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MLBs 10 Best Relief Pitchers of All Time

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MLBs 10 Best Relief Pitchers of All Time
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Relief pitching is the most overlooked position in the history of Major League Baseball.

It’s amazing because about 30 percent of the team bus consists of relief pitchers today.

It makes it all the more amazing that most historians have never made a thorough relief pitching all time list.

Here’s what is interesting to merelief pitchers are getting better and better as time goes by. It’s unlike any other position.

If I did a list of the 10 best first basemen of all time, then they would be evenly distributed from decade to decade, more or less.

For example, there might be one or two from the 1920s, one or two from the 1950, one or two from the 2000s, etc…

The same thing would generally happen with a second base list, a third base list, a center field list, etc…

This in not the case with relief pitchers. Most of the greats of all time are from the 2000s.

In fact, eight of the top 10 are from the 2000s and six of them are still pitching. Even taking the Honorable Mentions list into account, nine of the top 20 are from the 2000s and seven of them are still pitching.

Again, there is no other position like this.

Relief pitchers have it easier today, in a way. They generally pitch less innings per game than they used to and some casual fans attack relief pitchers for this.

Hey, it’s not their fault, it’s just the face of the game today.

Just because they’re babied by the new aged managing style doesn’t mean they are not as good.

In fact, they’re better. Not because of that, but it’s just the way it is.

Almost any respected historians will tell you this and the longer ago, the more it was true. Which means the closer to now, the less it’s true.

Anyway, here’s the ideology: The good arms are in the starting rotation and the duds are in the bullpen.

Again, more or less, true longer ago, and not true now.

This is probably the reason for the overabundance of modern pitchers on this list, the rule was more closely followed the farther away from today you get.

It’s just the way it is folks. Today, they’re babied, but they’re better, generally speaking.

Now, there have been 651 relief pitchers in the history of MLB that have pitched at least 250 G. 182 of them are from the 2000s; that’s 28 percent of all relief pitchers in history are from this decade.

So, there are more relief pitchers from the 2000s than there were from the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s combined. More from this single decade than the first 10 decades of MLB combined. That’s another reason for the overabundance from the 2000s, there are simply more relief pitchers today than ever.

If everything were equal, then this top 20 and top 10 should have 28 percent from the 2000s. Of course, everything is not equal, as I said above. That’s why this decade is 80 percent of the top 10 and 45 percent of the top 20; when it should be 28 percent, mathematically speaking.

 

An Explanation of the Stats

The statistics that I include will be Games Pitched, Games Started, Innings Pitched, ERA, ERA+, WHIP (OOB percent), H/9 (OBA), SV, SV/50 (per 50 Games Relieved) and K/BB (ratio.)

I will also letter grade their length of career and list the decade that they generally pitched in.

First , I will include their raw career numbers first. These are simply their career numbers.

Second , I will include their adjusted career numbers, if they had a long career (which most did.) Adjusted career is this: Let's take Mariano Rivera, for example. Rivera had a long career. So in order to find his real numbers, I have to exclude some late seasons during his career to find the numbers that he really carried during his career.

With Rivera, I'd exclude his 2007 season. That is his adjusted career. Again, this can only be done with long career players. If I don't list an adjusted career under a player's raw career numbers, then it means they didn't played long enough to adjust for their long career or it means they didn't have any bad seasons late in their career.

Third , I will include peak career numbers. Many like short peaks, not me. I include the best seasons equaling at least 250 games for a peak. It takes away the possibility of a pitcher having one or two lucky seasons. The 250-game peak will tell us how good the pitcher was at his best.   

 

The Top 10

10. Keith Foulke (2000s) Career Length Grade: B+

Raw Career: 619 G, 8 GS, 786.2 IP, 3.33 ERA, 139 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP, 7.5 H/9, 191 SV, 15.7 SV/50 and 3.7 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 501 G, 8 GS, 660.1 IP, 3.04 ERA, 154 ERA+, 1.02 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 175 SV, 17.7 SV/50 and 4.0 K/BB (exclude his last three seasons)

Peak Career: 283 G, 0 GS, 356 IP, 2.20 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 126 SV, 22.1 SV/50 and 4.7 K/BB (include his 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons)

His career 1.08 WHIP ranks as the seventh best WHIP in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He posted less than a 1.19 WHIP during eight of the 11 seasons during his career and he posted less than a 1.09 WHIP during seven consecutive seasons from 1998-2004.

