The Top Relief Pitchers of All-Time

What do the numbers say?

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten! We’ve come full circle among our positions, beginning with starting pitchers, making our way around the diamond, and finally, ending with the relievers. If you’ve missed any of the other positions we’ve covered to date, you can find them in the archive. Ranking the relievers brought unique challenges as many who ended up in the bullpen began their careers as starters. In addition, the reliever as an asset is a relatively new concept in the grand span of baseball history. Prior to the 1950s, relief pitchers mainly were failed starters or young hurlers working their way up. The idea of the “closer” didn’t really emerge until the 1970s. If you are curious, our selection methodology is outlined in the next section.

 

The Criteria

 

As usual, several types of WAR formed the core of the evaluation, including ratings from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, which calculate it differently. It’s important to note that we removed statistics earned as a starter for this group. The result lowered the WAR of several pitchers who transitioned from starter to reliever, most notably Dennis Eckersley. The goal of WAR is to compare players of different eras to each other, though this was less relevant for our firemen than other positions. We always do our best to balance the rankings between longevity and dominance to get a good cross-section. Therefore, in addition to career WAR, we looked at WAR7 (seven best seasons), Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric, and the number of seasons the player was among the WAR leaders in the league.

In addition to WAR, we created a statistical rank based on traditional pitching stats such as Wins, ERA, FIP, WHIP, K/9, BB/9, HR/9, and of course, Saves. Other honors such as All-Star game appearances, CY Young awards, and seasons where the player finished in the top five in CY Young voting were also added to the criteria. As virtually all the pitchers played in an era when these honors existed, it received a bit more weight than it did with the other positions.

With that backdrop in mind, let’s proceed with our tenth-best relief pitcher of all time:

 

10. Bruce Sutter

Career Stats (1976 – 1988) – Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta

Sutter broke in with Chicago in 1976 after mastering the split-fingered fastball in the minor leagues. After a solid first season with the club, Sutter emerged as a dominant force in 1977. He set a record by recording at least one strikeout per appearance 39 straight times – a record that would not be broken until 2014 by Aroldis Chapman. Sutter made his first All-Star appearance that season and returned five more times in his career. In 1979, he won the Cy Young award after leading the league with 37 saves accompanied by a 2.22 ERA. He was the saves leader again the following season and thrice more after his trade to St. Louis in 1980.

Sutter remained one of the top relievers in the sport after joining St. Louis. He also pitched in the postseason for the first and only time in 1982 when the Cardinals won the World Series. Sutter was the winner of Game 2, tossing the final two and one-third innings, and saved Games 3 and 7. After a rough 1983, Sutter had one of his best seasons in 1984 just before entering free agency. He signed a deal with Atlanta that was massive for the time, but things did not go well for him there. A shoulder injury plagued him and cost him most of 1986 and all of 1987. Sutter returned for one final, relatively ineffective season in 1988 and then retired.

Sutter was an early pioneer of the modern closer and was recognized as such by the Hall of Fame in 2006. Prior to his enshrinement, no pitcher who had never started a game had gained admittance.

 

9. Hoyt Wilhelm

Career Stats* (1952 – 1972) – New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, California Angels, Atlanta, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers

Wilhelm’s career was most unconventional as World War II delayed his MLB debut until he was 29 years old. He was injured during the war (earning him a Purple Heart) and pitched his entire career with shrapnel in his back. Wilhelm was one tough cookie! In 1952 he finally made his debut with the New York Giants and led the league in games, ERA, and winning % despite not starting a game. Wilhelm again led the league in games the following season and made his first of eight All-Star appearances. In 1954, “Old Sarge” threw two and one-third scoreless innings with one save in the Giants’ sweep of Cleveland in the World Series. It was the only postseason experience he would enjoy in his career.

