John Axford saved his fourteenth game of the season tonight and the fifteenth game of his career. He has yet to blow a save opportunity.
Including Axford, only eight pitchers have converted their first fifteen save opportunities. The list is below:
- LaTroy Hawkins, 23 saves
- Tippy Martinez, 22
- Joe Black, 16
- Tug McGraw, 15
- Cy Acosta, 15
- Greg McMichael, 15
- Robb Nen, 15
- John Axford, 15
You can see an expanded list here.
Who would have expected LaTroy Hawkins on a list of successful closers? While he is the stereotypical setup man who can't be relied upon as a closer, it wasn't always that way. After failing as a starter, the Twins moved him to the bullpen and he rewarded them by converting 40 of 44 save opportunities over a span of about 200 games. Unfortunately, he hit the wall and was moved to a setup role. A series of blown saves for the Cubs in 2004 cemented his reputation though he was respectable as a fill-in closer for the Astros last year. He currently sits at 87 career saves.
Tippy Martinez was a solid reliever for many years in Baltimore, but is perhaps best known for picking off three baserunners in one inning when utility infielder Lenn Sakata was pressed into duty behind the plate. He finished with 115 saves in his career but never topped 21 in a season.
Joe Black honed his craft in the Negro Leagues before winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1952 by going 15-4 with a 2.15 ERA as a reliever for the Dodgers. He became the first black pitcher to win a World Series game by starting and defeating the Yankees in Game 1 of that year's Series. Of course, the save rule was not yet in existence, but he has been retroactively awarded with fifteen saves for that season. Unfortunately, injuries and a failed attempt to add additional pitches curtailed his career. He finished 30-12 with 25 saves in parts of six seasons.
Tug McGraw was one of the more colorful characters in baseball in the 1970s. He helped the Mets and Phillies to multiple playoff appearances and finished with 180 career saves.
Cy Acosta spend 17 years in the Mexican League to go along with three decent seasons in the majors. He is best known for being the first pitcher to bat in the American League after the adoption of the designated hitter (he struck out). He finished with 27 saves in 107 career games.
Greg McMichael became the Braves closer in August 1993, his rookie year. He hit the wall in 1994, blowing ten saves and never was a full-time closer again. After compiling 40 saves in 1993 and 1994, he finished his career in 2000 with 53 total saves.
Robb Nen finished with the most saves of anyone on this list. After a forgettable rookie campaign in 1993, he took over as the Marlins closer in 1994 and never looked back. After 108 saves in 4 seasons in Florida, he was traded to San Francisco where he added 206 saves in five seasons (including four with at least forty saves). He pitched through a rotator cuff injury and helped lead the Giants to the 2002 NL pennant. The decision to pitch through the injury helped the team but doomed his career and he never recovered to pitch in another major league game.
John Axford's story has just begun. He has the opportunity to continue to move up this list and perhaps seize the record from his teammate. Regardless of when he blows his first save, hopefully he will compare favorably with the successful closers on the list.