Seasons With Braves: 1978-1987
Stats With Braves: 53-73, 3.89 ERA, 141 Svs
In the past, I’ve written that Mike Remlinger was the best reliever in Braves history, and I still believe that on a peak quality basis. But Gene Garber had twice as many seasons in a Braves uniform and well over twice the innings, and I have to give the edge to him on career value. Since his peak was also quite high, I’ll give him the nod.
The seventies were the golden age of sidearm pitching; Garber joined the likes of Dan Quisenberry and Kent Tekulve, or rather they joined him. Garber was an odd sort of harbinger; he pitched for the Pirates in the years before they came up with Tekulve, then moved on to the pre-Quiz Royals. I don’t know that he was the first of the group, maybe I’m missing someone. Gene also got the majors very quickly, at the age of 21; most sidearmers don’t make it up until they’re at least in their mid-twenties. Garber was eight months younger than Tekulve but debuted five years earlier. The Royals traded him to the Phillies, where he was part of that devastating bullpen I mentioned in the Ron Reed comment. The Phillies traded him to the Braves for Dick Ruthven early in 1978. Ruthven went 13-5 and helped pitch them to the division title, but it was a good trade for the Braves.
Among the advantages of sidearmers are that most of them are pretty durable (valuable in the seventies because of the huge number of innings relief aces were asked to log), they generally have good control, and they get ground balls. The disadvantages include inconsistency from year to year and vulnerability to lefthanders. Garber did have some off years, but interestingly he wasn’t particularly vulnerable to lefties. His career splits are .252/.304/.361 against righthanders, .262/.322/.374 against lefties, which if anything are smaller than usual for “normal” righthanded pitchers.
Garber started off his Braves career with a bang. Coming over on June 15, he went 4-4 with 22 saves and a 2.53 ERA. The next year he managed 25 saves but his ERA ballooned to 4.33 and he lost 16 games, and the Braves turned to Rick Camp. While Camp pitched excellently, Garber gave them a solid season and a very good one, and when Camp moved into the rotation Garber went back into the closer role.
In 1982, he had his finest year as a Brave, saving a then-team-record 30 games, a record that would stand for fourteen years, and posting a 2.34 ERA. He also threw 119 1/3 innings that year, so it’s no surprise that he came up lame in 1983 and Bedrosian and Forster took over the closer role. In 1984, Torre never did settle on a closer, and Garber was one of several who held the job for a time.
So in 1985 came the disastrous Sutter signing. When Sutter went down in 1986, Garber checked right back in and put up another strong campaign, 24 saves and a 2.54 ERA. 10 saves into 1987, with an ERA a little above the league, Gene was traded to the Royals, where he finished his career.
Garber retired as the Braves’ all-time save leader, a record he held until Smoltz broke it in 2004. I’m fairly certain that nobody’s anywhere near his 856 relief innings… I wish I could have found a card where he was about to release the ball. He looked like he was bowling some of the time. Or shooting craps. I’ll settle for the card on the right, which will demonstrate to you youngsters what the seventies could do to a man.