Mariano Rivera and the 15 Best Closers in MLB History

Seth JohanssonCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2011

Mariano Rivera and the 15 Best Closers in MLB History

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    Mariano Rivera clinched his 602nd career save yesterday when he closed out the Minnesota Twins with a scoreless ninth to seal a 6-4 Yankee victory. It was his 43rd save of the season.

    But it was just another day for Mariano...well, another of his 602 days, I suppose. But on this day, Mariano Rivera eclipsed the 602 save mark, a mark which no other pitcher in history has passed, solidifying his place as one of the best—if not the best—closer of all-time.

    Here are the top 15 closers of all-time and Mariano's place among them.

No 15: John Franco

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    John Franco doesn't get enough respect.

    He was never the menacing, shutdown type closer that was going to come in and intimidate you. But he closed games, and he closed games well. He posted a sub-3.00 ERA 14 times in his career and had a total of 424 career saves—good for fourth all-time.

    However, Franco's detractors will point to his high-walk rate (3.6 BB/9) and particularly modest 1.33 WHIP over his career as reasons for why he was never as good as all the hype suggested he was.

    Still, you can't argue with success, and John Franco certainly had plenty of that in his long and steady career.

No. 14: Eric Gagne

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    Sometimes watching the end of a Dodgers game just isn't the same without Eric Gagne. I miss the days of Dodgers fans with Gagne's illustrated, stoic face plastered to gray t-shirts, and "Welcome to the Jungle" blasting over the stadium speakers.

    Alas, and then came the steroid allegations. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

    And while it lasted, Eric Gagne was probably the best closer I've ever seen. Although he ranks a distant 49th on the all-time saves list, Gagne completed the most impressive single season ever by a reliever. In 2003, he collected 55 saves, posted a 1.20 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 2.2 BB/9 and 15 K/9  while en route to converting a record 63 consecutive saves.

    For that streak alone, he has to make this list.

No. 13: Dan Quisenberry

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    With one of the oddest deliveries ever off the mound, Dan Quisenberry dominated the AL closers' landscape from 1980 to 1985, when he helped deliver the Kansas City Royals their one and only championship.

    In that time, Quisenberry led the league in saves five times and in games finished four times. If you're wondering why "Quiz" isn't in the Hall of Fame...well, outside of those six tremendous years, Quisenberry wasn't much to write home about.

    Still, he was good enough to make the short list of best closers of all-time.

No. 12: Firpo Marberry

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    I've never seen Firpo Marberry pitch, and (I have confidence saying) neither have you. But he has to be put on the list if for no other reason than he was the first "closer" in MLB history.

    Some may argue and say that Doc Crandall of the New York Baseball Giants was technically the first, but Marberry was the first pitcher to dominate the later-coined "saves" category with any sort of regularity.

    He led the league four times in both saves and games finished. And from 1928 to 1946, he was the all-time leader in games finished, until the New York Yankees Johnny Murphy eclipsed his 18-year record in 1947.

No. 11: Troy Percival

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    Nothing particularly stands out about Troy Percival's career if you were to see it on the back of a baseball card. He never led the league in saves and had just a couple seasons of really dominating statistics. Then again, he had to play his entire career in the same league as Mo.

    But what made Percival really great and memorable was the attitude and excitement he brought to the mound. He was the type of closer that may have come in and struck out the side to close the ball game or may have given up a three-run bomb to lose the game.

    But he was exciting, and for 10 years he was in the top 10 in the AL in saves. Also, he played an integral role on both the LA Angels 2002 World Series winning team and on the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays squad, who went to the World Series but eventually lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.

No. 10: Jonathan Papelbon

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    Maybe, Jonathan Papelbon is ranked too highly at No. 10, but nobody can deny the dominance this man has enjoyed in his short seven-year career. And he is just 28.

    Aside from a rocky 2010 campaign, Papelbon has never posted an ERA higher than 2.65 and never saved less than 35 games in any of his full seasons as a Boston Red Sox closer. On top of all that, his postseason stats are incredible. In 18 games, he has a 1.00 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP and had a near flawless stat-line in the 2007 World Series.

    But forget all that, what's most impressive about Jonathan Papelbon to me, is how thoroughly everybody hates him. Heck, even in Boston, fans are sometimes rubbed the wrong way by his over-the-top intensity and fiery attitude.

    But the guy fits the role, and he's great at it.

No. 9: Roy Face

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    Ah, Little Elroy.

    Here's another closer that never gets any respect. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot from 1976 until 1990, never receiving more than 19 percent of the vote, but here's a man who once went 18-1 out of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates. That year (1959) he appeared in 57 games but pitched 93.1 innings.

    In Face's day, the "closer" was used differently—not necessarily to shut the door, but to preserve leads, keep games close, etc.

    And in the 1960 World Series, Face saved three out of four games against the monstrous '60 Yankees lineup. The fourth win, already know that story.

    And sure, he had a 5.23 ERA in his only three appearances in the World Series, but so would you (or anybody) going against a lineup with Berra, Mantle and Maris.

    For an old-time closer, Face has to be included among the very best. While he finished his career with only 193 saves, his 574 games finished and 107 average innings pitched per season are much more telling of his true strength as a "closer."

