In 2007, after pitching to a ridiculous 1.38 ERA with 40 saves, J.J. Putz was named the 2007 Rolaids Relief Man of the Year (that equivalent to Reliever of the Year) for the American League. On the National League side, Jose Valverde claimed the award, notching a 2.66 ERA with a league-leading 47 saves. These two pitchers were absolutely lights-out for their teams during that season, and there is a reliever who nearly didn't get a chance to play in 2007, but when he did, he was lights-out.
Dennis Sarfate was not a household name by any means heading into 2007. He pitched in eight games with the Milwaukee Brewers during his rookie season of 2006 before being purchased by the Houston Astros. In his rookie season, he had a 4.32 ERA (and 1.95 FIP) out of the bullpen in 8.1 innings. Sarfate's stint with the Astros was so short that there are no photos of him in an Astros uniform, which, but it was so ridiculously good that it deserves a closer look.
Sarfate spent nearly the entire 2007 season in the minors, but on September 11, he was acquired from Milwaukee for cash considerations, leading to the Astros designating Miguel Asencio for assignment. Pitching to a 4.52 ERA in the minors and a 4.32 mark in the majors during the prior season, there was reason to believe Sarfate would get into a few games and pitch similarly to his career norms. No one could have expected how great Sarfate was going to pitch for Houston.
Instantly thrust into the bullpen, Sarfate emerged for the first time on September 13 against the Cubs, tossing a scoreless ninth inning as the Astros went on to lose 6-2. In his next appearance two days later against the Pirates, Sarfate was arguably more impressive, retiring 2007 All-Star Freddy Sanchez, sluggers Jason Bay and Xavier Nady on just 11 pitches, fanning Nady for his first strikeout of the season.
The performance that defined the season was a two-inning outing against Milwaukee, his old club. Facing some of the best hitters in the Milwaukee order and trying to leave an impression on his old ball club who gave him up for cash, Sarfate threw 31 pitches and struck out 5 of 6 batters he faced and the final four. The players he struck out? J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, Joe Dillon, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, who were the meat of the order at that point and some of the best the Brewers had during that era. Very impressive for Sarfate, who continued his scoreless streak over the next three appearances and 3.1 innings. A tremendous line and a good "how do you do?" for his old team, where emotions may have been running high as the team chased a postseason berth.
He was one of 17 relievers that season to strike out five or more in two innings or less, joining a prestigious club that included Zack Greinke and Brett Myers pitching as relievers and guys like Tim Byrdak and Pedro Feliciano.
Sarfate only struck out five in an outing three more times during his career, but all came in longer outings than just three innings and all came in 2008 with Baltimore.
He picked up his first decision of the season on September 26, pitching two scoreless innings and fanning Norris Hopper, Brandon Phillips and Buck Coats as the Astros went on to defeat the Reds 7-6. A Hunter Pence RBI single off Jared Burton afforded Sarfate his first and only win of the season and one of just five in his career.
In Sarfate's final appearance of the season on September 29, he still picked up a hold but allowed the only run he allowed in his seven-game campaign, a Willie Harris sacrifice fly in a 3-2 victory over the Braves. It didn't matter though, as he retired Yunel Escobar on strikes for his second strikeout of the evening.
Sarfate's season was complete after that and the line was beautiful. In 8.1 innings pitched and seven appearances, he allowed five hits, struck out 14 and walked one, allowing just one earned run. His season stats showed that, having a 1.08 ERA, a microscopic 0.24 FIP, a 45.2 K%, 15.1 K/9, 0.68 SIERA, an astronomical 428 ERA+ and a 0.84 xFIP, all while contributing 0.4 fWAR in his short stint in Houston.
Here's where the stats get even crazier. Of all the relievers to pitch seven or more games in September of that season, he ranked 17th in ERA, but here's the thing-- he didn't pitch until September 13, which gave some other pitchers more of a head start. He was behind Reliever of the Year J.J. Putz and the ridiculous 1221 ERA+ rookie season of Joba Chamberlain. I see another future Stranded article on this list as well. To be one of the top 20 relievers in a month in baseball is hard to do. Among National League relievers, he was 10th in ERA, good any way you slice it.
Unfortunately, we never got to see if Sarfate could continue his dominance. He was traded to the Orioles for Miguel Tejada in December and never reclaimed that greatness in Baltimore, pitching to a 4.82 ERA over two seasons before departing for Japan. Luckily for him, he did find that effectiveness again in Japan, pitching to a 1.57 ERA across eight seasons and 427 appearances in NPB, becoming one of the best closers the league has ever seen, racking up 234 saves.
I, for one, would have loved to see him continue his dominance in Houston or at least see if he could do so over a full season. He burnished his credentials plenty during that seven-game stretch in 2007 and again in Japan, but it is always fun to think about what could have been if the Astros held on to Dennis Sarfate.