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The Mariners’ Last Great Closer

On the player who has never quite had a successor... until now.

Chicago White Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

There has been perhaps no bleaker time to be a Mariners fan within my lifetime than between 2004 and 2008. Following two straight 93-win seasons during which the team somehow failed to make the playoffs (though they would have under the current system), the Mariners embarked on a journey of four last-place finishes within five years. Though Félix debuted in 2005, he wouldn’t become a dominant ace until 2009. In my opinion, therefore, there were exactly two fun things about being a Mariners fan during those dark years: Ichiro Suzuki and J.J. Putz. Not coincidentally, the Mariners had just three All-Stars during that time: Ichiro, Putz, and José López. José López was nobody’s idea of fun to watch. Ichiro is something of a household name, and it’s likely that nobody needs reminding of just how preposterously good he was. On the other hand, it’s possible that some may have forgotten that Putz was borderline unhittable.

Putz’s best seasons came in 2006 and 2007. The team wasn’t particularly good either year, but being merely below-average felt alright after being abysmal in the previous two seasons. The 2006 team was in playoff contention through July, while the 2007 team was only one game back in the AL West as late as August 25th. There was genuine optimism associated with being a fan, and Mariners games were fun again. Not only was it far more likely that the team would enter the ninth inning with a lead, that lead would not be protected by Eddie Guardado, but by J.J. Putz.

The most memorable parts of the J.J. Putz experience were his imposing, 6’5” frame, his electrifying Safeco entrances set to “Thunderstruck,” and his absurd fastball. In 2007 Putz both made the All-Star team and won the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award. That season he threw his fastball nearly 80% of the time. For some reason, I seem to remember that fastball regularly touching the high-90s. I was surprised to look at the PITCHf/x data, then, and see that it didn’t even average 95 MPH.

Rather than relying solely on overpowering velocity, as many closers do, Putz relied on a combination of pinpoint command and an ankle-breaking ability to change velocities. It wasn’t so much a question of keeping up with J.J.’s fastball so much as it was whether he’d even give you one you were capable of turning on. He combined that fastball with a splitter and a slider that both sat around 10 MPH slower than the heater. He could command all three staggeringly well, and the results were astounding:

These Fangraphs stats combine the 2006 and 2007 seasons. I’d like to first apologize for reminding you that Jarrod Washburn and Miguel Batista were the Mariners’ second- and third-best starters back then. I include them so you can see just how much better Putz was than any Mariners pitcher not named Félix. Take a look, though, at Putz’s absurd K/9 and BB/9 rates. His BB/9 was far less than half of the league average of 3.45. His K/9, meanwhile, was nearly double the league average of 6.52. During this time, he was the most valuable reliever in baseball, and it wasn’t particularly close. While it is not the perfect stat for evaluating relief pitchers, going off of fWAR, Putz’s 2006 season was the best season ever submitted by a Mariners reliever.

The day that J.J. Putz got traded was one of the saddest days of my life as a Mariners fan. The trade made sense. The team sent away a flashy reliever coming off of an injury-laden 2008 season, and got back, among other valuable players, Franklin Gutierrez. The Mariners certainly got the better end of that trade, and it ended up being one of Jack Z’s better moves. From an emotional standpoint, though, I’m still hurt from that trade. J.J. wouldn’t ever quite return to his previously dominant form, and the Mariners would struggle through years of mediocre closing. He would be followed by two decent years of David Aardsma, one decent year of Brandon League, a couple years of the Bartender, and the Fernando Rodney Experience.

After ten long years, a worthy successor to J.J. Putz is emerging. A player for whom I have waited with bated breath as League and Rodney have tried to provoke me into destroying my television. I speak, of course, of Steve Cishek.

Just kidding, I speak of the man who last year posted the highest K/9 in Mariners history:

If all breaks right, Edwin Diaz will be more than the next J.J. Putz. Diaz legitimately has a chance to surpass Putz and enthrall the next generation of middle school-aged Mariners fans, just as Putz did for me. He is one of the reasons why I’m more excited for this season than for any I can remember. But until he makes those memories, I’m perfectly content watching this low-quality GIF of J.J. Putz freezing Barry Bonds, one of my favorite moments in Mariners history.