By Zack Zeigler
The Pittsburgh Pirates have accomplished a lot in the 21st century. They broke a 21-season-long losing streak by making the playoffs in 2013, saw the rise of players like Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, and opened one of the best ball parks in all of major league baseball in PNC Park.
A lot has changed with the team over the years, but one thing has remained consistent. You can always trust the man that is throwing in the ninth inning will get the job done.
Since the 2000 season, the Pirates have seen several names jump into the closers role and lead the Pirates from victory. Whether it be a wily veteran found off the market or a young guy getting a chance to prove himself, the Pirates have always seemed to find a way to get it done at the back end of the bullpen.
They haven’t had the bonafide stars such as Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman, but their guy has always been able to get the job done.
We will take a look at the top five Pirates to step into that closers role since the 2000 season. The list includes pitchers who had at least 10 save opportunities in any season from 2000 to present. This list does not include set-up men who jumped in for a save or two, so no Damaso Marte or John Grabow on this list. Here are the top five Pirates closers since 2000.
#5 Jason Grilli: 44 Saves in 50 Chances (Closed from 2013-2014)
Jason Grilli emerged onto the baseball scene as the Pirates closer in the 2013 season, but he was with the Pirates for two years prior to that. He was signed to a minor league contract by the Pirates on July 21, 2011, and was the set-up man for Joel Hanrahan.
He got the call as the Pirates full-time closer in that 2013 season after Hanrahan was traded to the Boston Red Sox in a deal that brought Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel and Ivan Dejesus Jr. to the Pirates.
Grilli would take off that year collecting 33 saves in 35 opportunities and being named to his first ever All-Star game in his then-10-year career. He would strike out 74 batters and walk only 13 in 50 innings of work for the Pirates.
When Grilli came into the game, with “Whipping” by The Who playing in the background, you knew the game was over.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of Jason Grilli’s Pirates career was when he got the final out of the 2013 National League Wild Card Game against the Cincinnati Reds. That win marked the first playoff win for the Pirates since the 1992 NLCS.
The 2013 Pirates would go on to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS, but when Grilli got Zack Cozart to ground out to end the game, a new era of winning would begin in Pittsburgh.
The 2014 season was not as good to Grilli, however. He would save 11 of his 15 opportunities with the Pirates before he was traded at the deadline to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Ernesto Frieri.
The number of hits Grilli gave up went up in 2014 and he never really found the magic that he conjured up in his successful 2013 campaign.
During his time with the Pirates, Grilli saved 88% of his games and brought new life to the Pirates organization. Grilli is still in the league and was the Toronto Blue Jays’ set-up man.
#4 Matt Capps 67 saves in 89 Chances (closed from 2006-2009)
He was drafted in the seventh round of the 2002 MLB Draft and became the Pirates’ full-time closer in the 2007 season. He spent two seasons as a set-up man for Jose Mesa and struggled in save opportunities during the 2006 season, only picking up one save in 10 chances. Given these stats, many fans were puzzled as to why he got thrown into the closer role in 2007.
However, he ran with the opportunity and turned in a successful 2007 season saving 18 of his 21 save opportunities and establishing himself at the back end of the Pirates bullpen. He struck out 64 batters that season in 79.0 innings of work while only walking 16 batters. This was only the beginning of Capps’ success as a Pirate.
His breakout year would be in 2008 when he saved 21 of 26 games and earned the Pittsburgh Pirates Heart and Hustle Award. Capps made the most of his opportunity pitching for a team who was in a total rebuild mode.
In that season, he compiled a 3.02 ERA in 53.0 innings of work. He would continue his success into the 2009 season where he saved 27 of 32 chances but compiled a much higher 5.80 ERA.
Injuries plagued Capps in the 2009 season and that was a source for that high ERA. Capps elected free agency after the 2009 season and was signed by the Washington Nationals. He was an All-Star in the 2010 season for the Nationals, and was traded mid-season to the Minnesota Twins.
Ever since that 2010 season, he has bounced up and down between the MLB and the minor leagues and is currently in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.
#3 Jose Mesa 70 saves in 82 chances (closer from 2004-2005)
Jose Mesa stepped in as the Pirates closer in the 2004 season as a proven veteran entering his 17th season in the major leagues. That first season with the Pirates was a very successful one for Mesa, as he saved 43 games in 48 chances for the Bucs while striking out 37 over 69.1 innings of work.