The Giants traded Wilhelm to the Cardinals in the spring of 1957, and Cleveland claimed him off waivers that summer. He moved to Baltimore in 1958 and won his second ERA title in 1959, when he primarily pitched as a starter. In 1963, the Orioles traded the 40-year-old Wilhelm to the White Sox. Most players would be contemplating retirement at this point, but not Wilhelm, as this was only the mid-point of his career. He pitched until he was 49 – you gotta love the knuckler!

Wilhelm pitched extremely effectively for the ChiSox for six seasons, which was good enough to earn him a place on the White Sox All-Franchise Starting Lineup. He played four more seasons after leaving the White Sox after the 1968 season but will always be a big part of the club’s history. In 1985, the BBWAA elected Wilhelm to the Hall of Fame, making him the first reliever to be honored in Cooperstown.

 

8. Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan began his career as a starter for the San Francisco Giants in 1999. After two mediocre seasons, Nathan underwent surgery and didn’t return to the majors until September 2002. Nathan was a reliever now, and he became a very good one.

After the 2003 season, the Giants traded Nathan to the Twins, and he became their closer. He saved 44 games in 2004 and made his first of six All-Star teams. Nathan remained one of the AL’s most dominant closers for the next decade, finishing games for the Twins, Rangers, and Tigers. He lost another season to injury in 2010 when he underwent Tommy John surgery but jumped right back into the fray in 2011. Nathan pitched on six postseason teams during his career, none of which made it to the World Series. His postseason numbers don’t look great, but he only threw ten innings.

Nathan underwent a second TJ surgery in 2015, and though he tried to come back, his career was essentially over. He retired as a Giant after the 2016 season. Nathan ranks in the top ten in saves all time with an ERA, FIP, and WHIP that rival the best. His career has been underappreciated and overlooked.

 

7. Lee Smith

Career Stats (1980 – 1997) – Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, California Angels, Cincinnati Reds, Montreal Expos

Lee Smith debuted for the Cubs in 1980, which was Bruce Sutter’s last season with the club. He emerged as the team’s closer midway through the 1982 season and, in 1983, led the league in saves and made his first of seven All-Star teams. Smith led the league in saves three more times in a long, consistent career. He saved 25 or more games for thirteen straight seasons from 1983 through 1995.

Smith bounced around from team to team playing for eight different franchises, which is not uncommon for relievers. Despite all the opportunities, he only finished a season with two clubs that made it to the playoffs – the 1984 Cubs and the 1988 Red Sox. Neither team made it far, and Smith only tallied a total of five and one-third innings in his postseason career.

When Smith retired in the spring of 1998, he was the all-time saves leader. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivers eventually passed him, but he remains third on the list. He couldn’t muster the necessary votes with the BBWAA to get elected to the Hall of Fame, but the Veterans Committee inducted him in 2019.

 

6. Rich Gossage

Rich “Goose” Gossage began his MLB career in 1972 with the White Sox when he was only 20. Over two decades later, Goose retired as a Seattle Mariner with over 1,000 games under his belt, predominantly as one of the most feared relievers of his day. Gossage’s career took off in 1975 when he led the AL with 26 saves and made his first All-Star team. He returned to the Midsummer Classic eight of the next ten summers, including the following season, 1976, when the Chisox used him as a starter. Starting didn’t agree with Goose, and after Chicago traded him to Pittsburgh in December 1976, he returned to the bullpen for good.

Gossage stayed in Pittsburgh for only one season, joining the Yankees as a free agent in November 1977. In New York, Gossage got a taste of the postseason, winning a World Series ring in 1978 and finishing as the runner-up in 1981. Goose led the league in saves twice in the Bronx and was a huge part of the Yanks’ success. He returned to the series in 1984, this time with the Padres, whom he signed with the prior offseason. Unfortunately for Gossage, he came up short again as the Friars lost to the Tigers. He did not see the postseason again in his career.

The Padres traded Gossage to the Cubs just before the 1988 season, and Goose bounced around for several teams, including a stint in Japan, before retiring in 1994. It took a few attempts, but in 2008, the BBWAA voted him into the Hall of Fame.

