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Houston Astros All-Time Rankings: Relievers

The Houston Astros have had some dominant relievers in their history that spans over more than five decades. From long relievers to set up guys to closers, there are plenty of candidates to crack the top five. Let's get to it.

Alright, we're back. After taking a break from our Astros All-Time Rankings series to pay tribute to Luis Valbuena, we are moving on to ranking the top relievers in Houston Astros history. We've gone through all the position players, from catcher all the way through right field. All that we have left now are relievers today and starting pitchers tomorrow, then we have a new series in store for you all.

When you look through the history of the Astros, it can be difficult to say who really is the best Astros reliever of all time, especially considering the different roles that pitchers can have in a bullpen. We all know that Houston has had some power arms coming out of the bullpen in the last 20 years, but some of the set up guys might not get all that much love on this list. With that being said, let's rank the top five Astros relieves of all time:

5.) Octavio Dotel

While Octavio Dotel played 14 seasons of major league baseball with 13 different teams (Yes, 13!!), you could argue that the prime of his career came with the Houston Astros. In his four and a half seasons with Houston, Dotel helped form one of the top bullpens in baseball when grouped with Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge.

Dotel was part of the famous six pitcher no-hitter that the Astros pulled off in New York against the "Bronx Bombers" at Yankee Stadium. But Dotel was much more than just a cog in one of the most famous games in Astros history, as he struck out 502 opposing hitters in his four full seasons with the Astros. His ERA during that span was a modest 3.26, adding a 1.166 WHIP along with 28 saves. When you compare his walk numbers to strikeouts, Dotel only walked 166 compared to the 502 punch outs from 2000-2003. 

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In the end, Dotel did very well to make this list, as there are many great relievers ahead of him. Unfortunately, he was sent away from Houston in the Carlos Beltran trade, about which I'm sure Astros fans will not complain. Here are some highlights from Dotel's four and a half seasons with the Astros:

  • Part of Astros Six-Pitcher No Hitter in Yankee Stadium
  • 4.2 WAR in 2002 was 10th Best among all National League Pitchers
  • Appeared in 83 games in 2002, 2nd most in the National League

4.) Joe Sambito

This next reliever on our list was drafted by the Astros in the 17th round of the 1973 MLB Amateur Draft. A left-handed pitcher, Joe Sambito took some time to grow through the club's farm system but made a significant impact on the organization when he finally made it to Houston. Originally coming up as a starter, Sambito quickly transitioned to a bullpen role, where he would thrive.

Sambito pitched in Houston for eight seasons, from 1976 to 1984, with a break in 1983 when he had Tommy John surgery and spent that year rehabbing. His best years were in 1979 and 1981, when he finished with an ERA lower than 2.00 at 1.77 and 1.84 respectively. In his time with Houston, Sambito totaled 421 strikeouts in 536.0 innings pitched. Currently, he sits fifth all time in Astros save leaders with 72 saves.

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While Sambito was dominant in his peak seasons for the Astros, after his Tommy John surgery in 1983 was never the same effective bullpen weapon for Houston. The three pitchers ahead of him on this list are the top 3 save leaders in Astros franchise history, so it makes sense for Sambito to slot in at fourth. Here are some highlights from Sambito's time with the Astros:

  • 1979 National League All Star
  • Tied for 5th in 1980 National League Cy Young voting
  • Career 2.42 ERA for the Houston Astros
  • 5th All Time in Saves in Astros Franchise History

3.) Brad Lidge

I believe that a lot of Astros fans have a tainted memory of Brad Lidge during the glory years of 2004 and 2005 due to the monstrous home run he allowed to Mr. Pujols in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. I'm not saying that Lidge is undeserving of all the flack that he gets, because the slider he hung to a top three hitter in all of baseball with the Astros being moments away from clinching the National League pennant is absolutely unacceptable.

However, when putting together this list, you have to evaluate the whole body of work. While Lidge may have been severely damaged by that home run, in his two to three year run before that long ball he was completely unhittable. From 2003 to 2005, Lidge gradually grew from the 7th inning set up man, to the 8th inning holder, to the 9th inning "Lights Out" Lidge.

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In 2003, Lidge was a part of the famous six-pitcher no hitter in Yankee Stadium. Then, in the first half of 2004 he was the set up man behind Octavio Dotel. His career would change when the Astros traded for Carlos Beltran, as he was immediately thrown into the closer role. The Astros were very confident in Lidge's ability, as they would've never given up on Dotel if they did not believe they had a more than competent replacement to lock down the ninth inning.

