Mariano Rivera is the only remaining MLB player wearing No. 42, a number retired in honor of Jackie Robinson in 1997. Rivera trails only Trevor Hoffman in all-time saves and has perhaps the most dominant one-pitch arsenal this side of Phil Niekro. He will be gone soon enough, but for now, it isn't hard to find people who believe he is the best closer in baseball history.
Of course, it's also not hard to find those who think otherwise. Some think Hoffman, or contemporary Billy Wagner, was as good as Rivera. Some remember Dennis Eckersley's MVP season as a uniquely dominant command closer.
Some even reject the premise of an argument for Rivera, insisting that guys like Mike Marshall—who frequently pitched three or four innings en route to his saves and racked up many more frames than the modern closers do—were much more valuable.
Closers are fickle, inconstant creatures, and to have one truly dominate for more than three years is exceedingly rare. More often, a great closer is identified by just how brightly he shined during his window of opportunity, when he was at the height of his powers and seemingly stopped the world 75 times a year. Here, now, are the 50 best closers in MLB history.
It would be a blast to list someone else here: The debate would rage, and it might actually result in some good discussion, because Rivera's slim workload ought to be a real consideration in determining his total value. Yankees fans would form an open revolt if Rivera were snubbed.
But I can't do it. This choice is too obvious. On the all-time leader board for Win Probability Added by pitchers, Rivera rates sixth. No other full-time reliever cracks the top 18. He has the best park- and league-adjusted career ERA ever. In the postseason, he has been better than all but a few (far less experienced) pitchers of any kind in baseball history.
Rivera's cutter is perhaps the best pitch of all time, the more impressive because he had very little with which to put hitters off-balance.
Eckersley did not become a closer until age 32, and his value was somewhat stunted in some of his better years by Tony La Russa's refusal to utilize his rubber-armed fireman to his full potential.
However, Eckersley still piled up 387 saves, and his control during those seasons was as impressive a singular skill as any closer has ever possessed.
It's easy to forget how athletic pitchers must be. The best among them are finely honed machines, as flexible and tireless as a gymnast or triathlon runner.
Closers are no exception, and Hoffman is the poster boy for sheer athleticism and conditioning. His repeatable delivery and terrific deception would not have been possible without those. If there has ever been a more consistent shutdown reliever, he did not last as long as Hoffman.
There's so much noise in the numbers of pre-1990s relief pitchers that using stats to support an argument for a closer makes little sense.
Witness Gossage: He struck out plenty of batters, but his walk totals are a bit unsteady. His ERAs fluctuated wildly, largely because (unlike modern, coddled closers) he entered many games with runners on base and recorded five or more outs on a regular basis.
However, he was virtually unhittable at his best, almost impossible to homer against at all times and a perfect template for the relief ace as it unfolded over the decade he dominated.
In looking for the most underrated pitcher of the last 20 years, one could do much worse than to carefully examine Wagner's record. He struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings for his career, and if he had not gotten hurt twice, he might have pushed 500 saves.
Left-handed closers are very rare, but in Wagner's case, the specter of losing platoon advantages in the ninth inning was far less daunting than the idea of not having Billy the Kid and his wicked stuff on the bump when it mattered.
The man behind the best mustache in bullpen history was a heavy-duty closer, the kind of guy who throws a ton of innings and racks up value faster than saves. He averaged an inning-and-a-third per relief appearance, and he could go every other day without breaking down.
For years, Smith was the all-time saves leader, and the narrative went that Hall of Fame voters clearly did not find relief specialists worthy of entrance because he was denied.
However, as Bruce Sutter, Eckersley and Gossage have joined Fingers in the Hall over the past several years, it has become clear that the voters simply do not value Smith's contributions.
That's too bad, because Smith was about as good as the save totals showed. He had some middle-of-the-road numbers, but again, he got them by pitching in and out of his own jams with a frequency unheard of today. One day, Rivera and Hoffman will breeze into Cooperstown, and Smith deserves to be there too.
Sutter fits the mold of the modern fireman better than most any other closer of his era: A specialty pitch (the split-fingered fastball) made his domination possible, and he stuck mostly to pitching in slim leads and ninth innings.
He revolutionized the game with the development of that splitter, a pitch that would be emulated (never as fruitfully) for years.
Henke might be a forgotten name, but he did everything well on the mound and logged more saves than Sutter. At his peak, Henke had some of the best stuff ever from a reliever, and as a result, he three times fanned over 100 batters in a season out of the bullpen.
Wetteland was a poor man's Henke, but only just barely. Henke would have been proud of Wetteland's skill set, and both men have World Series rings to prove that they could pitch with the pressure on. Wetteland got his closing for a team whose setup man sits atop this list, so give him bonus points for that.
