The closer of any major league baseball team is expected to come into a game with a small lead, and shut down their opponents for an inning or two. Most commonly a closer possesses an explosive fastball, along with a sharp breaking ball or devastating changeup. Every closer has to have that great secondary pitch that makes them un-hittable. While there have been closers who have been consistently good over time, no one dominated the closer role like Eric Gagne during his time pitching in the Major Leagues.
When anyone thinks of a great closer, Gagne isn’t the guy who comes to mind. Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, John Franco, and Billy Wagner are the names most commonly thrown around as being the best closers to ever toe up a rubber. But after Gagne made the transition from starter to a full time closer, he was lights out; converting an MLB record 84 consecutive saves from 2002-2004 for the Dodgers. Gagne even earned a Cy Young award during the 2003 season, in which he converted all 55 of his save opportunities. His ’03 season is considered one of, if not the best, season by a relief pitcher or closer in baseball history.
Gagne was known for his upper 90’s fastball, and his wicked changeup, which clocked in at around 88-89 mph. What made him so effective was his ability to place his fastball where he wanted to, and use his changeup to throw a hitter off-balance. His release point and arm speed were the same for both pitches, which made it even more lethal. His changeup, which is said to resemble a splitter, dove in late towards right-handed hitters.
Despite only having 187 career saves, good enough for 55th on the all time list, Gagne is still considered to be one of the best of all time. He owns a career 91.7 save percentage, better than Rivera and Hoffman by nearly two points. His streak is one of the records deemed “unbreakable,” but in baseball nothing is safe. This streak earned Gagne the nickname “Game Over,” referring to the fact that once he entered a ball game, it was practically a guaranteed victory for the Dodgers. It began in August of 2002, and ended in July of 2004, but the year he had in 2003, which earned him the Cy Young award, is something incredible.
During the 2003 season, Eric Gagne converted all 55 of his save opportunities, to the tune of a 1.20 ERA and a 0.692 WHIP. Pitching in 82.1 innings, Gagne allowed only 57 base runners (37 hits and 20 walks) while striking out 137 men. He only allowed 12 runs all season, 11 of them being earned. He only surrendered two home runs all season, both to likely future Hall of Famers Vlad Guerrero and Todd Helton. Gagne did not surrender his first run of the season until mid-May, and lowered his ERA from a 2.20 on July 2nd to a 1.20 at seasons end by just allowing two runs during that time.
Gagne made the transition to a closer in 2002, the season in which the streak began. Many thought that Gagne was going to change the game, and become the best closer ever. But injuries limited his career. Early in the 2005 season, Gagne underwent his second Tommy John surgery, his first being in 1997. After that, he was not the same closer. He did pitch a few more years, but with limited success. He bounced around a few teams, winding up with the Red Sox in 2007, where he won a World Series, and finally the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008, after which he retired.
While Gagne did not have a long career, he certainly achieved more that most closers in baseball history. He and Dennis Eckersley are the only closers to win the Cy Young award and a World Series championship in their careers. There’s no disputing that Eric Gagne was one of the best talents to come across baseball, and had his career not been cut short by injuries, his name would be all over the MLB records books.