In that stretch from 2004 to 2005, Lidge struck out 260 opposing hitters while walking only 53. He finished with a 2.07 ERA and 1.016 WHIP in that span as well. He was a key cog in the bullpen in both of these seasons, even if he fell short in 2005. In fact, in the 2004 NLCS Lidge finished the series with a 0.00 ERA and 2 saves, striking out 14 Cardinals while walking only two. 

Ultimately, Lidge will not make the cut as one of the top two Astros closers in franchise history because of his 2005 postseason collapse. He was a completely different pitcher after Pujols rocked him in Game 5, and it took him a long time to recover before he eventually rebounded with the Philadelphia Phillies. Here are some highlights from Lidge's time with the Astros:

  • 2005 National League All Star
  • Part of Six Pitcher No-Hitter thrown against Yankees in 2003
  • 42 Regular Season Saves Ranked him 3rd in the National League
  • Third All Time in Saves in Houston Astros franchise history

2.) Dave Smith

Another homegrown Astros pitcher, Dave Smith was drafted by the club in the 8th round of the 1976 MLB Amateur Draft out of San Diego State University. After spending a significant amount of time in the minor leagues, Smith would make his Astros debut in 1980 and stay with the club for eleven seasons. 

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Throughout his eleven years in Houston, Smith was used in the bullpen all but once, when he made one start in 1982. He put up some staggering numbers, earning 199 career saves with the Astros while striking out 529 opposing hitters. His ERA was 2.53 and added a 1.189 WHIP. 

Smith was a great relief pitcher for the Astros, and loved playing for Houston. He was an integral part of the 1986 team as he was dominant in the regular season before coming up a bit short in the postseason. In the end, he'll be remembered as one of the top Astros relief pitchers in franchise history. The only person between him and that #1 spot is a Hall of Fame pitcher. Here are some highlights from Dave Smith's Astros career:

  • National League All Star (1986, 1990)
  • 216 Career Saves (43rd All Time in MLB History)
  • Key Member of 1986 Astros Division Title Team
  • 2nd Most Saves in Houston Astros franchise history (199)

1.) Billy Wagner

If we're being honest, you all knew that this guy would be #1 on the list. If Billy Wagner was not named the Astros All-Time best Relief Pitcher than I would have been killed by all Astros fans on social media, and there's no way I would even consider not ranking him as the best Houston Astros Relief Pitcher of All Time.

At this point, it is becoming difficult to argue against his case for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as he is more than deserving of the honor to join his former teammates Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. While there may be a touch of bias here because we follow each other on Twitter, there honestly is a case to be made for Wagner as his numbers can back him up.

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In his eight full seasons with the Astros, Wagner struck out 694 hitters while only walking 191, registered a 1.04 WHIP, and tallied 225 saves including some really important games in the late 90's. His 422 career saves puts him at sixth all time in the history of Major League Baseball, and 2nd all time in MLB history for a left-handed reliever. 

He pitched in many postseason series for the Astros, capped off the six pitcher no-hitter at Yankee Stadium, and was always lights out in the regular season. As of right now, he is one of the best in the history of baseball to take the mound in the 9th inning and finish off a game for his team. Not many have done it better in 100+ years of playing the sport, and so Wagner certainly is the best relief pitcher in Houston Astros franchise history. Here are some highlights from Billy Wagner's time with the Astros:

  • National League All Star (1999, 2001, 2003)
  • One of Six 2003 Astros Pitchers to No Hit the Yankees
  • 442 Saves (6th All Time in MLB History)
  • 225 Saves with the Houston Astros (Most in Houston Astros history)
  • 694 Strikeouts Tied for 15th in Houston Astros history (Including Starters!!!)
  • 1.04 Career WHIP is Lowest in Astros history

Alright, now we have finished all but one article in this series. So far, here is the Houston Astros All-Time Roster that we have put together:

Catcher: Craig Biggio

First Base: Jeff Bagwell

Second Base: Craig Biggio (Jose Altuve if you don't want to count Biggio twice)

Third Base: Morgan Ensberg

Shortstop: Dickie Thon

Left Field: Jose Cruz

Center Field: Cesar Cedeno

Right Field: Terry Puhl

Bullpen: Octavio Dotel, Joe Sambito, Brad Lidge, Dave Smith, Billy Wagner

As always, let us know what you think in the forums or on social media. We'll have the starting pitchers edition tomorrow. 


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