Quisenberry was yet another shooting star, his career beginning only at age 26 and effectively ending within 10 years. In fact, a huge percentage of Quisenberry's career value came in four seasons, from 1982-85.
During that time, though, he was a remarkable talent. With a zany submarine delivery and no ability to miss bats, he nonetheless managed over 500 innings and walked only 51 total batters during that span. In the last of those glory years, the Royals won the World Series, solidifying Quisenberry's place in reliever lore.
Wilhelm and his knuckleball were always available out of the bullpen, except in 1959, when he calmly moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation and led MLB in ERA. Wilhelm also collected more traditional closer accolades along the way, though, including 227 saves.
What a story. Through age 29, Doug Jones had appeared in 15 big-league games and logged fewer than 21 innings. For the next decade, though, he was a pretty fair reincarnation of Eckersley himself, avoiding walks and home runs as though allergic and scaring opponents with terrific hairstyles both atop his head and on his face.
For fun, here are Jones' numbers in 1997 with Milwaukee: 6-6, 2.02 ERA, 73 games finished in 75 appearances, 82 strikeouts, nine walks and just four homers allowed in a little over 80 innings. He did it all at age 40.
His closer career may be over, though Rodriguez would surely love to reach 300 saves sometime over the next few years. He sits just nine shy right now. Stunningly, though he has been around seemingly forever, Rodriguez is just 29.
The electric curveball is a bit less deceptive than it used to be, and declining velocity has taken the air out of K-Rod's strikeout figures over the past few seasons, but he remains the single-season record-holder and a trailblazer for lots of similarly command-challenged hurlers with great two-pitch arsenals to make a living striking batters out and notching saves.
A perfect example of short shelf life among relief aces, Gagne had just three truly great seasons. They were arguably the three best of the modern era by a reliever, though, so it's easy enough to forgive Gagne his brief stay at the top.
He saved a ton of games in a row, struck out between four and five times as many batters as he walked and kept the ball down.
The Dodgers bullpen in the first half of the 2000s was baseball's answer to a Black Ops team. Opponents had no chance.
The difference between Gagne and Radatz is purely generational. Radatz threw a huge number of frames in the early 1960s with the Red Sox, and although he was dominant during those years, he fizzled about as quickly as did Gagne. No reliever will ever approach Radatz's record, set in 1964, of 181 strikeouts without starting a game.
Nathan came up as a starter at age 24, struggled for two years and re-established himself in the bullpen only at age 28. Since, he has run up a saves tally over 250, and he continues to be a master of the strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nathan's peak from 2006-09 saw him rise to the forefront of all active closers.
If any current closer seems headed for the land of Rivera and Hoffman, it's this guy. Papelbon has a World Series ring, 35-plus saves in what is soon to be six seasons and a 4.33 career strikeout-to-walk ratio.
His resurgent season could land him a long-term deal to close somewhere even more pitcher-friendly, though he is a great ground-ball guy anyway.
Franco provides another exception to the rule against left-handed closers, but he did it in a clever way: He used a changeup that befuddled right-handed batters at least much as lefties.
He tallied over 1,100 big-league appearances but never started, and he retired with a 2.89 ERA in an era of offensive explosion. He also found the time to save 424 games.
Marshall falls this far down the list only by dint of having been, both in practice and in attitude, much more than a closer. He threw over 600 innings from 1972-75, without starting a single contest, and he appeared in 320 games. He won 52 and saved 83. He did it all, to repeat, in four seasons.
Marshall's rubber-armed magic act probably shortened his career, but when he was good, he was very good. No one is likely to appear in 106 games in one season, as Marshall did in 1974, ever again.
Lyle became most famous during his tenure with the Yankees, when he closed for back-to-back World Series winners in 1977 and 1978. But he was nearly as good during his time with the Red Sox in the late 1960s. Overall, he piled up a 2.88 ERA and 238 career saves.
He had the bad fortune to come along just as some of baseball's smarter front offices were noticing that closers are functionally interchangeable, but Hernandez still carved out a career missing bats and saving games while drifting to 10 different teams during his career.
He walked too many batters and often ended up with unseemly ERA figures, but he actually pitched better than the raw numbers most of the time.
From his stuff to his delivery, Percival was always a poor man's Hoffman, but that's not a bad car behind which to draft in the race to the record books for relievers. Percival helped the Angels win the 2002 World Series and finished with nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings in a career marked by dominance, if not durability.
On the losing end of that 2002 Series were the Giants, with Nen at the back end of their bullpen. He was an even better strikeout hurler than Percival, with equally good control. He might have gone down as one of the all-time greats but for the fact that his arm fell off at age 32.
