Best All-Time Closers: Top Ten Closers in Major League History
Closers shut the door. The best closers usually psyche out batters even before they step in the batter’s box. The ninth inning is their battleground and they normally come out on top.
Today’s closer position is attributed to then-Oakland Athletics Manager Tony LaRussa bringing in Dennis Eckersley in the 9th inning during the 1988 season. Charlie Sheen’s portrayal of Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in Major League turned the position into a rock star of sorts.
Like many trends in baseball, teams copied the A’s approach and the official closer position was born. Yes, there had been closers in the past, but they mostly went 2 or even 3 innings to close the game out.
These days, there are a lot of closers getting roughed up early in the season and being replaced by the next man up. Those teams obviously aren’t in line for a top ten closer.
I am rating the top 10 all-time closers with a culmination of factors: number of saves, reputation, selection of theme song to enter a game, attitude and appearance, and the downright ability to dominate.
10. Robb Nen (314 Saves)
I start the list with someone who was dominant in his day but because of a torn rotator cuff injury did not have the ability to become the most dominant of all time. Before there was the Beard, there was Robb Nen and the “Nenth” inning.
The Los Alamitos, California product (J.T. Snow was his high school teammate and former major leaguer Dick Nen is his father) would enter the waterfront AT&T Park to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and dominated hitters with his high-90s fastball and a filthy slider nicknamed the “Terminator.” Nen was a three-time All-Star and won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997.
9. Billy Wagner (422 Saves)
Billy “The Kid” was electrifying. The left-hander was a strikeout machine and learned to pitch left-handed because he broke his right arm twice as a boy. His stuff was nasty as he averaged almost 12 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. He threw in the high-90s with his fastball and ended up using a slider as his second pitch. The fastball did most of the damage.
His walk-in music was legendary, but controversial as he used the same song, “Enter Sandman” from Metallica, which is still used by Mariano Rivera. Wagner was a seven-time All-Star during his time with the Astros, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves. Wagner also wore the number 13.
8. Hoyt Wilhelm (227 Saves)
Since he was the first reliever to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, he had to make this list. He is the only closer to make this list that threw a devastating knuckleball, which gave him the longevity to pitch until he was almost 50. He had a 2.52 career ERA, was a five-time All-Star, threw a no-hitter versus the New York Yankees and won a World Series ring. He also has the most wins as a reliever with 124 and led the NL and AL in ERA in different seasons.
7. Bruce Sutter (300 Saves)
The splitter was the main pitch in this Hall of Famer’s repertoire and Sutter lead the National League in saves five different times for three different clubs (Cubs, Cardinals and then Braves). He won a Cy Young Award in 1979 for the Cubs and closed out the World Series for the Cardinals in 1982 versus the Harvey Wallbanger’s Brewers squad. Sutter was also a six-time All-Star and has had his number 42 jersey retired by the Cardinals.
6. Lee Smith (478 Saves)
The intimidating size (6’6”) and a mid-90s fastball made Lee Smith a formidable closer. He spent eight out of his 18 years with the Cubs making a name for himself, before setting a National League record for saves with 47 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1991. He led the league in saves for the Baltimore Orioles in 1994. Lee was a seven-time All-Star and was the all-time saves leader until Trevor Hoffman passed him in 2006.
5. Rich “Goose” Gossage (310 Saves)
The moustache, the presence, the Yankee pinstripes made Hall of Famer Goose one of the fiercest closers in the game. In the late 70s through the early 80s, he was the closer. Hitters did not want to stand in the batter’s box during his heyday. He was the most recognized Yankee closer before Mariano Rivera took that role. He won a World Series in 1978 with the Yankees and turned in nine All-Star appearances.
4. Rollie Fingers (341 Saves)
As the father of the modern day closer role, Rollie would come into games in the sixth or seventh inning to close games out. He was instrumental in the Oakland A’s back-to-back-to-back World Series Championships in 1972-74, earning the World Series MVP in 1974. His signature was and still is his waxed handlebar moustache, the precursor to the current Giants closer, Brian Wilson’s beard.
This Hall of Famer was a seven-time All-Star, won the AL Cy Young and AL MVP with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1981 and has had his jersey (No. 34) retired by both the Athletics and the Brewers franchises.
3. Trevor Hoffman (601 Saves)
The former shortstop who was part of the 1993 trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Marlins made San Diego competitive. When he came over in the trade, he threw a mid-90s fastball. After having rotator cuff surgery, his velocity dropped but he developed his famous unhittable changeup. He was also known for his high leg kick and a stare similar to Dave Stewart. He made walk-in music famous with the legendary AC/DC hit “Hells Bells." He was a seven-time All-Star and had his jersey (No. 51) retired by the San Diego Padres. He will be up for a Hall of Fame vote in 2016.
2. Dennis Eckersley (390 Saves)
Dennis Eckersley beats out Trevor Hoffman for the second spot because he more or less invented the 9th inning closer position. During his time at that spot, he was basically unhittable. From 1988 to 1992 he was the most dominant closer in the league and earned both the Cy Young and the AL MVP in 1992.
Remember, he used to be a starter for 12 seasons, which included a 20-win season. His jersey (No. 43) is retired by the Athletics and the Hall of Famer earned six trips to the All-Star game, along with a World Series ring in 1989.
1. Mariano Rivera (608 Saves)
There is no doubt about this honor. Just like Rickey Henderson at the leadoff spot, nobody comes close. Rivera has been dominant with his cutter and has kept his velocity in the lower 90s for his entire career. Once “Enter Sandman” starts playing at Yankee Stadium and Rivera comes to the mound, teams go to sleep.
He is probably the classiest closer of our generation, is the all-time saves leader, and is the last player left wearing the hallowed and Major League retired number 42 jersey worn by Jackie Robinson. As soon as he decides to hang it up, he will for sure be a lock to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.