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10 Greatest Closers in Major League Baseball History

Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera

The closer is a relatively recent invention in Major League Baseball. Saves weren’t an official statistic until 1969, and for most of the game’s history up to that point, pitchers were basically expected to finish what they started. If a relief pitcher was needed in the first half of the 20th century, it usually meant the starter had a bad day. However, the game evolved, and so did the role of the relief pitcher.

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Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm was one of baseball’s first relief aces. Wilhelm pitched in the majors from 1952, when he led the National League with a 2.43 ERA as a 29-year-old rookie, to ‘72, when he earned his 228th and final save as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers – his eighth major league franchise. Wilhelm helped pave the way for the multi-inning firemen of the 1970s and ‘80s, who gained fame and hardware in the form of Cy Young Awards, MVP honors, and even plaques in Cooperstown thanks to the saves they piled up.

Those pitchers, like Jeff Reardon, Steve Bedrosian and Willie Hernandez, paved the way for the ninth-inning stoppers of the last quarter century, who turned the final three outs of a game into an event all their own – Jonathan Papelbon, Troy Percival, John Wetteland, etc.

As of Opening Day 2017, there are 26 major league pitchers that have recorded more than 300 saves, including each of the 10 that follow. Here is our list of the greatest closers in baseball history.

Related: 25 Greatest Starting Pitchers in Major League Baseball History

— Rankings by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com, SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

10. Francisco Rodriguez

Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels, 2002-08; New York Mets, 2009-11; Milwaukee Brewers, 2011-13; ‘14-15; Baltimore Orioles, 2013; Detroit Tigers, 2016-Present
6-time All-Star
2002 World Series Champion (Angels)
Key stats (as of end of the 2016 season): 50-48, 2.73 ERA, 430 SV, 1,119 K, 25.4 WAR

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He’s flown under the radar over the past few years, particularly because of a three-year stretch in which he served in a setup role with the Brewers and Orioles, but Rodriguez is already one of the best closers in baseball history. In 2008, Rodriguez set the single-season saves record (62), the third time in his career he led the American League, and the second time he led the majors.

As of Opening Day 2017, K-Rod ranks fourth on the MLB career leaderboard in saves (430), and is tops among all active pitchers. Just 35 years old and still working his swing-and-miss changeup as the current closer for the Detroit Tigers, Rodriguez has time to climb this list.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

9. John Franco

Cincinnati Reds, 1984-89; New York Mets, 1990-2004; Houston Astros, 2005
4-time All-Star
Key stats: 90-87, 2.89 ERA, 424 SV, 975 K, 24.2 WAR

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One of the pitchers Francisco Rodriguez passed on the all-time saves list last season, Franco now sits in the No. 5 spot with 424. After being drafted by the Dodgers, and playing his first six major league seasons with the Reds, Franco was traded to his hometown New York Mets for fellow elite closer Randy Myers.

Franco never saved 40 games in a season, but the lefty led the National League in the category three times. When he retired, Franco ranked second in career saves and he remains the leader among southpaws. Franco was incredibly consistent over the course of a 21-year big league career, which allowed him to set an NL record for games pitched (1,119). He recorded a sub-3.00 ERA in 12 of his 13 seasons, including three years in which he posted an ERA under 2.00.

8. Bruce Sutter

Chicago Cubs, 1976-80; St. Louis Cardinals, 1981-84; Atlanta Braves, 1985-86; ‘88
6-time All-Star
1982 World Series Champion (Cardinals)
1979 NL Cy Young Award
Key stats: 68-71, 2.83 ERA, 300 SV, 861 K, 24.6 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2006

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Just the fourth reliever ever to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Sutter wasn’t only a ninth-inning ace. Before the current role of closer came into vogue, Sutter fit the multi-inning fireman role of the time, pitching at least 80 innings every season from his rookie year in 1976 until ‘85.

Sutter amassed 100-plus innings five times during that span. For comparison’s sake, John Franco pitched more than 100 innings only once (1986) and Francisco Rodriguez has never pitched more than 86 innings in a single season, and has yet to pass 73 in any year in which he was a full-time closer.

Nevertheless, Sutter racked up 300 career saves before shoulder injuries cut his career short. He led the National League in saves five times, and topped the majors five times, including 37 during his Cy Young-winning 1979 campaign. His career high was 45 saves in 1984, when he finished third in the Cy Young voting.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

7. Lee Smith

Chicago Cubs, 1980-87; Boston Red Sox, 1988-90; St. Louis Cardinals, 1990-93; New York Yankees, 1993; Baltimore Orioles, 1994; California Angels, 1995-96; Cincinnati Reds, 1996; Montreal Expos, 1997
7-time All-Star
Key stats: 71-92, 3.03 ERA, 478 SV, 1,251 K, 29.6 WAR

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Vocal baseball activists have made a recent push for historically undervalued players to be elected to the Hall of Fame, such as outfielder Tim Raines, who finally earned induction in 2017. Unfortunately for Smith, one of the most deserving relievers yet to make it to Cooperstown, that specific group isn’t high on closers.