Nen's final big-league year was that 2002 campaign, in which he saved 43 games and notched a 2.20 ERA.
Tekulve and his famous spectacles gave NL hitters nightmares for years, especially because he seemed to pitch, as Marshall did, every other day.
His sidearm offerings were far more about deception than stuff, and he posted the kind of numbers (4.9 strikeouts and 3.1 walks per nine frames for his career) that would have made sabermetricians shake their heads in judgment. But he kept the ball on the ground and in the park and found ways to dominate without a single overwhelming pitch.
Smoltz moved to the bullpen for all of four years, but during his time there, he was an all-time talent. His allowed narrowly a baserunner per inning, posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 5.5 and saved 154 games.
Consider him the mound version of Jim Thome: People keep having the Hall of Fame debate about him, but it's hard to see why, because he should be a shoo-in.
Here begins the parade of Jeffs, a string of very similar guys with strong but not overwhelming résumés for this list.
Montgomery ran up an impressive tally of 304 saves as (essentially) the successor to Quisenberry in Kansas City. He got people out, walking few and striking out his share, but his steadiness is more impressive than are his peripheral stats.
Reardon sustained himself for even longer as a legitimate closer than did Montgomery and piled up 367 saves as a result. He pitched for the 1987 World Series champs in Minnesota, but he was quietly at his best with the Expos in the early 1980s.
Shaw was not in a league with Nen for talent, but his story is just as sad: A mere five years into his closing career, his arm went, and he retired after his age-34 season with only 203 saves.
During the half-decade during which he got a chance to close, he posted a 2.92 ERA and averaged 39 saves per season.
Valverde has been anything but quiet as a big-leaguer, gesticulating wildly after saves and developing one of baseball's best game faces. He also has a nasty fastball, which has led to big strikeout numbers despite fairly limited usage.
Yet he's quietly one of the best closers in the game. His accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed. He's a better and more colorful version of many great Latino closers from the 1990s and early 2000s but is thus far less well known. He could be a 300-plus saves guy before he's done.
Cordero is considered an overrated closer, and that's probably fair: He has no standout skill, other than the ability to miss a lot of bats when he gets rolling.
Overall, he has 316 saves for three different teams, and he might be the best (if not the only) example of a long-term, big-money deal for a closer that ended up looking all right at the end.
Benitez helped form what has now been renamed the Carlos Marmol School of Relief Pitcher Excellence. The core philosophy: Find a dominant pitch, use it to strike out an absurd proportion of hitters and stress everyone out every time you take the mound by walking people and being home-run vulnerable.
Benitez did it well, though, and his career arc was not as short or sharp as many others' turned out to be.
At his best, Urbina was a better version of Benitez. He closed games for the champion 2003 Marlins and finished his career with over 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
He walked a lot of batters too, but he still saved 237 games, and he might have saved a lot more if he hadn't gone away for murder. That's not a misprint.
Believe it or not, Lidge ranks third (for the moment) all-time in strikeout rate—and with Carlos Marmol in a very early decline, he could climb into second.
He's also a better command guy than Marmol or similar pitchers, and before injuries began to slow him down, he was on an historic pace. His 2004 campaign with Houston goes down as one of the three or four best by a reliever, ever.
A bland name is a good way to get lost in the sea of history, but Smith was an extremely talented ground-ball pitcher with enough secondary skills to spend a decade as one of the best closers in the game.
He never led the league in saves or even came all that close, but he pitched for some good Astros teams that gave him few chances simply by winning by healthy margins.
That funky short-armed delivery drove opposing hitters nuts, and Foulke used it to make good stuff look great. His control (2.2 walks per nine innings for his career) and ability to miss bats outweighed his occasional struggles with goferitis, and although injuries triggered an early decline, Foulke won the World Series requisite of all great closers.
Go ahead, name the most fun ballplayer you've ever met or heard of. Then multiply the enjoyment you derived from said player by two, and you'll have Rod Beck.
He was a study in contrasts: A huge man around the middle, with a Fu Manchu mustache and flowing mullet, Beck nonetheless relied on command rather than overpowering stuff.
He was a plebeian of an order unfamiliar to most modern players: During his final whirl around the baseball circuit, primarily in the minors in the Cubs system, he was known to share a beer or two with fans who visited him at his home after games. That was easy enough, since he lived in a trailer in the stadium parking lot.
He also happened to be a part of some great baseball stories in the 1990s, from his time as the closer for the 103-win division-losing '93 Giants to the 1998 Wild Card-winning Cubs. Beck was a joy to watch and an underrated pitcher.
Street has a Rookie of the Year award and 178 saves to his name already, and he turned 28 only this month. His style and delivery make him a good fit for Colorado, and he has refined his command to near-Eckersleyan levels since his move to Coors Field. If he can stay healthy on a more consistent basis, his ceiling is still very high.
Like so many closers, Harvey bloomed late and flamed out early, with injuries running him down in his early 30s. But after adjusting for park and league, Harvey's ERA was 62 percent better than average for his career, and his peripheral numbers (10.4 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine frames) bear out his excellence.
Harvey's age-28 season, with California in 1991, was simply remarkable: 11.6 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine, a 1.60 ERA and a league-best 46 saves.
It's been a short and unsweetened fall from grace for Soria in 2011, but this season of struggle might well turn out to be a mere blip. Considering his three prior seasons (during each of which he was at least twice as good as the average hurler), it's a bit too early to call him washed-up. He could yet regain his form, and if he does, he could challenge 500 saves himself.
A longevity guy with 318 career saves, Aguilera ranks among the all-time leaders in strikeout-to-walk rate. He gave up a few too many long balls to be an ideal closer, but he had a good run nonetheless. His showings for the 1991 Twins were a huge contribution to their second title in five years.
The typical position player, statistically speaking, peaks between the ages of 25 and 28. Closers, it would seem, peak more around 30-32, and Bell is no exception.
This is only his third year on the job closing games in San Diego, and he may not be long for the role, but Bell has had a dazzling few seasons near the top of his craft and might well have another three or four in him.
Isringhausen got some run recently for reaching the 300-save milestone for which so many strive, and for the ensuing reports that the Mets had stuck with him in the closer's role only to ensure that he would make it there.
Still, he had his time in the spotlight, and from 2001-05 (his first five years in St. Louis), Isringhausen never had an ERA above 2.87. He just seemed not to ever do it all that impressively.
If God is an artist, he was staring at Wickman as he sculpted Heath Bell. The goateed Wickman was no great athlete on the mound, but he knew how to get hitters out with a good slider-sinker combo. Wickman battled injuries but managed to remain an effective reliever beyond his 38th birthday, so Bell's blip in 2011 is not necessarily a death sentence.
Pitching long before anyone coined the term closer, McDaniel simply pitched when pitching needed done. He started on the odd occasion and pitched 18 complete games in 74 career starts. He did his best work in the bullpen, though, allowing a .652 opponent's OPS there compared to a .771 mark when he started. He had good control and a rubber arm, and he saved 172 games in 21 seasons of work.
The Jeffs are back with a vengeance. Russell began his career as a starter, but after running up an unsightly 22-39 record and 4.47 ERA in 79 starts, he drifted to the bullpen. He then proceeded to rack up 186 saves and posted a 3.17 ERA in relief.
Fuentes is more smoke than fire these days, but at his pinwheeling best, he dominated in a park where dominance is nearly impossible. His sidearm action made lefties utterly useless against him and helped him keep the ball on the ground in Denver.
One save shy of 200, Fuentes will surely find that chance somewhere over the next few years and add a nice round ring to the sound of his career numbers.
Henneman was not a dominator. He was just a solid pitcher, a durable guy with enough command to work the edges and enough feel to keep hitters from squaring him up. Those types never get save chances in today's game, but during Henneman's peak seasons, a number of such pitchers found consistent success.
Henneman's 193 saves are a testament to a tenet more franchises would do well to heed: Closers don't have to be high-risk, high-reward hurlers with big arms or punchout pitches. They can be yeomen who just get the job done. And under no circumstance should they merit multi-year contracts or eight-figure salaries.
We close on another notice, to teams who have a dilemma between making a pitcher a mid-rotation starter or a back-of-the-bullpen stud: Choose the volume.
Lowe remained the closer in Boston for only three seasons before wiser and savvier baseball people than had run the team when he first arrived moved him into the starting rotation for good.
During his time as a relief ace, Lowe had sensational numbers and saved ballgames with ease and efficiency. His stats were much less aesthetically pleasing once he moved to the rotation, but he pitched so much more that his value was much higher there anyway.
In other words, Texas Rangers, get Neftali Feliz the heck out of your bullpen.
Lest anyone think some other great firemen were forgotten, here are 10 others who nearly made this list:
Bob Stanley, Lifetime Red Sox
Carlos Marmol, Wild Animal
Mitch Williams, Marmol's Ugly Sidekick
Rob Dibble, A Brief and Burning Star
Jose Mesa, Who Kept Getting Chances
Todd Jones, The Lesser of Two Joneses
Bobby Thigpen, Which Is Closer for Maris
Brian Wilson, A Giant Among Closers
Mark Wohlers, Who Might Have Been
Eddie Guardado, Every Day