Was This The Greatest Relief Pitcher Season in MLB History?

Chris Martin arguably had the best RP season in history.

In every year since 1967, two pitchers are awarded the Cy Young award, one from each league, and in almost every opportunity the awards have gone to two starting pitchers. Reliever Dennis Eckersley became the first out-and-out closer to capture the prize in 1992 with a 51-save season, and Éric Gagné was granted the elusive prize as the Dodgers closer in 2003.

Relievers, in other words, are not the pitchers we think the most about. There’s a litany of closers that the award has passed over: Mariano Rivera, with his famous lifetime ERA of 2.21, never won a Cy Young, despite a 2004 season in which he converted 53 of 57 save attempts, recorded a 1.94 ERA, and allowed just three home runs. (He was even better the next year, albeit with fewer saves.)

Koji Uehara didn’t win the award in 2013, even though he recorded a 1.09 ERA in 73 games, notched 21 saves, walked only seven batters unintentionally, and allowed a grand total of nine runs. He also famously retired 37 consecutive batters between July 9th and September 17th—more than a perfect game’s worth of outs. Plus, he didn’t even begin the season as the closer.

And Edwin Díaz didn’t win the Cy Young in 2022, when he posted a 1.31 ERA, notched 32 saves, and struck out an eye-watering 118 batters over 62 innings.

So if closers are, fairly or unfairly, forgotten about in these conversations, imagine the pain of the setup men, that whole legion of major leaguers whose job it is to ensure that the closer has some sort of lead to work with. There is no save and no closer without the setup man. And no setup man, needless to say, has ever won a Cy Young.

So Chris Martin, the 37-year-old setup man for the 78-84 Red Sox, should not win a Cy Young. But he may have just had the best season of any reliever in 2023.


Record: 4-1


Martin was 4-1 on the year, which doesn’t really matter for relievers. His only loss of the year came on April 10, when he allowed a home run to the Rays’ Brandon Lowe in the eighth inning. He would allow a home run only once more all season, to Joc Pederson on July 28th.


ERA: 1.05


This isn’t just good, it’s shocking. ERA is a notoriously bad statistic for relief pitchers, and especially for high-leverage relievers like Martin for whom every allowed run is a big deal. So let’s put his 1.05 ERA in context.

Martin allowed six runs all year. This is amazing for any reliever, let alone one pitching for the Red Sox, who ranked last by a mile in defense, posting -51 Outs Above Average, 13 outs worse than the second-to-last Reds. (This was a historically awful defense—since 2016, when Statcast began tracking Outs Above Average, only one team has posted a worse OAA: the 2017 Mets.)

For those who enjoy adjusted stats, or who cry foul on Fenway’s strange dimensions, Martin’s ERA+ passes the test, t0o, at 434, meaning that Martin’s was 334% better than the league average at preventing earned runs.

Here are some highlights from this incredible run of posting: Martin did not allow a run over eight straight appearances in May, nor in 16 straight appearances between June 9th and July 25th, nor in 20 straight appearances between July 30th and the end of his season on September 22nd, when he was shut down for a viral illness. He allowed four hits in a game only once, still earning a Hold; allowed three hits once, earning another Hold; and allowed two hits 13 times, for a total of one run. He made 28 hitless appearances and 12 one-hit appearances.

For his hard work, Baseball Reference credits him with 3.2 bWAR this year, the highest for a reliever and a huge number in general. For comparison, Spencer Strider (20-5, 3.86 ERA, and 281 strikeouts in 2023) earned 3.4 WAR over the season, having made 32 starts. Strider finished 4th in NL Cy Young voting; Martin, against all normal patterns, managed to get one fifth-place vote, securing a 12th-place finish in the AL voting.


Innings Pitched: 51.1


Pitching 51.1 innings may be Martin’s most underrated accomplishment of 2023. The guy was always available. Besides a two-week April IL stint and the aforementioned illness, which happened long after the Red Sox were eliminated, Martin was one of three Red Sox pitchers (alongside Brayan Bello and Kutter Crawford) who were consistently available, and the only one of them to perform consistently. Kenley Jansen, Boston’s closer, only managed 44.2 innings in 2023.


Walks: 8


If you didn’t think the last stat was impressive, consider this one: over 55 appearances, during which he faced 199 batters, Chris Martin issued only eight walks. Unbelievably, three of the eight were intentional, meaning that over the whole of 2023, Martin unintentionally walked only five batters from the 196 he pitched to. It’s hard to overstate how difficult this is.


Martin Was Never Relieved


Perhaps the most remarkable statistic of all, though, is the fact that Martin was never relieved in the middle of an inning. In each of his 55 appearances, Martin got all three outs. It’s hard to wrap your mind around how difficult this is, and how valuable it is to a team: when he had Martin on the mound, Alex Cora never once had to ask Kenley Jansen to get a four-out save. Not once.


The Eye Test, and The Future


It’s very rare to see a season this good from anyone; it’s even more unexpected from a journeyman like Martin, who is 37 years old and has now played for seven MLB teams as well as the NPB’s Nippon-Ham Fighters. In Japan, Martin’s interpreter was Ippei Mizuhara, now famous for his work with Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani, also a Nippon-Ham player at the time, taught Martin to throw a splitter, a pitch that made up about 11% of his 2023 mix.

Martin had two excellent seasons in Japan, where he walked 13 batters in 88.1 innings and finished with a two-year ERA of 1.12. The fact that he could resurrect such numbers six years later, back in the MLB, may be a clue that Martin has a few special seasons left in him. His two-year, $13.5 million deal with the Red Sox is looking like a very shrewd investment by former Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom, who will look back on Martin, Justin Turner, and Adam Duvall, and perhaps Kenley Jansen, as excellent free-agent signings that were, ultimately, not enough to save his job. Martin, though, may have been Bloom’s finest bit of business.

There’s a perception, with some truth to it, that relievers are prone to freak performances that last exactly one year. No one could fault Martin if he regresses a little, or even a lot, from these miraculous numbers; a season like this is worth the full $13.5 million, even if Martin graduates to a 5.00 ERA with 20 walks in 2024. He may have a leg up on other 37-year-olds, given that he entered MLB as a 27-year-old rookie, but there are no guarantees in baseball, especially as he’ll be measured against this season.

But as the poor soul who watched Martin post shutdown performance after shutdown performance, the vast majority of which went unnoticed by anyone, my hope is that people are paying more attention next year. If it were up to me, I’d probably give him a shot at the closing role, since Kenley Jansen will probably be a valuable trade option at the deadline. Goodness knows Martin’s done enough to earn it.

Paul Michaud

Paul Michaud's first memory is David Ortiz's walk-off homer in the 2004 ALCS. Nothing has topped that since. A Brown alum, he's also an editor and fiction writer.

One response to “Was This The Greatest Relief Pitcher Season in MLB History?”

  1. Cory says:

    I don’t see it as the greatest relief season ever. He didn’t miss enough bats for one. And yes, he only allowed 6 runs in 51 innings, but he also allowed 53 baserunners. Allowing a baserunner for every inning he pitched tells me his 1.05 ERA was a fluke. Yay for his ERA+…super. He allowed too many baserunners, and is lucky he only allowed six baserunners to score, bad defense or not. This is supported by the fact that Fangraphs has his xERA at 3.25, his FIP at 2.44, and his xFIP at 2.90. And his LOB% was extremely fluky. Good year? Sure. Nice for the BoSox to be able to count on him to hold a lead of three or less in the 8th inning 18 times, and a tie in the 8th nine times? Sure. But best RP season ever? He’s not even in the same stratosphere as those who belong in the discussion.

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