Those 43 saves were the most since the 2002 season when he saved 45 games for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Mesa broke out as a closer in the 1995 season with the Cleveland Indians where he saved a career-high 46 games. Mesa was named to the All-Star game that season and in the ‘96 season as well and at that time was one of the most dominant closers in the game of baseball.
He came to the Pirates via free agency in 2004 and took over the closer role after Mike Williams had held the role for the previous six seasons.
Mesa saved 85 percent of his games as a Pirate and added the security factor to the back end of the Pirates bullpen. Mesa was not a guy who relied on the strikeout to get batters out, but rather put the ball where he knew you would pound it into the ground. The most strikeouts he ever had in a season was 70 in 162.1 innings of work in 1992 between the Cleveland Indians and the Baltimore Orioles as a starting pitcher.
Mesa would leave the Pirates via free agency after the 2005 season and went on to pitch for the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies before ending his 20-year MLB career. In total, he racked up 321 saves in his career and was a strong closer who helped the Pirates in the mid 2000s.
#2 Mike Williams 117 saves in 133 chances (closed from 1998-2003)
Mike Williams closed for the Pirates from the 1998 season to the 2003 season. We will not count the 98 or 99 season since this list starts in the 2000’s, but Williams still had a very successful Pirates career.
In the 2000 season, he saved 24 of 29 opportunities while striking out 71 in 72.0 innings of work. Williams was a guy who fed off the strike out and used that to his advantage. In 2001, he saved 22 out of 24 chances while striking out 43 in 41.2 innings of work.
During that 2001 season, Williams was traded to the Houston Astros for Tony McKnight, a Triple-A pitcher. Williams would then come back with the Pirates in the 2002 season and that is when his career would really take off. In 2002, Williams collected 46 saves in 50 opportunities for a Pirates team that fell just short of making the playoffs and ending what at that time was a 10-year playoff drought.
With that season, Williams set the record for the most saves in a season by a Pirate with 46 and was named to his first ever All-Star game. In that season, he posted a career-low 2.93 ERA and struck out 43 batters in 61 innings of work. He was third in the National League in saves that season and was a key part of the team’s success.
He would continue that success in the 2003 season where he saved 25 of 30 opportunities and was once again named to the MLB All-Star team. However, he would be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies prior to the trade deadline and his career would be over.
He retired after the 2003 season after posting the worst ERA of his career at 5.40. He ended his term with the Pirates second on the all-time saves list behind Kent Tekulve with 140 saves.
#1 Mark Melancon 130 saves in 144 chances (Closed from 2013-2016)
Mark Melancon came to the Pirates in a very unpopular trade that sent Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 offseason. Melancon was a struggling pitcher looking to rebuild himself with the Pirates.
He did that and much more as he became the Pirates all-time single season saves leader collecting 51 saves in the 2015 season.
Melancon started his Pirates career as the set-up man to Jason Grilli. However, due to Grilli’s age, Melancon got quite a few save opportunities in that first year and ended up saving 16 of 21 save opportunities that year.
As the struggles of Grilli in 2014 continued Melancon benefited taking over the closers role going 33 for 37 in save opportunities. Melancon was having the most success he had since he was with the Houston Astros in 2011, but the best was yet to come.
His historic 2015 season, in which he saved 51 of 53 games, landed him his first ever All-Star selection. His efforts led the Pirates to their third straight playoff appearance against the Chicago Cubs in the 2015 National League Wild Card Game.
Melancon was the closer at the start of the 2016 season as well and earned his second straight NL All-Star nod as one of two representatives for the Pirates.
Due to the Pirates’ struggles in 2016, the Pirates parted ways with Melancon before the July trade deadline in a deal that sent Melancon to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn.
Melancon saved 90 percent of his games as a Pirate, the most out of any pitcher on this list, and even coined the nickname “Mark the Shark.”
Melancon’s hard work paid off with the Bucs and allowed him to be third on the all-time Pirates save list behind Tekulve and Williams.
In conclusion, the Pirates have had many great closers here in the 21st century. This off-season will be one of the first in a while where the closers role is no guarantee.
As of right now it will be Tony Watson and Felipe Rivero battling it out for the ninth inning role.