His career 3.7 K/BB ranks as the eighth best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded over 2.8 K/BB during eight of the 11 seasons during his career, including seven consecutive seasons from 1998-2004.

That puts Foulke in the top 10 all time in WHIP and K/BB. In fact, there are only six other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 10 all time in each of those two categories with Foulke.

They are: Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Trevor Hoffman, Rafael Soriano and Huston Street. Good company there, huh?

Foulke posted over 30 SV during four of the first five seasons of the 2000s, from 2000-2004, including leading the League with 43 during the 2003 season.

He recorded over a 155 ERA+ during six consecutive seasons from 1999-2004.

He posted less than 7.5 H/9 during six of the seven seasons from 1998-2004.

By the time his career was through, he had pitched over 15 G in the playoffs, including capturing the 2004 World Series championship. During his combined career playoff games, he recorded a 2.53 ERA and 6.3 H/9, great career postseason numbers.

It’s amazing just how quickly forgotten this guy is. I mean, I bring this guy up and people say, “He’s a running back, isn’t he?”

Oh, good lord.

Foulke pitched last season in the Minor Leagues. Other than Rickey Henderson, it seems like you only hear about great relief pitchers ending their career in the Minor Leagues. I’m sure there are other great players that are not relief pitchers that go back to the minors after their MLB career is over, but doesn’t it seem like relievers do it far more often?

Some may think this is an off the wall theory, but I theorize that at least part of the reason for this is the fact that most of the great relief pitchers didn’t get the respect they deserved even when they were great; and many are willing to try to earn that respect by starting over at the end of their career.

The problem is, you can’t start over, you’re done. It’s the end, not the start. Kind of sad. This theory isn’t true for all great relief pitchers that end their career in the Minor Leagues, but I believe it to be part of the reason for some; or something like that. Sometimes there is a tinge of sadness where there should be a deluge of glory. That’s relief pitching.

It almost borders on amazing that a pitcher that was as good as Foulke in MLB pitched in the Minor Leagues last year. I mean, Foulke easily has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. His peak consisted of four of the six seasons from 1999-2004.

During his peak, which is a peak over 280 G and 355 IP, he posted a 2.20 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 22.1 SV/50 and 4.7 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you won’t find 20 peaks better than his.

What a quickly and tragically forgotten relief pitcher.

This 10th and final spot was a tough one to choose. There are certainly eight or nine guys on the Honorable Mentions list that have a logical argument to have this spot instead of Foulke; that’s almost the entire HM list.

Two that quickly come to mind are John Franco and Jesse Orosco. Foulke has slightly better overall numbers than either of those two when they are adjusted for the decade. Franco and Orosco had longer careers than Foulke and that does narrow the gap between their numbers, but it doesn’t put either of them ahead of Foulke, in my eyes.

Another relief pitcher on the Honorable Mentions list that brings himself to the forefront of my mind for serious consideration is John Wetteland. Now Wetteland has slightly better numbers than Foulke when adjusted for the decade, but it’s almost a tie; and Foulke has a slightly longer career than Wetteland when adjusted for the decade.

It’s close, but I choose Foulke, as you can see.  

These arguments don’t stop on the HM list and, again, almost everyone on the HM list at least has some kind of logical argument to have this spot. I’m going with Foulke.

 

9. Rich Gossage (1980s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,002 G, 37 GS, 1,809.1 IP, 3.01 ERA, 126 ERA+, 1.23 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 310 SV, 16.1 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 872 G, 37 GS, 1,653.1 IP, 2.87 ERA, 132 ERA+, 1.21 WHIP, 7.2 H/9, 275 SV, 16.5 SV/50 and 2.0 K/BB (exclude his 1986, 1988 and 1993 seasons)

Peak Career: 279 G, 0 GS, 534.2 IP, 1.73 ERA, 217 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 125 SV, 22.3 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB (include his 1975, 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1985 seasons)

His career 310 SV still ranks 18th all time in the history of Major League Baseball. He led the League in SV three times during his career, including two of the three seasons from 1978-1980.

He posted over 25 SV all three times he led the League.

He posted at least 20 SV during 10 of the 12 seasons from 1975-1986, including the first seven seasons of the 1980s, from 1980-1986.

He had an incredibly long 22 season MLB career and he was basically a starting pitcher for one season and he was a relief pitcher during his other 21 seasons.

He still remains as one of only 13 relief pitchers in the history of MLB to ever pitch over 1,000 G during a career.