Nevertheless, Smith was baseball’s all-time saves leader from 1993 – the 14th season of his 18-year major league career – until 2006. He finished with 478 career saves and led the majors in the category three times, including a then-NL record 47 in 1991. The ’91 campaign was the first of three times Smith finished in the top five of his league’s Cy Young Award voting, as he finished as the runner-up to Tom Glavine. Smith also finished eighth in the MVP voting that season.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

6. Rich "Goose" Gossage

Chicago White Sox, 1972-76; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1977; New York Yankees, 1978-83, ’89; San Diego Padres, 1984-87; Chicago Cubs, 1988; San Francisco Giants, 1989; Texas Rangers, 1991; Oakland Athletics, 1992-93; Seattle Mariners, 1994
9-time All-Star
1978 World Series Champion (Yankees)
Key stats: 124-107, 3.01 ERA, 310 SV, 1,502 K, 42.0 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2008

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Some star closers begin their big league careers as starting pitchers. Others start with a different bullpen role before taking over ninth-inning duties. Gossage made it to the majors at the age of 20, and worked through three years of mediocre-to-bad pitching out of the bullpen for the White Sox during which he saved just three games.

However, the "Goose" blossomed into a relief ace in 1975 when he posted a 1.84 ERA and a major league-best 26 saves in 141.2 innings across 62 appearances. It was the first of nine All-Star seasons for Gossage, the first of five top-five Cy Young finishes, and the first of five seasons in which he received votes for MVP.

Oddly enough, the White Sox moved Gossage into the starting rotation the following season before trading him to the Pirates. He spent just one year in Pittsburgh, but it set the tone for the rest of what would eventually be a Hall of Fame career.

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Gossage proved to be a reliever through and through, and he tallied 310 saves across 22 seasons, though he was a multi-inning reliever more than a modern day closer. Nevertheless, with a 3.02 career ERA across 1,809.1 innings and 1,002 games, Gossage proved he was one of the best in the business.

5. Billy Wagner

Houston Astros, 1995-2003; Philadelphia Phillies, 2004-05; New York Mets, 2006-09; Boston Red Sox, 2009; Atlanta Braves, 2010
7-time All-Star
Key stats: 47-40, 2.31 ERA, 422 SV, 1,196 K, 28.1 WAR

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Like Lee Smith, Wagner is still waiting for his call to Cooperstown. A uniquely talented flame-throwing lefty, Wagner has a strong case to be considered the greatest southpaw closer in baseball history.

Wagner currently ranks sixth on the all-time saves list, just two behind Franco for the most by a left-hander. However, Wagner was far more dominant than Franco over the course of a 16-year big league career, and finished with a stellar 2.31 career ERA, and miniscule 0.998 WHIP – meaning he allowed less than one base runner per inning his entire career. His WHIP also is better than anyone else on this list.

Billy the Kid never led his league in saves, but he blew hitters away to the tune of a 33.2 percent career strikeout rate. In 1999, arguably his greatest single season, Wagner finished fourth in the NL Cy Young race after he posted a 1.57 ERA and 1.65 FIP in 74.2 innings across 66 games. Wagner struck out a career-best 124 hitters, and recorded a personal-best 43.4 percent strikeout rate.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

4. Rollie Fingers

Oakland Athletics, 1968-76; San Diego Padres, 1977-80; Milwaukee Brewers, 1981-82, ’84-85
7-time All-Star
1981 AL Cy Young Award
1981 AL MVP Award
Key stats: 114-118, 2.90 ERA, 341 SV, 1,299 K, 26.1 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1992

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The man with the best mustache in big league history (apologies to Goose Gossage), and also one of its best names, Fingers pitched more than 100 innings in each of his first 10 seasons despite starting just 37 games. In a 17-year career, Fingers finished 709 games – 75 percent of his total appearances and 78.2 percent of his relief opportunities – and averaged 1.8 innings per game.

In 1981, his 12th big league season and first with the Brewers, Fingers won both the American League MVP and Cy Young Award after posting a 6-3 record, 1.04 ERA and 0.872 WHIP in 78 innings across 47 appearances. Fingers led the major leagues with 28 saves for his third and final MLB saves title.

Fingers wasn’t a strikeout pitcher in the mold of today’s closers. He fanned an average higher than one hitter per inning only once in his career (1972), and finished with an 18.7 percent career strikeout rate. He also recorded 341 saves, as well as a reputation as one of the top firemen in the game, which earned him a spot in Cooperstown.

