The evolution of the closer continued in the 2000s. More and more, their stints were limited to just one inning as two-inning saves became almost extinct. Closers rarely entered in the eighth inning or with runners on base anymore. This meant closers were nearly always available -- and thus could pitch in even more save situations. As a result, the number of 40-save seasons increased from 41 in the 1990s to 70 in the 2000s.
The best closers also became statistically more dominant as strikeout rates in the game continued to rise. Eric Gagne was 55-for-55 in save chances for the Dodgers in 2003, posted a 1.20 ERA and fanned 137 batters in 82 1/3 innings to become the last reliever to win the Cy Young Award. Bobby Thigpen's record of 57 saves set in 1990 lasted until 2008, when the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez recorded 62 saves while pitching just 68 1/3 innings. And, of course, Mariano Rivera had sustained dominance throughout the decade, six times posting an ERA under 2.00.
Even though offense started declining at the end of the decade, the percentage of complete games continued to decrease, from 5 percent to 3 percent. Bullpens started getting bigger, which allowed for more specialists and shorter appearances, so the number of pitchers used per game increased from 3.54 in 2000 to 3.93 by 2009.
My three best bullpens of the decade:
1. 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers (85-77): 19-20, 2.46 ERA, 58 saves, 69-3 when leading after seven
Thanks to Gagne, the Dodgers were 76-0 when leading after eight innings. It wasn't a one-man show, however, as the Dodgers recorded the lowest bullpen ERA of the decade, the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio, the second-lowest batting average (.207), and the fifth-best K's per nine. Guillermo Mota posted a 1.97 ERA in 105 innings, Paul Quantrill pitched in 89 games and had a 1.75 ERA over 77 1/3 innings. Paul Shuey (3.00 ERA in 69 innings) and lefty specialist Tom Martin (80 games, 51 innings, 3.53 ERA) filled out the top five. Yes, the pen had a losing record, but that was a reflection of one of the worst offenses in MLB history. The Dodgers scored just 574 runs when offense was still high -- 68 fewer than any other NL team -- even though the lineup included Adrian Beltre, Shawn Green, Fred McGriff and Paul LoDuca.
2. 2002 Atlanta Braves (101-59): 30-14, 2.60 ERA, 57 saves, 82-1 when leading after seven
This was one of the more interesting bullpens in MLB history: Closer John Smoltz was 35 years old -- which made him the youngster among the team's top four relievers:
Smoltz (35): 3-2, 3.25 ERA, 55 saves, 80 1/3 IP
Chris Hammond (36): 7-2, 0.95 ERA, 76 IP
Mike Remlinger (36): 7-3, 1.99 ERA, 68 IP
Darren Holmes (36): 2-2, 1.81 ERA, 54 2/3 IP
The rest were solid as well:
Kerry Ligtenberg: 3-4, 2.97 ERA, 66 2/3 IP
Tim Spooneybarger: 1-0, 2.63 ERA, 51 1/3 IP
Kevin Gryboski: 2-1, 3.48 ERA, 51 2/3 IP
The Braves had the second-best bullpen ERA of the decade and the third-lowest OPS allowed, although their strikeout and walk peripherals didn't come close to the Dodgers'. They lost in the Division Series in five games to the Giants -- but unlike many Braves teams in the '90s, it wasn't the bullpen's fault.
3. 2006 Minnesota Twins (96-66): 26-10, 2.91 ERA, 40 saves, 72-1 when leading after seven
I was leaning to the 2001 Mariners here. That was the team that won a record-tying 116 games with a bullpen that went 33-15 with a 3.04 ERA (ninth-best in the decade, in a year when offense was still peaking) and the lowest batting average allowed (.202). But the Mariners lost SEVEN games that they led entering the ninth -- of course, they won 105 such games -- which means if Kazuhiro Sasaki had been a little more lights-out, they could have won 120 games.
Anyway, thanks to closer Joe Nathan, the 2006 Twins locked down leads in the late innings, going 83-0 when leading after eight. Nathan went 7-0 with a 1.58 ERA and allowed just 38 hits in 68 1/3 innings with 95 strikeouts. He had two blown saves, but the Twins won both of those games. Behind him, Dennys Reyes had a 0.89 ERA in 50 2/3 innings, Juan Rincon had a 2.91 ERA in 74 1/3 innings, Jesse Crain had a 3.52 ERA in 76 2/3 innings and Pat Neshek had a 2.19 ERA over 37 innings. Some of the other guys weren't as effective (Willie Eyre had a 5.31 ERA in 59 1/3 innings as the mop-up guy) but the 2.91 ERA was still fifth-best in the decade.