When I first started coming up with this list, the first two names jumped right out at me and then I had to sift through some numbers to tweak the order. No. 1 couldn't have been anybody else but Mariano Rivera, though.
Here are my Top 10 relievers from 2000-09:
He's as big a gimme in the reliever category as Albert Pujols was for the first baseman category. Here's a man who has given the Yankees near-total security in the ninth inning since 1997 and he was especially dominant from '00-'09, saving no fewer than 28 games and having over 50 saves twice. Rivera was second in the American League Cy Young voting in '05, third in '04 and fifth in '08. He also placed in the top 30 in MVP voting six times, including placing ninth two years in a row. Rivera was voted to eight All-Star teams and never had a WHIP higher than 1.12 during that time and even had unreal seasons with a 0.665 rating.
Hoffman and Rivera moved in pretty much lockstep for much of the decade, though Mo was a tad more consistent. Hoffman is a very, very, very close second to Rivera, with only a completely lost 2003 season putting him behind The Sandman. He saved no fewer than 30 games and had a high of 46 in '06, which netted him second place in the National League Cy Young voting that year. He was voted to five All-Star Games in the decade. His Walks Plus Hits Per Inning Pitched - WHIP was generally in the 1.1 range, which is outstanding and due to his devastating changeup, he hit double-digits in strikeouts per nine innings three times, with 11.0 in '03 being his best mark during the decade.
3. Billy Wagner
Wagner had a run of eight seasons of at least 21 saves or more and he had two seasons of 40 or more. He even placed sixth in the National League Cy Young voting in 2006. He was also a five-time All-Star. Want an oddity? He's one of twoleft-handed reliever on this list. He also had outstanding WHIPs, with the exception of '00, but that was from a smaller sample size of only 28 games and had one year with a showing of 0.766. From '01-'09 he averaged double-digits in strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
4. Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod)
While he really didn't start closing full-time until 2004, he's high on this list on the strength of his 62-save season in 2008. Of course, who knows if chasing that record hurt him in the long run afterwards? While he didn't pull a Bobby Thigpen and just fall completely off the radar, his save numbers declined year after year afterwards (though he would have had one more save in '09 if a certain second baseman hadn't dropped an easy pop fly - not that I'm bitter or anything). He finished in the top four of Cy Young Voting three times and was a four-time All-Star. His WHIPS were generally in the 1.1-1.3 range and his strikeouts per nine innings were in double-digits.
5. Joe Nathan
While Nathan has suffered injuries over the past several seasons, he was a lockdown closer during much of the decade, recording three seasons with over 40 saves and finishing twice in the top four of Cy Young voting. He never had a WHIP higher than 1.063 during the decade and had a career best 0.790 in 2006. His best strikeout over nine innings was 12.5 in '06.
First viewed as a failed starting pitcher, Isringhausen became a very dominant closer, recording at least 30 saves in eight out of the 10 seasons during the decade. He had a career high 47 for the Cardinals in 2004. Two seasons of 1.4+ WHIPS and one 1.6 showing bumped him down the list, behind the likes of Joe Nathan. He was also a two-time All-Star.
7. Brad Lidge
While Lidge did have two 40+ save seasons over the course of the decade, inconsistency and injury also hurt him in the rankings as did a 1.4 WHIP in one season and a 1.8 season. Part of it might have been attributed to his recovering from that late-inning homer he gave up to Albert Pujols in the 2005 playoffs that shattered the aura of invincibility around him at the time. He also averaged double-digits in strikeouts per nine innings, with a ridiculous 14.9 showing in '04. He did recover from the Pujols blast to finish fourth in Cy Young voting in '08.
From 2006-09, Papelbon recorded no fewer than 35 saves and had an Earned Runs Agaist - ERA generally in the 1's. Three straight double-digit strikeout over nine innings and four of five seasons with sub 1.0 WHIPs is quite impressive.
9. Bobby Jenks
Two straight seasons of 40+ saves with decent WHIPS helps land him on here. Though his numbers decreased year by year after that, it's still quite a showing this decade. He also struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings in 2006 and was a two-time All-Star.
10. Armando Benitez
Although his numbers fizzled tremendously at the end of the decade and the fact that he was out of baseball after the '08 season, Benitez started off like a house on fire, recording over 40 saves three times. Aside from his really dominant '04 season with the Marlins, where he had 47 saves and a .818 WHIP, his other numbers were decent but never totally overwhelming, though he did have four seasons with double-digit strikeout per nine innings.
As usual, let us know what you think of the list above. Should someone be higher or lower? Some added or excluded? Comment below!
Check out our previous entries on the Best MLB Players of the 2000's: