Isringhausen, Foulke, Street, or … Ziegler?
The Oakland A’s have over a half-century of history in the books, and it’s filled with star players. Several have made the Baseball Hall of Fame after long careers wearing green and gold, but many more are on the outside looking in.
The question we’re looking to answer here is, who is the best A’s player not in the HOF? The candidates are split into four categories, and in the first three posts we examined the 1970s three-peat champion Swingin A’s, the 1989 champion Bash Brothers Era, and the 2000s Moneyball years. The community voted in a poll at the end of each post, and the winners of those groups were Vida Blue, Mark McGwire, and Tim Hudson.
This time, we’re looking not at an era but rather at a position. The closer role is a relatively new one in MLB history, not really taking hold until the 1970s and only existing in its current form for the last three decades, so there aren’t many of them in the HOF yet. The A’s are particularly well-represented in this department already, with two reps in the Hall — a classic 70s fireman in Rollie Fingers, and the pioneer of the one-inning save in Dennis Eckersley. But who else lines up behind that pair?
There are four candidates to choose from. After a quick word about each, and some key stats, there is another poll at the bottom for everyone to vote. The winner of that poll will go up against Vida, McGwire, and Hudson in a final vote to crown a champion.
First, some honorable mentions. Nobody from the 20th century made the cut — Rollie anchored the pen until the late-70s, then Oakland went hard on starting pitching in the early 80s, then Eck took them through the mid-90s, and Billy Taylor finished out the century with 100 saves of his own.
In the new millennium, Billy Koch had a monster year for the A’s in 2002, but he only appeared in six MLB seasons overall and so doesn’t even come close to HOF eligibility. (Taylor also only pitched in seven seasons; the minimum is 10.) I had to reach deep to fill the fourth spot in this contest, and the final snub was Grant Balfour, who played three of his 12 seasons for Oakland and earned his only All-Star berth here.
Note: I considered including designated hitters, as a similarly underrepresented position on the offensive side of the ball. But two of the A’s top candidates are already in the HOF, in Frank Thomas and Harold Baines, and the best of the rest (Dave Parker, David Justice) were really outfielders who just DH’ed in late-career cameos in Oakland. Let’s just stick with closers.
Keith Foulke | RHP
20.8 bWAR | 12.3 fWAR | 191 saves
He only spent four years as a full-time closer, plus parts of a few more seasons, so his saves total doesn’t match up with the leaders on this list. But his overall body of work gives him the highest bWAR of the group by far.
One thing that set him apart was his large workload for a modern late-inning arm, as he averaged 87 innings during his six-year peak and once broke triple-digits as a setup man. That’s at least 20 frames more than the others on this list averaged in their heaviest six-year spans, so when Foulke posted a 2.43 ERA in that time it provided quite a bit more value than his peers. He cleared 3 bWAR five times and topped out at 4.5 in 1999, and he exceeded 1.5 fWAR five times (and 2.5 thrice).
While his most productive work came in his early years with the White Sox, his most famous years came after that. In 2003 the A’s acquired him, and he led the league with 43 saves, made the All-Star team, and got votes for Cy Young and MVP. The next season, he went to the Red Sox and won the World Series, assisting the final out himself on a comeback grounder to break the 86-year Curse of the Bambino. He wrapped up his career in 2008 with one more summer in Oakland, as a decent setup man.
Overall, his 3.33 ERA is good for a sparkling 140 ERA+, and he held late leads at an 88% success rate (including 74 holds). His career Win Probability Added score is 11th all-time among relievers. He won a ring, got Cy votes in two years, posted two 40-save campaigns, and put up about 75% of the bWAR of actual HOF candidate Billy Wagner (albeit only 25% of the fWAR). As an extra bonus, the Giants traded Foulke away as a rookie, so he’s a star they could’ve had but didn’t.
Jason Isringhausen | RHP
12.3 bWAR | 11.2 fWAR | 300 saves
He was the first real magic trick performed in the Billy Beane era. In mid-1999, Beane sent his established closer, Billy Taylor, to the Mets for a busted once-top starting prospect who had recently been banished to the bullpen. Oakland saw that demotion as an opportunity to reinvent him, and kept him in the pen as their new closer. Isringhausen thrived in that new role for the next decade.
