Heading into the weekend, Atlanta Braves rookie closer Craig Kimbrel has 43 saves, a 1.55 ERA and a WHIP of 0.96. Only 22 closers have posted similar number: 40 or more saves, an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00.
How does Kimbrel's season compare to those other 22? Let's have fun with a little exercise. I'm going to rank all 23 of those closers -- -- plus Francisco Rodriguez's 2008 in which he set the record with 62 saves and Brad Lidge's 2008 season when he didn't blow a save -- in various categories: saves, save percentage, ERA, WHIP, strikeout per nine, opponents' OPS allowed and innings pitched.
If you rank first in a category, you get one point; if you rank 25th, you get 25 points. The pitcher with the fewest points wins the tally. By the way, all but one of these seasons have happened since 1990, aka the modern era for closers. Dan Quisenberry's 1983 season with the Royals is the lone exception. I would suggest that by no means should these be considered the greatest relief seasons of all time. I used the 40 saves/2.00 ERA/1.00 WHIP as an arbitrary cutoff point for statistical dominance; before 1990, it was difficult for closers to either (A) rack up as many saves, often because they pitched more innings and entered more tie games; or (B) dominate on the same statistical level since they did pitch so many more innings.
Anyway, here's the final tally:
1. Eric Gagne, 2003 Dodgers: 14 points
2. Dennis Eckersley, 1990 A's: 41 points
3. Trevor Hoffman, 1998 Padres: 46 points
4. J.J. Putz, 1997 Mariners: 63 points
5. Eric Gagne, 2002 Dodgers: 70 points
6. Armando Benitez, 2004 Marlins: 73 points
7. Bryan Harvey, 1991 Angels: 81 points
7. Billy Wagner, 2003 Astros: 81 points
9. Bryan Harvey, 1993 Marlins: 82 points
10. Mariano Rivera, 2005 Yankees: 83 points
11. Craig Kimbrel, 2011 Braves: 87 points
12. Robb Nen, 2000 Giants: 88 points
12. Dennis Eckersley, 1992 A's: 88 points
14. John Smoltz, 2003 Braves: 90 points
15. Robb Nen, 1998 Giants: 91 points
16. Joe Nathan, 2004 Twins: 97 points
17. Rafael Soriano, 2010 Rays: 98 points
18. Joakim Soria, 2008 Royals: 105 points
19. Mariano Rivera, 1999 Yankees: 109 points
20. Mariano Rivera, 2009 Yankees: 110 points
21. Brad Lidge, 2008 Phillies: 114 points
22. Dan Quisenberry, 1983 Royals: 124 points
23. Chad Cordero, 2005 Nationals: 125 points
24. Francisco Rodriguez, 2008 Angels: 127 points
25. Mike Jackson, 1998 Indians: 132 points
It's no surprise that Gagne's 2003 ranks No. 1 -- by a landslide. He was 55-for-55 in save opportunities, had a 1.20 ERA and his 14.98 K's per nine is the only figure that tops Kimbrel's mark of 14.86.
It's fun to see some of the forgotten great closer seasons like J.J. Putz with the Mariners in 2007 -- 40-for-42 in saves, 1.38 ERA, .454 OPS allowed; or Armando Benitez with the 2004 Marlins or Bryan Harvey, who appears twice on the list. Also noted is that Francisco Rodriguez's 2008 season with 62 saves wasn't really all that impressive other than the raw saves total: He blew six save chances, had a 1.28 WHIP, allowed a .630 OPS and pitched just 68.1 innings.
As for Kimbrel, he could move higher on the list since he still has a few weeks left to rack up more saves and more innings. What's most interesting is while he ranked 21st in WHIP, he ranks fourth in OPS since he's allowed just one home run and only four doubles. What's been quite a season for the rookie and deserves recognition as one of the best closer seasons we've seen.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.