3. Trevor Hoffman

Florida Marlins, 1993; San Diego Padres, 1993-2008; Milwaukee Brewers, 2009-10
7-time All-Star
Key stats: 61-75, 2.87 ERA, 601 SV, 1,133 K, 28.4 WAR

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Many people don’t remember the Cincinnati Reds originally drafted Hoffman as a shortstop, or that he made his big league debut with the Florida Marlins in 1993 after being selected in the expansion draft the previous year. He didn’t pitch his first full season as a closer with San Diego until he was 27 years old. Still, despite that windy road, Hoffman broke the record for career saves, and will one day have a bust in the Hall of Fame.

Known for his devastating changeup, Hoffman struck out 25.8 percent of the hitters he faced, and averaged 9.4 Ks per nine innings. He finished as the runner-up in the Cy Young race in 1998, when he tied the National League record of 53 saves (since broken) and posted a 1.48 ERA for the pennant-winning Padres. Hoffman also nearly won the Cy Young in 2006, but came up just short following a remarkable season for a 38-year-old: a 2.14 ERA with an NL-best 46 saves.

All told, Hoffman saved 601 career games, and held the top spot on the all-time list from late 2006 until ‘11.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

2. Dennis Eckersley

Cleveland Indians, 1975-77; Boston Red Sox, 1978-84, ‘98; Chicago Cubs, 1984-86; Oakland Athletics, 1987-95; St. Louis Cardinals, 1996-97
6-time All-Star
1989 World Series Champion (A’s)
1992 AL Cy Young Award
1992 AL MVP Award
Key stats: 197-171, 3.50 ERA, 390 SV, 2,401 K, 63.0 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2004

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Eckersley and Tony LaRussa basically created the modern closer role. Players like Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter were multi-inning relief aces – feared by hitters and celebrated by managers and the starting pitchers that entrusted them with securing valuable wins.

That all changed in 1987 when LaRussa tabbed a 32-year-old, side-armed journeyman starting pitcher to pitch the ninth inning, and usually only the ninth – shutting down opponents and racking up saves.

Eckersley posted a 151-128 record with a 3.67 ERA in 376 career games (359 starts, 100 of which were complete games) prior to joining the Oakland Athletics. He began the ’87 campaign without a defined role (started two games), but eventually became the closer and finished with 16 saves.

The following season, Eck took the game by storm. In 72.2 innings across 60 appearances, Eckersley posted a 2.35 ERA with 70 strikeouts and slammed the door for a major league-best 45 saves. He finished second in the Cy Young race, and was a top-five vote-getter for AL MVP.

After flirting with winning the awards over the next four seasons, Eckersley won both trophies with a dominant 1992 campaign still considered one of the best for a reliever. At 37, Eckersley posted a 7-1 record and 1.91 ERA in 80 innings across 69 games, and tallied a career-high and major league-best 51 saves.

Despite spending 14 years as a starter, Eckersley still ranks seventh all-time with 390 career saves.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

1. Mariano Rivera

New York Yankees, 1995-2013
13-time All-Star
1996, ’98, ’99, 2000, ‘09 World Series Champion
1999 World Series MVP
Key stats: 82-60, 2.21 ERA, 652 SV, 1,173 K, 57.1 WAR

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Rivera did benefit from the foundation Dennis Eckersley helped to put in place, and when the New York Yankees determined he was ready for the closer role in 1997, he never relinquished it.

Rivera quite simply was the best and most consistent closer in major league history. Working almost exclusively with a cut fastball, Rivera posted a sub-2.00 ERA in more than half of his 19 seasons (11 to be exact), and he retired with a 1.000 WHIP. His 652 saves are the most in history, and even with the prominence given the closer role today, because of the volatility that comes with it, Rivera’s record may stand for a while.

Francisco Rodriguez (430) is MLB’s active leader, while fellow veterans Joe Nathan (377), Jonathan Papelbon (368), Huston Street (324) and Fernando Rodney (261) round out the top five. No. 6 on the active list, and the player most capable of catching Rivera, is 28-year-old Craig Kimbrel, who has 256 saves in seven seasons.

If Kimbrel were fortunate enough to pitch to the age of 43 like Rivera, he would need to average 26.4 saves per year to break the record. If Kimbrel retires before he’s 40, he would need 36 saves on average. But even if it eventually falls, the all-time saves record isn’t the best example of Rivera’s dominance.

He never won a Cy Young, but Rivera was the 1999 World Series MVP – a fitting honor for arguably the best postseason pitcher in history. In 32 postseason series in his 16-year career, Rivera posted an 8-1 record and 0.70 (!) ERA in 141 innings across 96 appearances. He held hitters to a .171 batting average and recorded a 0.759 WHIP in the playoffs. Outstanding.