 

5. Billy Wagner

Career Stats (1995 – 2010) – Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta

Billy Wagner didn’t look too intimidating on the mound. At 5’10” and 180 pounds, he was not the towering presence of a Goose Gossage or a Lee Smith. But Wagner could bring it, and he reigned as one of the top closers in the NL for over a decade.

Wagner faced one batter in September 1995 and began the following season in the minors. He was recalled before too long, though, and starting closing games after injuries created an opening. He reclaimed the closer role in 1997 and held it for the rest of his tenure in Houston. The only exception was in 2000, when he underwent elbow surgery in June and missed the rest of the season. He was an All-Star for the first time in 1999 and returned six more times, representing four different clubs.

In 2004, Houston traded Wagner to Philadelphia, and two years later, he signed with the Mets as a free agent. He kept piling up saves at every stop, including his last season with the Braves in 2010, when he closed 37 games. Wagner made seven trips to the postseason, but his teams only won one series, the 2006 NLDS when he was with the Mets. Wagner has yet to be elected to the Hall of Fame, but every year his vote total gets higher, so he still has a good shot at being immortalized at Cooperstown.

 

4. Rollie Fingers

Career Stats (1968 – 1985) – Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers

The first image that comes to most people’s minds when hearing the name Rollie Fingers is his iconic handlebar mustache. However, the sinkerballer was much more than that; he was the game’s first great closer. Fingers debuted briefly in 1968 and was a regular for the A’s the following season. He made occasional spot starts for the club over the first few seasons while also finishing games. Fingers wasn’t a closer in the modern sense. Rather, he was a reliever who averaged 125 innings per season over the first decade of his career.

As the A’s ascended, Fingers’ notoriety grew. He was dominant in the team’s three World Series championships from 1972-74. Fingers tallied six saves over those three series with an ERA of 1.35. He was the MVP of the 1974 series after winning Game 1 and saving Games 4 and 5. In 1973 Fingers made his first All-Star team, an accomplishment he repeated six more times.

With the A’s dynasty crumbling, Rollie left the club after the 1976 season and joined the Padres as a free agent. He led the NL in saves in his first two seasons in San Diego, but the team wasn’t winning and traded him to St. Louis after the 1980 season. The Cardinals promptly moved him to Milwaukee, where he finished his career in style. Rollie won the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1981 after leading the league in saves again with an ERA of 1.04. Fingers excelled again in 1982, but elbow tendinitis cost him the 1983 season. He played two more seasons after that, retiring in September of 1985. At the time, he was the all-time leader in saves.

Seven years later, Fingers joined the Hall of Fame and had his number retired by the Brewers. The following season, the Athletics followed suit, putting #34 in the rafters.

 

3. Dennis Eckersley

Career Stats* (1975 – 1998) – Cleveland, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals

Dennis Eckersley was an excellent starting pitcher for the first 11 seasons of his career. Eck went to two All-Star games as a starter and had a 20-win season in 1978. He didn’t work out of the bullpen until traded to the A’s in April 1987. At that point, the second half of Eckersly’s amazing career began.

In his first season in Oakland, Eck became the closer after Jay Howell developed arm problems. After the A’s moved Howell in the offseason, Eck became the man. He did not disappoint. In 1988, Eckersley led the AL with 45 saves and finished second in the Cy Young voting. In addition, he joined the All-Star squad as a reliever for the first time. He returned in that capacity three times over the next four seasons.

The A’s blossomed during this period, and Eck flourished, posting a 0.61 ERA in 1990. His best season came in 1992 when he won the Cy Young and MVP. He led the league with 51 saves that season and compiled a 1.91 ERA. The A’s went to three World Series during this period, winning once. However, Eck only saved one game and surrendered the infamous HR to Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the ’88 Fall Classic.

Oakland traded Eckersley to the Cardinals in February 1996, and he retired a few years later, playing his final year in Boston. Eck joined the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 83% of the BBWAA vote. A year later, in 2005, Oakland retired his #43.

