians would tailspin to a 78-84 record in 2006 after finishing 93-69 and just two games out of the AL Wild Card race after an epic collapse in the final two weeks of the 2005 season.

Wickman’s path to a successful closer was not necessarily in conventional fashion.

He came up at the age of 23 with the New York Yankees in 1992, making eight starts and posting a 6-1 record. He made 19 starts in 41 total appearances the next season on the way to a 14-4 record with the first four saves of his career.

The Yankees moved him into the bullpen for the 1994 season and he was leading the league with 53 games pitched when the season closed down. He had moderate success the next season, but the club dealt him in August of 1996 to Milwaukee in a five-player trade.

With Milwaukee, Wickman posted a 7-6 record with one save and 28 holds and a career-best 2.73 ERA in 1997. The next season, he saw more regular duty in closing opportunities, saving 25 games. That number jumped to 37 in 1999 and in 2000, he made his first All-Star squad before being swapped to Cleveland on July 28th with pitchers Jason Bere and Steve Woodard for Sexson, pitchers Kane Davis and Paul Rigdon, and a player to be named later (Marco Scutaro).

Wickman was 5-0 with a 2.39 ERA and 32 saves in 70 appearances in his first full season in Cleveland. But his second ended prematurely and in the first season of a three-year, $15.9 million contract with a club option. Bothered by soreness in his pitching elbow for much of the season, he landed on the disabled list in late July and pitched just once more before needing reconstructive Tommy John surgery at the age of 33. He missed all of the 2003 season and pitched in just 30 games with 13 saves in 2004.

The 2005 season was arguably the best of Wickman’s relief career. He bounced back with a career-best 45 saves and a 2.47 ERA, just off of his mark from 2001. He was rewarded with a trip to the All-Star Game and helped the Indians challenge late into September that year.

Since claiming the mantle as the top closer in Tribe history, Wickman has had just one closer threaten to take the title from him.

Chris Perez, remembered for his exploits off the field and his misses on it more so than the 124 times he successfully closed out games, made a good run at the crown while wearing an Indians uniform from 2009 to 2013. His back-to-back selections to the AL All-Star team in 2011 and 2012 ended with save totals of 36 and 39, respectively. His final season in Cleveland was a rocky one from a public relations standpoint and on the mound, as he saved 25 of 30 opportunities, but injuries and his ineffectiveness towards the end of the season saw him relinquish the closer position while his team was challenging for a late postseason berth.

He would be released by the club after the season, five saves short of Jones and 15 short of Wickman. He was unable to find his former success in a new locale this past season, as he was 1-3 with a 4.27 ERA with one save as a middle reliever in a very crowded bullpen with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He became a free agent after the season and has since signed a minor league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Jones’s record stood the test of time longer than Wickman’s, at least so far. When Jones became the franchise leader in saves in 1989 on the way to his second consecutive All-Star appearance and the second of his five career honors, he moved past Ray Narleski, who saved 53 games for Cleveland over five seasons from 1954 to 1958 in a time before the save was kept as a statistic. Almost exclusively a reliever his first three seasons in the Majors, Narleski saved 17 games in each of his final two seasons while working split duty as a starter and reliever. He was an All-Star in 1956 and 1958.

Outside of the unlikely return to form and to the city of Cleveland in an Indians uniform by Perez, the next closest active Indians player, present or former, is Cody Allen.

With 26 career saves, Allen has only just gotten his feet wet in the role of closer, even though that title has not been bestowed upon him by Indians manager Terry Francona. Allen has had a fair bit of success throughout his young career in the backend of the bullpen in “high leverage situations”, showing steady improvement in many pitching metrics, including ERA, ERA+, hits per nine innings, strikeouts per nine innings, and WHIP. Despite the numbers that would indicate that he is the lone man for the job, he is just one cog of a versatile, large, and heavily worked bullpen by Francona, who has made work difficult for groundskeepers looking to keep the grass green on the path between the home dugout and pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field.

Allen notched 24 of the team’s 40 saves last season, but that was due in large part to the early collapse of free agent signee John Axford, who was unable to maintain his position as Cleveland’s closer. Bryan Shaw (two), Scott Atchison (two), Carlos Carrasco (one), and Marc Rzepczynski (one) also successfully closed out games during the 2014 campaign.

Allen has worked a lot of innings in his brief Major League career, which could lead to some wear-and-tear at some point. So far, it has not been a significant issue, as he has been one of the best in the AL over the last two seasons at striking out opposing batters.

Allen turned 26 this offseason. He is under contract with the Indians through the 2018 season.

The title is Wickman’s to hold, but if Allen remains the primary recipient of closing chances over the course of his arbitration years, there is a good chance that he could be the top fireman in Indians’ history while still playing out his initial contract with the club. Another solid season in the ‘pen from Allen could even see that contract status, length, and payout change substantially before his time in Cleveland is all said and done.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

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