He’s one of only five relief pitchers in the history of MLB that is in the HOF and he’s one of only three from the 1980s. The 1980s is the only decade in history with more than one relief pitcher in the HOF.

He was just a hard guy to hit, intimidating, to say the least. He recorded less than 7.5 H/9 during 11 of the 16 seasons from 1975-1991, including six consecutive seasons from 1977-1982.

He had five or six incredible seasons during his career. The two best seasons of his career were arguably his 1977 and 1981 seasons.

During his 1977 season, he pitched in over 70 G of relief and 130 IP. He posted a 1.62 ERA, 26 SV, 243 ERA+, 0.96 WHIP, 5.3 H/9 and 3.1 K/BB.

During the strike shortened 1981 season, he pitched in over 30 G of relief and 45 IP. He recorded a 0.77 ERA, 20 SV, 461 ERA+, 0.77 WHIP, 4.2 H/9 and 3.4 K/BB.

Those are obviously two extraordinary seasons.

He just had a truly great peak.

He arguably has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. During his peak, which is a peak of almost 280 G of relief and 535 IP, he posted a 1.73 ERA, 217 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.9 H/9 and 22.3 SV/50.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you’ll be hard pressed to find 10 peaks better than this one.

 

8. Troy Percival (2000s) Career Length Grade: B+ (so far)

Raw Career: 703 G, 1 GS, 708.2 IP, 3.17 ERA, 146 ERA+, 1.11 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 358 SV, 25.6 SV/50 and 2.6 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 613 G, 1 GS, 626.2 IP, 2.92 ERA, 160 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, 316 SV, 25.9 SV/50 and 2.7 K/BB (exclude his 2005, 2008 and 2009 seasons)

Peak Career: 273 G, 1 GS, 302 IP, 2.15 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.95 WHIP, 5.2 H/9, 118 SV, 21.9 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB (include his 1995, 1996, 2001, 2002 and 2007 seasons)

His career 6.1 H/9 ranks as the best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He has posted less than 7.0 H/9 during 11 of the 14 seasons during his career, including each of his first five seasons.

His career 358 SV ranks eighth on the all time list. He recorded over 25 SV for nine consecutive seasons from 1996-2004.

His career 1.11 WHIP ranks as the 11th best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than a 1.20 WHIP during eight of his 14 seasons and he posted less than a 1.14 WHIP for three consecutive seasons from 2001-2003.

His career 146 ERA+ ranks as the 15th best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded over a 150 ERA+ six times during his career and he recorded over a 210 ERA+ during each of his first two seasons.

That puts Percival in the top 15 all time in H/9, SV, WHIP and ERA+. Those are four very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher.

In fact, there are only two other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 15 all time in all four of those categories with Percival. They are Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman. That fact alone should tell us something.

Percival has always possessed fairly good control. He’s posted over 2.6 K/BB seven times during his career and he posted over 3.2 K/BB during each of his first three seasons.

Many think that Percival’s MLB career is over, as he’s arguably coming off of the two worst seasons of his entire career. We’ll see.

Percival has pitched almost 10 games in the playoffs and he helped his team capture the 2002 World Series championship. His combined career postseason stats are a 2.79 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.4 H/9 and 10.0 K/BB. Fabulous postseason numbers.

He arguably has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During his peak, which is a peak over 270 G and 300 IP, he recorded a 2.15 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.95 WHIP, 5.2 H/9, 21.9 SV/50 and 3.4 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you’ll be hard pressed to find 10 peaks better than that one.

 

7. Armando Benitez (2000s) Career Length Grade: A-

Raw Career: 762 G, 0 GS, 779 IP, 3.13 ERA, 139 ERA+, 1.22 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 289 SV, 19.0 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 669 G, 0 GS, 692.1 IP, 2.89 ERA, 151 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 261 SV, 19.5 SV/50 and 2.4 K/BB (exclude his 2005, 2007 and 2008 seasons)

Peak Career: 277 G, 0 GS, 298.1 IP, 1.93 ERA, 221 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.4 H/9, 111 SV, 20.2 SV/50 and 2.9 K/BB (include his 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2004 seasons)

His career 6.3 H/9 ranks as the fourth best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he posted less than 7.5 H/9 during each of his first 11 seasons.

Obviously, people just couldn’t hit this guy. He had a repertoire of pitches in his arsenal that included a slider and two or three different types of fastballs, including a split fingered fastball and a normal heat fastball.