 

2. Trevor Hoffman

Career Stats (1993 – 2010) – Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers

Most remember Trevor Hoffman as an all-time Padres great, but few remember he began his career with the Florida Marlins (which acquired him from Cincinnati in the 1992 expansion draft). The Marlins traded him to San Diego mid-way through his 1993 rookie season in a package for Gary Sheffield. Nobody expected the trade would work out so well for the Friars.

Hoffman took over as the Padres closer during 1994, finishing the year with 20 saves. Over the subsequent fifteen seasons, he finished with fewer than 30 saves only once, in 2003, when he underwent two shoulder surgeries. Hoffman led the NL in saves twice during his run and was a seven-time All-Star. When AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” started playing, you knew you were in trouble.

The Padres advanced to the playoffs four times while Hoffman was with them, making it to the World Series in 1998. Hoffman had three saves that postseason in the NLDS and NLCS, but the Yankees swept San Diego in the series.

Hoffman passed Lee Smith’s save record and kept going, becoming the first player to record 500 and 600 career saves. He eclipsed 600 near the end of his career in 2010 when he was with the Brewers, whom he joined as a free agent the year before. Hoffman’s record didn’t stand for long, as Mariano Rivera passed him a year later. The Padres honored their long-time closer by retiring his #51 in 2011. The Hall of Fame furthered his post-career honors, inducting him in 2018.

 

1. Mariano Rivera

Career Stats (1995 – 2013) – New York Yankees

Mariano Rivera checking in as our top reliever will not shock any baseball fan. Mo is, quite simply, the GOAT of closers. He has 51 more career saves than Trevor Hoffman, who is second on the all-time list. His 42 career postseason saves are more than double the runner-up, Kenley Jansen, who has 19. Mo’s 11 World Series saves nearly double Rollie Fingers’ six. And those are just the accolades related to saves. Rivera also owns the lowest postseason ERA at 0.70 over an incredible 141 innings pitched and the lowest career ERA for a reliever with over 500 IP. And he did it primarily with one pitch – a nearly unhittable cut fastball.

Rivera debuted in May 1995 as a starter, but he wasn’t very effective. He started ten games that season and finished the year in the bullpen. In 1996, Mo developed into the set-up man for closer John Wetteland and allowed only one earned run over 14.1 innings in the playoffs that season, which culminated in a Yankees World Championship. Wetteland left that offseason, and “The Sandman” assumed the closer’s role, which he held for the next 17 seasons.

We already mentioned many of Rivera’s accomplishments, but here are a few more. He was an All-Star thirteen times, led the league in saves three times, was the World Series MVP in 1999, and the ALCS MVP in 2003. From 1997 through 2011, Rivera averaged 40 saves a season with an ERA of 2.01. He won five rings with the Yankees and pitched in seven World Series. Outside of his rookie year and 2012, which he missed almost entirely due to a torn ACL, Rivera never made fewer than 45 appearances in a season. Mo was the best, and he was an iron man.

“Super Mariano” finally retired just before his 44th birthday in 2013. His number 42 had already been retired by every MLB club due to Jackie Robinson, making Mariano the last player ever to wear the number. The Yanks threw a party for him before the end of the season, highlighted by the band Metallica playing his “Enter Sandman” live. Six years later, the BBWAA unanimously voted him into the Hall of Fame – the only time a player made it onto every ballot.

 

On Deck

 

This completes our Top Ten players by position, but more Top Tens could be on the horizon. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup every other week. You can find it and tons of other great content in the We Love Baseball section.

 

Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Scott Youngson

Scott is a SoCal native who, after two decades of fighting L.A. traffic, decided to turn his passion for fantasy sports into a blog - the now-defunct Fantasy Mutant. He currently writes for FantasyPros and Pitcher List and will vehemently defend the validity of the Dodgers' 60-game season championship.

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