Updated October 2015
The Cleveland Indians began using good pitchers in the bullpen for the first time in the 1940’s, but it was still of a time when the starting pitcher felt the need to complete every single game. As time has went on, the relief pitcher position has become more specialized, with players being used in important, late game situations rather than simply as mop up men. This list includes pitchers of both varieties, ranging from the 1941 Indians to the present day. While it takes at least 200 innings to get noticed for the rankings, relief pitchers are judged more on their average performance than their cumulative totals. Longevity still counts, but much more important is the players effectiveness during their time with the team. This list only includes right handed relievers, while the left handed list can be found here.
10. Steve Gromek – Years as Relief Pitcher – 1941-1942, 1947-1953
Gromek was one of the first pitchers used as an exclusive reliever who could have been a starter. In fact, the Indians couldn’t help themselves and when Bob Feller and a few others left the team for World War II, Gromek was thrown into a starting role, becoming the ace in 1945. With the return of Feller for the end of that season, Gromek moved back into the pen for the rest of his time. He ended his career with the second highest total of innings pitched among pitchers who were primarily relievers during their time with the Indians.
9. Frank Funk – 1960-1962
Funk has thrown the least amount of innings of the players listed, but deserves consideration because he holds the second lowest ERA among right handed relievers. In just two seasons (61-62) Funk threw in over 100 games (all in relief) and dominated constantly, never allowing his BAA get above .222 or his WHIP above 1.20.
8. Stan Williams – 1965, 1967-1969
From 1967-1969, Williams was the Indians go-to relief pitcher, pitching in over 100 games and moving into the closers role by 1969. He was on the outside of the rotation during that time and bounced between a starting role and his place in the bullpen. The fact that some of his best performances came as a starter is the only thing keeping him from the top of this list.
7. Vinnie Pestano – 2010-2014
Pestano had possibly the best first two full seasons of any Indians reliever ever. After his 2012 season, he lead all Indians (with at least 35 IP) in K/9 and held a 2.50 ERA, an incredible number in the modern age of baseball. Despite a poor 2013, he still has the best ERA and K/9 of all the players listed here and is among the leaders in all-time holds. His lack of innings pitched is the only thing keeping him this far down.
6. Paul Shuey – 1996-2002
Shuey lead the Indians in holds each of the first two seasons the stat existed, placing himself as record holder early on for both the single season and career marks (he has since lost both). Shuey was the go to reliever during the end of the Indians run in the mid 1990’s, throwing in over 360 games in relief. His 10 strike outs per nine innings rank number one among every Indians pitcher ever who has thrown at least 200 innings.
5. Gary Bell – 1962-1967
Bell was the penultimate right hander in Indians history, throwing more innings than any other reliever during his time with the Tribe. He was used as a starter, long reliever, short reliever and closer during his time with the team, striking out over 1,000 batters (good for top ten among all Indians pitchers), while no other relievers had more than 600.
4. David Riske – 2002-2005
David wasn’t anywhere near as risky as his name would make you think, holding an ERA at 3.55 and BAA under .220. Like another pitcher further on the countdown, Riske was a big part of the great 2005 Indians bullpen, pitching 72 innings in 58 games.
3. Joe Smith – 2009-2013
The most impressive thing about Joe Smith (outside of his very unique name) is his ability to keep runs from scoring. Over his three years, he maintained an ERA under 3.00, in fact, the best for any pitcher to throw at least 200 innings since Gaylord Perry left for Texas in 1975. Smith has pitched in few innings compared to the rest of this list (some of which is because he was always a reliever), but his incredible batting average against (.212), ERA (2.76) and K/BB (2.02) allow him this lofty status.
2. Rafael Betancourt – 2003-2008
The 2005 and 2007 bullpens were two of the greatest Indians relief corps of all time, despite never having a dominant closer. The main reason they were so great was the combination of Betancourt the other late inning set-up men that gave those closers many more chances than they deserved. In 2005 Betancourt set a new high for single season holds with 31 (a record that has since been broken by Vinnie Pestano) and is second all time with 84 career holds.
1. Eric Plunk – 1992-1998
Plunk’s postseason exploits marred the end of his time with the Tribe, so many people forget that he was a dominant part of the bullpen for most of a decade. The 1990’s Indians were famous for come from behind wins and Plunk took advantage, winning more games than any other pure reliever in Indians history. Each of the top three pitchers have a solid claim at this spot, but the fact that Plunk was with the team longer gives him a tenuous hold as greatest Indians reliever of all time.