He threw his heat fastball over 100 MPH. When that pitch was on, he was almost unhittable. When he had trouble controlling it, he was smart enough to slow it down to the mid 90s for control. He was smart with that pitch. Between the arm, the brain and the pitch arsenal, he’s fourth all time in H/9.

By the time his career was through, he recorded almost 290 SV. He recorded over 20 SV for seven consecutive seasons from 1998-2004, including leading the League with 47 in 2004.

He’s another relief pitcher that pitched in the Minor Leagues last season. I talked about this with Keith Foulke in the 10 spot on this list. Again, it’s amazing that a relief pitcher that was as dominant as Benitez is ending his career in the Minor Leagues.

Benitez has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During his peak, which is a peak of almost 280 G and 300 IP, he posted a 1.93 ERA, 221 ERA+, 1.05 WHIP, 5.4 H/9, 20.2 SV/50 and 2.9 K/BB. Incredible.

There is no question that Benitez was every bit as good or better than Percival, in the eight spot on this list, but Percival seemed to get more recognition while he played, for whatever reason. Benitez is kind of like Foulke, he’s kind of forgotten already by the casual fan. Amazing.

 

6. Joe Nathan (2000s) Career Length Grade: C+ (so far)

Raw Career: 533 G, 29 GS, 685 IP, 2.75 ERA, 159 ERA+, 1.11 WHIP, 6.5 H/9, 247 SV, 24.5 SV/50 and 2.7 K/BB

Peak Career: 273 G, 0 GS, 280 IP, 1.61 ERA, 275 ERA+, 0.93 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 156 SV, 28.4 SV/50 and 4.4 K/BB (include his 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons)

His career 6.5 H/9 ranks as the sixth best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than 7.0 H/9 during each of his last eight seasons, every season during his career as a relief pitcher, as he was a starting pitcher during each of his first two seasons.

He’s posted less than 6.0 H/9 during each of his last two seasons.

His career 159 ERA+ ranks as the seventh best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

He’s recorded over a 140 ERA+ during each of his last seven seasons, every season thus far during his career except for his first three seasons. He’s recorded over a 160 ERA+ during each of his last six seasons and he’s incredibly recorded over a 205 ERA+ during each of his last four seasons.

His career 1.11 WHIP ranks as the 11th best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than a 1.07 WHIP during each of his last eight seasons, again, every season thus far during his career except for his first two seasons when he was a starting pitcher. In fact, he’s posted less than a 0.94 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 2.75 ERA ranks as the 13th best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded less than a 2.75 ERA during each of his last six seasons, every season during his career except for his first four seasons. In fact, he’s recorded less than a 2.15 ERA during each of his last four seasons.

That puts Nathan in the top 15 all time in H/9, ERA+, WHIP and ERA. Those are four very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher.

In fact, there are only six other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 15 all time in all four of those categories with Nathan. They are: Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez, Tom Henke and Bryan Harvey. That’s a who’s who of relief pitchers from the last 30 years, more or less. Add Nathan’s name to that list.

Nathan has posted almost 250 SV thus far during his career and he’s posted over 35 SV during each of his last six seasons, every season during his career except for his first four seasons.

His control is extremely good. He’s recorded over 2.5 K/BB during each of his last seven seasons, every season during his career except for his first three seasons. In fact, he’s recorded over 3.8 K/BB during each of his last six seasons.

He easily has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. His peak consists of four of the five seasons from 2004-2008.

During his peak, which is a peak over 270 G and 280 IP, he posted a 1.61 ERA, 275 ERA+, 0.93 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 28.4 SV/50 and 4.4 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you won’t find 10 peaks better than this one.

Unfortunately, it’s apparent that he is going to miss the entire 2010 season because of Tommy John surgery. I’ll miss you this season, I hope you come back well in 2011.

 

5. Hoyt Wilhelm (1960s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 1,070 G, 52 GS, 2,254.1 IP, 2.52 ERA, 146 ERA+, 1.13 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 227 SV, 11.1 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 989 G, 52 GS, 2,127 IP, 2.46 ERA, 150 ERA+, 1.11 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 210 SV, 11.2 SV/50 and 2.1 K/BB (exclude his last three seasons)

Peak Career: 256 G, 0 GS, 452.2 IP, 1.85 ERA, 191 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 54 SV, 10.6 SV/50 and 2.3 K/BB (include his 1954, 1962, 1966, 1967 and 1969 seasons)

His career 2.52 ERA still ranks as the fifth best ERA in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he posted less than a 2.75 ERA during 14 of the 21 seasons of his career.

In fact, he posted less than a 2.65 ERA during each of the last nine seasons of the 1960s, from 1961-1969.

By the time his long career was through, he led the League in ERA twice and posted less than a 2.45 ERA each time he led the League.

His career 1.13 WHIP still ranks as the 14th best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He recorded less than a 1.19 WHIP during 15 of the 21 seasons of his career, including 12 consecutive seasons from 1958-1969.

His career 146 ERA+ still ranks as the 15th best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He posted over a 140 ERA+ during 13 of the 21 seasons of his career. In fact, he posted over a 155 ERA+ during each of the last six seasons of the 1960s, from 1964-1969.

By the time his career was through, he led the League in ERA+ twice and posted over a 150 ERA+ each time he led the League.

That puts Wilhelm in the top 15 all time in ERA, WHIP and ERA+. In fact, there are only seven other relief pitchers in the history of MLB that are in the top 15 all time in those three important categories with Wilhelm.

They are: Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, Tom Henke and Bryan Harvey.

He was just a hard guy to hit. He had three or four good pitches that he threw, but he was basically a knuckleball pitcher and he threw that pitch quite often. Many historians argue that Wilhelm had the best knuckleball that the game has ever seen.

He recorded less than 7.5 H/9 during 15 of the 21 seasons of his career, including each of the last nine seasons of the 1960s, from 1961-1969.

He led the League in W% during two of the first three seasons of his career, posting over a .745 W% each time he led the League.

He was the first pitcher in the history of MLB to record over 200 SV during a career and he recorded almost 230 by the time his career was through.

He helped his 1954 team capture the World Series championship. He pitched 2 G during that World Series and posted a 0.00 ERA, 0.43 WHIP, 3.9 H/9 and never allowed a run.

Great World Series numbers, to say the least.

Many people forget, he was already 29 years old when he threw his first pitch in MLB during the 1952 season; obviously, he got a late start to his career. But he still had a long 21 season career and he was basically a relief pitcher for 20 seasons and a starting pitcher for 1 season. Started at the age of 29 and still had a long career.

He still remains as one of only 13 pitchers in the history of MLB to ever pitch in over 1,000 G during a career.

Wilhelm is the only relief pitcher from the 1960s that is in the Hall of Fame and he remains as one of only five in the history of MLB to be inducted; and he’s the earliest and first relief pitcher in the HOF.

In his Historical Baseball Abstract book, respected historian, Bill James, rates Hoyt Wilhelm as the best relief pitcher in the history of MLB. The book came out 10 years ago, and I agree with Bill James, 10 years ago.

Bill James may or may not have guys like Rivera ahead of Wilhelm now, I could see him going either way. Of course, only he knows for sure.

Wilhelm has one of the 20 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. During that peak, which is a peak over 255 G of relief and 450 IP, he recorded a 1.85 ERA, 191 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP and 5.9 H/9.

What a peak, what a career, what a pitcher.

 

4. Trevor Hoffman (2000s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 985 G, 0 GS, 1,042 IP, 2.73 ERA, 147 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 591 SV, 30.0 SV/50 and 3.8 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 815 G, 0 GS, 878.2 IP, 2.61 ERA, 154 ERA+, 1.03 WHIP, 6.8 H/9, 475 SV, 29.1 SV/50 and 3.8 K/BB (exclude his 2001, 2005 and 2008 seasons)

Peak Career: 259 G, 0 GS, 266.1 IP, 1.89 ERA, 213 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, 176 SV, 33.8 SV/50 and 4.1 K/BB (include his 1998, 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2009 seasons)

His career 591 SV ranks first all time in the history of Major League Baseball. He has led the League in SV twice and posted at least 20 SV during 15 of the 17 seasons during his career, including nine consecutive seasons from 1994-2002.

His career 1.04 WHIP ranks as the fourth best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he has recorded less than a 1.19 WHIP during each of his last 16 seasons, every season during his career except for his first season. He’s recorded less than a 1.04 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 3.8 K/BB ranks as the sixth best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has posted over 2.9 K/BB during each of his last 16 seasons, every season during his career except for his first season. Wow.

His career 2.73 ERA ranks as the 12th best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has recorded less than a 2.75 ERA during 10 of the 17 seasons during his career and he recorded less than a 2.70 ERA the last 4 seasons of the 1990s, from 1996-1999.

His career 147 ERA+ ranks as the 13th best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has posted over a 135 ERA+ during 11 of the 17 seasons during his career and he posted over a 140 ERA+ during five consecutive seasons from 1996-2000.

His career 6.9 H/9 ranks as the 14th best H/9 in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded less than 7.5 H/9 during 10 of the 17 seasons during his career and he recorded less than 7.0 H/9 during the last four seasons of the 1990s, from 1996-1999.

That puts Hoffman in the top 15 all time in SV, WHIP, K/BB, ERA, ERA+ and H/9. Folks, I’m here to tell you, if you told most respected historians that they could only look at six statistical categories for relief pitchers, and only six, these would very likely be the six they would choose to look at.

And Hoffman is in the top 15 all time in all six of those categories, every one of them. In fact, there’s only one other relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top 15 all time in all six of those categories with Hoffman. It’s Billy Wagner, just the two of them. Obviously, with a fact like this, we’re talking about one hell of a special relief pitcher here with Hoffman.

2008 was arguably the worst season of his entire career and I remember a lot of fans in certain circles were begging Hoffman to retire after that disappointing 2008 season. Of course, he didn’t retire. At the age of 42, he came back for the 2009 season and he arguably had the best season of his entire career last season in 2009.

Glad he didn’t retire, huh?

He’s back at the age of 43 this season in 2010, good luck Hoffman. Everyone is questioning how long he can keep this up, it’s been an amazing ride so far and I wish him luck.

He has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During that peak, which is a peak of almost 260 G and over 265 IP, he posted a 1.89 ERA, 213 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.0 H/9, 33.8 SV/50 and 4.1 K/BB.

 

3. Jonathan Papelbon (2000s) Career Length Grade: F (so far)

Raw Career: 268 G, 3 GS, 298 IP, 1.84 ERA, 254 ERA+, 0.98 WHIP, 6.5 H/9, 151 SV, 28.5 SV/50 and 4.5 K/BB

Peak Career: 251 G, 0 GS, 264 IP, 1.74 ERA, 270 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 151 SV, 30.2 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB (exclude his first season)

His career 1.84 ERA is the best ERA in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He has posted less than a 2.70 ERA during all five seasons of his career and he has posted less than a 2.35 ERA during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 0.98 WHIP is the best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has recorded less than a 1.15 WHIP during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 254 ERA+ is the best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has posted over a 170 ERA+ during all five seasons during his career and he’s posted over a 195 ERA+ during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 4.5 K/BB is the best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher (are you starting to see a trend here?) He’s recorded over 3.1 K/BB during each of his last four seasons, every season during his career except for his first season.

His career 6.5 H/9 ranks as the sixth best H/9 in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher (whoops, found a statistical category that he’s not first all time in.) He’s posted less than 7.5 H/9 during three of the five seasons during his career and he posted less than 5.5 H/9 during consecutive seasons in 2006 and 2007.

That puts Papelbon in the top 10 all time in ERA, WHIP, ERA+, K/BB and H/9. Those are five very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher. There is only one other relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top 10 all time in all five of those categories with Papelbon. It’s Billy Wagner.

Papelbon has already pitched almost 20 games in the playoffs during his career, including capturing the 2007 World Series championship. His combined postseason numbers are: 1.00 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 4.7 H/9 and 2.9 K/BB. Unbelievable postseason numbers.

He easily has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. Now keep in mind, his peak is every season during his career except for his first season.

During this peak, which is a peak over 250 G and almost 265 IP, he’s posted a 1.74 ERA, 270 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 30.2 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB.

You can search every relief pitcher in the history of MLB, you won’t find 10 peaks better than this one.

Papelbon is an F in the length of career category so far and some would argue that no one with an F in the length of career category should possibly be in this top 10. I can buy that argument, though I obviously don’t agree with it.

He belongs, even with a short career. For cry-yi-yi, he’s first all time in the history of MLB in ERA, WHIP, ERA+ and K/BB. First all time for a relief pitcher, period. He’s in the three spot, even with a short career.

At the bottom of this publication there is a 10 highest caliber section which rates the 10 highest caliber pitchers of all time. Papelbon is first on that list. But caliber is only part of the formula, length of career is also part of the formula. It’s why he’s the third best relief pitcher, but the highest caliber.

I’m trying to say, he can pitch as well or better than Rivera and Wagner, but it’s close. But Rivera and Wagner have way longer careers, that’s not close.

 

2. Billy Wagner (2000s) Career Length Grade: A (so far)

Raw Career: 782 G, 0 GS, 833.2 IP, 2.39 ERA, 182 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 385 SV, 24.7 SV/50 and 3.9 K/BB

Peak Career: 306 G, 0 GS, 326.1 IP, 1.77 ERA, 250 ERA+, 0.90 WHIP, 5.5 H/9, 161 SV, 26.4 SV/50 and 4.6 K/BB (include his 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2009 seasons)

His career 6.1 H/9 is the best H/9 in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he has posted less than 7.5 H/9 during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career, including each of his last nine seasons. In fact, he’s posted less than 6.5 H/9 during each of his last two seasons.

His career 1.01 WHIP ranks as the second best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He has recorded less than a 1.20 WHIP during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career.

Wow. He’s recorded less than a 1.13 WHIP during each of his last nine seasons and he’s recorded less than a 1.03 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 2.39 ERA ranks as the third best ERA in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

Incredibly, he’s posted less than a 2.90 ERA during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career. He’s posted less than a 2.75 ERA during each of his last nine seasons. He’s posted less than a 2.65 ERA during each of his last eight seasons and he’s posted less than a 2.35 ERA during each of his last two seasons.

His career 182 ERA+ ranks as the third best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s recorded over a 135 ERA+ during 13 of the 15 seasons during his career. He’s recorded over a 160 ERA+ during each of his last nine seasons and he’s recorded over a 180 ERA+ during each of his last two seasons.

His career 3.9 K/BB ranks as the third best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted over 3.2 K/BB during 12 of the 15 seasons during his career, including each of his last nine seasons.

His career 385 SV ranks sixth all time in the history of MLB. He’s recorded over 20 SV during 11 of the 15 seasons during his career, including eight consecutive seasons from 2001-2008.

That puts Wagner in the top 10 all time in H/9, WHIP, ERA, ERA+, K/BB and SV. Again, if historians could only choose six statistical categories to look at, and only six, these would very likely be the six that many historians would choose.

And Billy Wagner is the only relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top 10 all time in all six of those categories, the only one, no one else. That shouldn’t tell us something; that does tell us something.

He’s simply thee best left handed relief pitcher in the history of MLB.

He also has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. During that peak, which is a peak over 305 G and 325 IP, he posted a 1.77 ERA, 250 ERA+, 0.90 WHIP, 5.5 H/9, 26.4 SV/50 and 4.6 K/BB.

 

1.Mariano Rivera (2000s) Career Length Grade: A+

Raw Career: 917 G, 10 GS, 1,090 IP, 2.25 ERA, 202 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 526 SV, 29.1 SV/50 and 3.9 K/BB

Adjusted Career: 850 G, 10 GS, 1,018.2 IP, 2.19 ERA, 207 ERA+, 1.01 WHIP, 6.9 H/9, 496 SV, 29.5 SV/50 and 3.8 K/BB (exclude his 2007 season)

Peak Career: 265 G, 0 GS, 288.2 IP, 1.56 ERA, 285 ERA+, 0.86 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 167 SV, 31.5 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB (include his 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2008 seasons)

His career 2.25 ERA ranks as the second best ERA in the history of Major League Baseball for a relief pitcher. He’s posted less than a 2.90 ERA during 13 of the 15 seasons during his career, including 11 consecutive seasons from 1996-2006.

His career 1.01 WHIP ranks as the second best WHIP in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. Incredibly, he has recorded less than a 1.19 WHIP during each of his last 14 seasons, every season during his career except for his first season; the only season during his career that he was a starting pitcher.

He’s recorded less than a 0.91 WHIP during each of his last two seasons.

His career 202 ERA+ ranks as the second best ERA+ in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted over a 140 ERA+ during each of his last 14 seasons, again, every season during his career except for his first season when he was a starting pitcher. He’s posted over a 240 ERA+ during each of his last two seasons.

His career 526 SV ranks second in the history of MLB. He’s led the League in SV 3 times. He’s recorded over 25 SV during each of his last 13 seasons, every season during his career except for his first two seasons. He’s recorded over 35 SV during each of his last two seasons.

His career 3.9 K/BB ranks as the third best K/BB in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher. He’s posted over 2.8 K/BB during 12 of the 15 seasons during his career. He’s posted over 3.2 K/BB during each of his last nine seasons. He’s posted over 4.4 K/BB during each of his last five seasons and he’s posted over 5.9 K/BB during each of his last three seasons.

That puts Rivera in the top three all time in ERA, WHIP, ERA+, SV and K/BB. Those are five very important statistical categories for a relief pitcher and Rivera is the only relief pitcher in the history of MLB that is in the top three all time in all five of those categories. The only one.

He’s just a hard guy to hit. He’s recorded less than 7.5 H/9 during 11 of the 15 seasons during his career, including five consecutive seasons from 1998-2002.

He’s pitched about another two seasons worth of games in the postseason during his career. Incredibly, he’s helped his team to the playoff during 14 of the 15 seasons during his career, including 13 consecutive seasons from 1995-2007.

Of those 14 postseason appearances, his team has captured five World Series championships, including three consecutive World Series championships from 1998-2000.

In his combined 14 postseason appearances, he has pitched in almost 90 G and posted a combined 0.74 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 5.5 H/9 and 5.1 K/BB, absolutely incredible postseason numbers.

Rivera had arguably the worst season of his entire career during the 2007 season and, unbelievably, there were actually some suggesting that he should retire. Well, he didn’t retire, he came back in 2008 and arguably had the best season of his entire career. Pitched very well last season in 2009, too. Glad he didn’t retire, huh?

Rivera easily has one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher.

During his peak, which is a peak of 265 G and almost 290 IP, he posted a 1.56 ERA, 285 ERA+, 0.86 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 31.5 SV/50 and 5.2 K/BB. Actually, that’s not just one of the 10 best peaks in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher, it’s simply thee best peak in the history of MLB for a relief pitcher, period.

Overall, he’s the best, hands down. He’s almost to relief pitching what Walter Johnson was to starting pitching. They don’t get any better than Rivera at this position.

 

The Honorable Mentions

Here are the t10 relief pitchers that just missed the top 10 for various reasons.

I will list them in order from oldest to newest: Rollie Fingers (1970s,) Sparky Lyle (1970s,) Jesse Orosco (1980s,) Bruce Sutter (1980s,) John Franco (1990s,) Roberto Hernandez (1990s,) Mike Jackson (1990s,) Jeff Montgomery (1990s,) John Wetteland (1990s) and Francisco Rodriguez (2000s)

 

The 10 Highest Caliber Relief Pitchers of All Time

I consider this to be the Smoky Joe Wood section.

Who’s the best pitcher, putting career values aside; putting length of career aside and putting some other things aside that affect a relief pitchers overall rating? So, these aren’t the best careers, these are the best pitchers, in a way.

Like Smoky Joe Wood in the 1910s, he was a starting pitcher that many historians feel is one of the 10 highest caliber starting pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. But with his short overall career, he’s never rated that high when you see historians rate starting pitchers because they are almost always rating the best careers.

Don’t get me wrong, caliber is part of historians formula too, it’s just a smaller part of the overall equation; and smaller than it should be, if you ask me, but that’s another article.

Smoky Joe Wood’s overall rating and career value is lower because of his short career and some other factors. But if a highest caliber list were made, Smoky Joe Wood would appear on many historians all time top 10 lists. But almost never in the top 10 on their all time career list, which are the lists that we usually see.

I hope that makes sense. This is basically what I’m doing here with this list. Again, this list is not a list of the best careers, that list is the list you just read. This list is the highest caliber relief pitchers. Here it is.

10. Keith Foulke (2000s)

9. Armando Benitez (2000s)

8. John Wetteland (1990s)

7. Francisco Rodriguez (2000s)

6. Troy Percival (2000s)

5. Trevor Hoffman (2000s)

4. Joe Nathan (2000s)

3. Billy Wagner (2000s)

2. Mariano Rivera (2000s)

1. Jonathan Papelbon (2000s)

The Caliber Honorable Mentions (listed in order from oldest to newest): Hoyt Wilhelm (1960s), Rich Gossage (1980s), Tom Henke (1980s), Jesse Orosco (1980s), Bruce Sutter (1980s), Bryan Harvey (1990s), Jeff Montgomery (1990s), Robb Nen (1990s), Mike Gonzalez (2000s) and Rafael Soriano (2000s)

 

There you go, the best relief pitchers of all time. The 10 best careers and the 10 highest caliber relief pitchers.

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