The ‘99 A’s didn’t quite make the playoffs, but the 2000 and ‘01 teams did, with Izzy manning the 9th inning. He was an All-Star in 2000, and his eventual departure in free agency is one of the big blows that needed to be accounted for at the beginning of Moneyball. He signed with St. Louis and spent seven years there, leading the league with 47 saves in 2004, then earning his second All-Star berth in 2005, and pitching for a World Series champion in 2006, though he was injured for the entire postseason. He did eventually return to the Mets for one of his final seasons, at age 38.
Add it up, and Izzy’s 300 saves are tied for 29th in history with HOFer Bruce Sutter, though his 83.6% save/hold rate is only good not great. His 3.64 ERA is also a bit high (115 ERA+), though it drops to 3.32 (129 ERA+) if you cut out his early attempts at starting and begin the clock with his 1999 bullpen rebirth. He was even better in his 23 postseason games, going 11-for-12 in saves with a 2.36 ERA. In 2018, he made the real-life HOF ballot, though he did not receive any votes.
And in Oakland terms, he recorded the strikeout that clinched the 2000 AL West division crown on the final day of the season, for their first October trip since 1992. I was in high school at the time, and the newspaper clipping of him celebrating that save hung on my wall for years.
Huston Street | RHP
14.5 bWAR | 10.6 fWAR | 324 saves
There was no complicated backstory behind Street. He was drafted by the A’s in the 1st round as a closer, he won the 2005 Rookie of the Year as a closer, and he went on to spend 11 straight seasons as a closer and part of a 12th. Even despite pitching his final game just shy of his 34th birthday, he still ranks 19th all-time in saves.
There’s not much to say about his career except that it was consistently quality. He was good for the A’s for a few years, then good for the Rockies for a few years, then good for the Padres for a few years, then good for the Angels for a few years. Then he retired.
He was a two-time All-Star for San Diego, and twice earned MVP votes, including once in Oakland. His 2.95 ERA gives him a sturdy 141 ERA+, he held leads at a reliable 86.7% rate, and his WPA is 19th all-time among relievers. Unfortunately he didn’t get much postseason opportunity, only reaching October three times and never getting past the LCS.
Off the field, Street was one of the first players to use the internet to connect directly with fans, writing a blog series for ESPN in his rookie year. And for A’s fans, he gets a special nod for ripping on his then-former manager Bob Geren during the skipper’s 2011 feud with closer Brian Fuentes, an episode that resulted in the unpopular Geren being replaced by the far superior Bob Melvin in Oakland’s dugout. Street said: “For me personally, [Geren] was my least favorite person I have ever encountered in sports from age 6 to 27.”
Brad Ziegler | RHP
13.2 bWAR | 6.0 fWAR | 105 saves
I committed to including four players in each category, so we need one more. Ziegler beats out Balfour for the final spot, with superior numbers all around. And while there isn’t any kind of actual HOF case to be made here, Ziggy’s career was better than you might realize, and the submarine hurler is not entirely out of place on this A’s list.
After all, his very career began with an MLB record. Upon his debut in 2008, the first 39 innings he threw were scoreless, before he finally allowed his first run. That still stands as the longest such streak to start a career in major league history, and it’s also the longest scoreless streak of any kind by an Oakland pitcher and just two innings shy of the overall MLB rookie record. He finished the year with a 1.06 ERA.
Ziegler followed up his brilliant rookie campaign with eight more quality seasons. He was rarely a full-time closer, but he was always an effective late-inning arm. From 2008-16, throughout trades from Oakland to Arizona to Boston, he never dipped below 58 innings, and only twice was his ERA+ worse than 143. In his final season in 2018, at age 38, he led the majors in appearances and still succeeded as a setup man. Unfortunately, like Street, his teams rarely made the playoffs.
Put it all together and his bWAR is competitive for this list, to go with an excellent 2.75 ERA (149 ERA+). His 105 saves were accompanied by 146 holds at a sterling 87.1% success rate, along with the 41st-best WPA among relievers, though he was never an All-Star. FIP doesn’t like him because of his low strikeouts, but if a groundball specialist succeeds for nine straight years then I’m comfortable throwing out his lackluster fWAR.
Need something else to sweeten the pot? In the early days of Athletics Nation, Ziegler was a direct contributor to the site. When he was still in the minors he penned a regular column here called “Gettin’ Ziggy With It,” which continued beyond his MLB debut. You can see a few installments here, here, and here. That’s gotta earn him some extra points in an AN poll, right?
I made a table this time!
Alright Athletics Nation, time to vote. One of these closers will move on to the finals to face off with Vida Blue, Mark McGwire, and Tim Hudson. Who you got?