Streaks and saves

Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne debuts on BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

December 03, 2013
2014 Hall of Fame candidate Eric Gagne. (NBHOF Library)

For three seasons, Eric Gagne was as close to perfect as a relief pitcher can be. And in the wake of those seasons, Gagne left a record that may be as unbreakable as any in the game.

Gagne, owner of 187 career saves, debuts on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot this fall, one of 36 players on the 2014 BBWAA ballot for the Class of 2014.

BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 8. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2014. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 27 in Cooperstown.

Born Jan. 7, 1976 in Montreal, Gagne grew up playing baseball as almost an afterthought between hockey seasons. But by his high school years, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-hander found his destiny was on the pitching mound. After failing to come to terms with the White Sox as a 30th-round draft pick in 1994, Gagne signed with the Dodgers the following year as an amateur free agent – despite the fact that he didn’t speak a word of English until learning the language in 1995.

After undergoing Tommy John ligament surgery in 1997, Gagne’s breakout season in the minor leagues came in 1999 when he went 12-4 with a 2.63 earned-run average for Double-A San Antonio, and that same year he made his big league debut. After two more uneven years as a starter – and with an 11-14 record and a 4.61 ERA – Gagne found himself in the bullpen.

[Scouting report on Eric Gagne]

There, Gagne exploded onto the national scene, harnessing his 95-mph fastball and devastating change-up. He saved 52 games in 2002, posting a 1.97 ERA while striking out 114 batters – against just 16 walks – in 82.1 innings. He also converted the first of 82 straight save opportunities when he struck out the side against the Diamondbacks on Aug. 28, 2002. 

Gagne would not fail in a save chance for almost 47 months, ending his run at 84 straight saves on July 5, 2004 against those same Diamondbacks. The second-longest streak of all time belongs to Tom Gordon, who converted 54 straight saves from 1998 to 1999. 

“I feel more comfortable in my surroundings (as a reliever),” Gagne hold ESPN.com in 2002. “I get the ball with the game on the line and just want to grip it and rip it. It’s a real rush getting the game with the game in your hands.” 

The peak of Gagne’s streak was 2003, when he was nearly untouchable. That season, Gagne saved 55 games in 77 appearances, posting a 1.20 ERA while allowing just 37 hits in 82.1 innings. He won the National League Cy Young Award in a landslide, becoming the first NL pitcher to capture the award since Mark Davis in 1989 and the just the second Canadian pitcher to win the award (following Ferguson Jenkins in 1971). His 55 saves remain a single-season record (tied with John Smoltz) for National League pitchers. 

But after saving 45 more games in 2004, Gagne dealt with arm injuries – including another Tommy John ligament surgery and a follow-up procedure to remove a nerve from his pitching arm – that limited him to just 16 appearances and nine saves combined for 2005 and 2006. He returned in 2007 after signing a free agent deal with the Rangers, then was traded to the Red Sox that summer in a deadline deal. Gagne posted 16 total saves that year and helped the Red Sox win the World Series, appearing in five postseason games. 

Gagne hooked on the Brewers for the 2008 campaign, but posted a 5.44 ERA in 50 games while being moved in and out of the closer’s role. He played independent league ball in 2009 – when he did not appear in a big league game – before retiring after a Spring Training stint with the Dodgers in 2010. 

In 10 big league seasons, Gagne appeared in 402 games, going 33-26 with a 3.47 ERA to go with his 187 saves. He averaged 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings while averaging 3.18 strikeouts per walk. 

Year Age Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO
1997   Did not play in major leagues (Injured)
1999 23 LAD 1 1 .500 2.10 5 5 0 0 0 0 30.0 18 8 7 3 15 30
2000 24 LAD 4 6 .400 5.15 20 19 0 0 0 0 101.1 106 62 58 20 60 79
2001 25 LAD 6 7 .462 4.75 33 24 3 0 0 0 151.2 144 90 80 24 46 130
2002 26 LAD 4 1 .800 1.97 77 0 68 0 0 52 82.1 55 18 18 6 16 114
2003 27 LAD 2 3 .400 1.20 77 0 67 0 0 55 82.1 37 12 11 2 20 137
2004 28 LAD 7 3 .700 2.19 70 0 59 0 0 45 82.1 53 24 20 5 22 114
2005 29 LAD 1 0 1.000 2.70 14 0 13 0 0 8 13.1 10 4 4 2 3 22
2006 30 LAD 0 0   0.00 2 0 2 0 0 1 2.0 0 0 0 0 1 3
2007 31 TOT 4 2 .667 3.81 54 0 41 0 0 16 52.0 49 22 22 3 21 51
2007 31 TEX 2 0 1.000 2.16 34 0 30 0 0 16 33.1 23 8 8 2 12 29
2007 31 BOS 2 2 .500 6.75 20 0 11 0 0 0 18.2 26 14 14 1 9 22
2008 32 MIL 4 3 .571 5.44 50 0 16 0 0 10 46.1 46 28 28 11 22 38
10 Yrs 33 26 .559 3.47 402 48 269 0 0 187 643.2 518 268 248 76 226 718

 

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum