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Modern marvels: Williams steadily saved the day

Right-hander slammed the door 223 times over 16 MiLB campaigns
Todd Williams, who played parts of eight season in the Major Leagues, recorded 223 saves in the Minors from 1991 to 2007. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
@AndrewAtBatt
January 21, 2021

MiLB.com staff combed through decades of stats to uncover Minor League hitting and pitching leaders among players active for at least one season in the 21st century. "Modern marvels" presents their stories. We covered the hits leaders, the strikeouts leaders and the home run leaders in previous editions.

MiLB.com staff combed through decades of stats to uncover Minor League hitting and pitching leaders among players active for at least one season in the 21st century. "Modern marvels" presents their stories. We covered the hits leaders, the strikeouts leaders and the home run leaders in previous editions.

The path of a relief pitcher is one of the most volatile in all of professional sports.

Todd Williams’ career perfectly illustrates the tumultuous nature of that bullpen life. If his name rings a bell, it’s probably because he was on the unfortunate side of a moment that's become part of baseball lore. While pitching for the Orioles against the Marlins on June 22, 2006, Williams tried to issue an intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera but tossed a pitch too close to the plate. The budding superstar ripped an RBI single into the outfield.

But that’s not the start or the end of Williams’ story in baseball. The right-hander enjoyed an 18-year career with 16 Minor League seasons and retired with 223 saves, a modern Minor League record. A four-time Rolaids Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year recipient, he accomplished much more in his career than he's typically recognized for.

The native of Syracuse, New York, was selected by the Dodgers out of Onondaga Community College in the 54th round of the 1990 Draft. Debuting for Great Falls in the Rookie Advanced Pioneer League in '91, Williams notched eight saves in eight opportunities, fanning 59 batters in 53 innings.

He quickly rose through the Los Angeles system, splitting 1992 between Class A Advanced Bakersfield and Double-A San Antonio while amassing 22 saves along the way. Making it to Triple-A Albuquerque in his third year with the Dodgers, Williams' ERA (2.72 and 3.02 respectively over the previous two seasons) jumped to 4.99 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Still, he officially shut the door on 21 more victories and made his first of four Triple-A All-Star Game appearances. In 1994, he saved 13 games to help the Dukes win the PCL crown.

In his fourth year with Los Angeles, Williams got his first callup to the Majors. Facing the Braves on April 29, the righty pitched a perfect frame in relief, retiring the side on 11 pitches, seven of which were strikes. He made sporadic appearances for the Dodgers into June, but was sent back to the Minors in midsummer and did not return to the bigs until 1998, with the Reds.

Williams' first year in the Majors came with another twist. It marked the first of four years in which he didn’t notch a save in the Minors. He pitched in 25 games for Albuquerque in 1995, but never in a single save situation.

In September, though, he was traded from the Dodgers to the A’s, and he started 1996 with Triple-A Edmonton. Williams made 10 of his 12 career starts with the Trappers (and again finished the year without a save). His 5.50 ERA wasn’t a statistical high point, but he took the hill 35 times for Edmonton en route to another PCL ring.

Williams opened his career with the Great Falls Dodgers in 1991 and pitched with Indianapolis from 1998-99.

Williams spent 1997-98 with the Reds, recording 59 saves between Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Indianapolis (including a career-best 33 over the two levels in '97) and getting a cup of coffee with Cincinnati in '98. In July 1999, the Reds netted Kerry Robinson by shipping Williams to the Mariners, one of seven organizations (Yankees, Expos, Devil Rays, Rangers, Orioles and Rockies) he pitched for over the next eight years.

In a couple of senses, 2000 was Williams' best year. He tallied 32 saves and also helped Team USA (led by Tommy Lasorda) claim the gold medal at the Olympics in Sydney. Williams also notched his final Reliever of the Year honor. But he was by no means finished after that season. He saved 24 games for Triple-A Ottawa in 2002 and collected another ring at the Triple-A level with Durham in 2003. And the bulk of his big league time was still ahead of him.

With 222 Minor League saves under his belt in 2005, Williams finally collected his first in the Majors. Toeing the slab for the Orioles against one of his former clubs -- the A's -- on Aug. 17, he pitched a perfect ninth, striking out two. He logged 76⅓ innings and a 3.30 ERA in The Show that year, and he grabbed another save with Baltimore the next season for his second and final as a big leaguer. In 2007, he struggled over 14 appearances with the Orioles, but earned his last save as a Minor Leaguer with Triple-A Norfolk. He made 37 appearances in independent ball the next year, then retired.

Over 16 seasons in the Minors, Williams maintained a 3.40 ERA while going 50-41 and whiffing 518 over 835 1/3 innings. He pitched in 227 games as a big leaguer, posting a 4.33 ERA.

Here are some recent players who got within shouting distance of Williams' saves total over the course of their respective careers.

Bobby Korecky (186 saves from 2002-16): Korecky started nine of the first 15 games he pitched in as a pro, but he piled up 25 saves the next year in his first full campaign. The right-hander saved 20 or more games five times in his career, including a career-high 35 with Triple-A Rochester in 2007. Korecky has another fun feather in his cap -- he finished his Major League career 1-for-1 as a hitter.

Korecky recorded 20 or more saves five times over the course of his Minor League career. Carl Kline/MiLB.com

Matt Whiteside (180 saves from 1990-2006): Whiteside had both longevity and success throughout his Minor League career. In his first full season, he locked down 29 games in the South Atlantic League. Thirteen years later, he established a career high with 38 saves with Triple-A Richmond and earned an invite to the Triple-A All-Star Game. Whiteside recorded a sub-3.00 ERA in four different Minor League seasons (25 innings or more).

Jay Tessmer (176 saves from 1995-2002): The University of Miami product came out of the gate flying with the Yankees, saving 106 games over his first four seasons. As New York won the World Series in 1996, Tessmer dominated for Class A Advanced Tampa with a 1.48 ERA and 35 saves. He eclipsed the 30-save plateau three times, though he never notched a save over 22 big league appearances.

Dale Thayer (173 saves from 2003-16): Another pitcher who jumped into a relief role right out of the chute as a professional, Thayer saved 20-plus games in each of his first five years. The right-hander sported a 2.56 ERA with a 1.195 WHIP in 12 Minor League seasons. Thayer also etched a solid Major League career with a 3.47 ERA in 264 games.

Kirk Bullinger (169 saves from 1992-2005): Bullinger got two saves in two chances in his debut campaign in the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League, then went 33-for-33 in the Class A Midwest League the next year. That wound up his career high for a single season, but he notched at least 20 saves in three other Minors campaigns. He ventured up to the Majors with four clubs (Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston) in five different years, getting into 27 games and earning his lone big league save with the Astros in 2004.

Lee Gronkiewicz (160 saves from 2001-08): Comparatively, Gronkiewicz's pro career was short, but he got an awful lot done during his time in the Minors. The righty topped 25 saves in three of his eight seasons and racked up 37 and 35 saves in 2003 and 2005 respectively in Cleveland’s system. Gronkiewicz made his one and only big league appearance with the Blue Jays in 2007, allowing one run over four innings in relief.

Brian Schlitter (144 saves from 2007-present): So far, Schlitter has saved at least 20 games four times. He had 11 saves with Triple-A Las Vegas in 2019 and logged six games with the A's that year. Oakland extended Schlitter a non-roster invitation to 2021 Spring Training in November, so this could be the season he shuts the door on a big league game for the first time.

Schlitter will be a non-roster invitee this Spring Training with the A's. Steve Spatafore/Las Vegas Aviators

Jim Miller (139 saves from 2004-16): Miller notched 34 saves and 87 strikeouts in 62⅔ innings in his second season. He's recorded 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings as a Minor Leaguer and made his only professional start with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2013, throwing two scoreless innings.

Jumbo Diaz (139 saves from 2002-present): The big righty's single-season high mark is 23 saves, but he's ended nine different Minor League seasons with at least 10 on his ledger. In 2009, he earned a Texas League All-Star Game nod and finished the year with a 3.63 ERA while going 10-for-12 in save opportunities. Diaz pitched in the Mexican League in 2019 and the Dominican Winter League this year.

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.