No. 8: Lee Smith

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    When I was a boy watching Lee Smith pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, then the Orioles, then the Angels, I thought he was the man. He never had a particularly low ERA season to season, but there was something about his body language (and his 6'5" frame) that just told you he was in control.

    Perhaps most impressive about Lee Smith's 18-year career was his incredible consistency. From '82 to to '93, Lee Smith pitched in at least 63 games every season, and from '83 to '95, he collected no less than 29 saves.

    None of his career marks aside from his 478 career saves and 802 games finished will ever overly impress anyone, but Smith may become a Hall of Famer within the next several years. And it would be well deserved if he does.

No 7: Bruce Sutter

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    In comparison to some of the other closers on this list, Bruce Sutter had a rather short career, but in the 12 years he played in the major leagues, he led the NL in saves five times—an NL record until Lee Smith broke it in 1993.

    However, like Roy Face, Sutter was a different kind of closer, topping out at 100+ innings five times, and nearly reaching 100 innings in almost every season he played.

    Although many of Sutter's career marks have since been eclipsed, at the time of his retirement, statistically he was one of the best closers ever. His 300 saves were third to only Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage, and between the years 1976-80, Sutter saved more than a third of the Chicago Cubs' 379 wins.

No. 6: Goose Gossage

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    By the time I first saw Goose Gossage pitch in a major league game, it was 1993 and he was pitching for the Oakland A's. All I thought as I saw him jog to the mound was: that guy has a funny name and mustache.

    Since then, obviously I've learned a lot more about Goose Gossage, the Hall of Fame pitcher. Known for his blistering fastball over his 22 years in the majors, Goose Gossage's name is littered all over the career stats leaderboards for relievers.

    He ranks third in wins in relief (115) and innings pitched in relief (1,556.2) and his 1,502 strikeouts are the second-most only to Hoyt Wilhelm among pitchers who pitched mostly in relief for their career. While Gossage's single-season stats won't blow anybody away, it's his longevity and career marks that earned him his Hall of Fame induction.

No. 5: Trevor Hoffman

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    Trevor Hoffman had an interesting 18-year career. While he was definitely one of the most intimidating and dominant relief pitchers of his era, he spent most of his career out of the limelight on some pretty awful San Diego Padres teams.

    And that's probably the biggest knock against Hoffman in his otherwise long and illustrious career; that is, he had a lot of saves, but, in the end, they were a lot of meaningless saves.

    Not that Hoffman could've helped that; he was an unbelievably filthy pitcher. In fact, the best description I've ever heard of his signature changeup was that it looked like a fastball until it deployed a parachute and just died in front of the plate.

    And his statistics back that up. He is now second all-time in saves (601), and he sported an extremely light 2.87 career ERA and 1.06 career WHIP. The guy definitely has the credentials for a future induction into Cooperstown.

No. 4: Hoyt Wilhelm

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    Hoyt Wilhelm is arguably the best knuckleball pitcher to ever pick up a baseball. In the mid-'60s Wilhelm was the most dominating closer by a long stretch. In fact, from 1963-68, he posted a sub-2.00 ERA in every season. And as a White Sox pitcher, he has a career ERA of just 1.92.

    His dominance is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that he pitched during a pitching-dominant era, but even for the era in which he pitched, his numbers are certainly Hall of Fame worthy.

    Though he never led the league in saves, Wilhelm was the old-fashioned kind of closer that came in and kept games close—not always just shutting the door. Perhaps most impressive, then, is his career 143 win total, which is even more striking considering Wilhelm only started 52 games in his career.

No. 3: Rollie Fingers

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    Another great closer with a funny mustache! What are the odds?

    Rollie Fingers is probably the most highly decorated relief pitcher ever—at least until Mariano Rivera retires and is inducted to the Hall of Fame, at which time, he will be.

    For now, Rollie gets all the brass. Here's his short-list of honors:

    • 1992 Hall of Fame Inductee
    • 7-time All Star
    • 1974 WS MVP
    • 1981 MVP/Cy Young Award Winner
    • 4-time Rolaids Relief Award Winner
    • Highest total career saves at time of retirement (341)

    Phew. Any questions?

No. 2: Dennis Eckersley

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    Dennis Eckersley was a beast of a pitcher to deal with in his day. In addition to rocking a sweet 'stache, Eck also had an off-putting sidearm delivery that baffled hitters for the 24 seasons he played in the MLB.

    Like Fingers, Eckersley made a name for himself most prominently with the Oakland A's, and—just like his A's predecessor—in 1992 won the AL MVP as closer.

    What's most fascinating about Eckersley's career though is the nearly 200 wins (197) and almost 400 saves (390) he amounted in his time in the big leagues. That stat combination is unlike any other pitcher ever to play the game before or after Eck.

    His solid starting pitching, including 20 SHO and 100 CG for his career, partnered with his dominant years as an A's closer earned him a Hall of Fame nod in 2004; the first time he appeared on the ballot. And he's good for the second-best closer of all-time.

No. 1: Mariano Rivera

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    Could there honestly be anyone else at No. 1?

    The guy has done it all. Mariano Rivera is, hands down, the greatest closer ever. He is the all-time leader in both saves (602) and games finished (881), and for his career he owns a sparkling 2.22 ERA and 1.00 WHIP.

    However, what puts Mariano head and shoulders above anybody else on this list is his incredible postseason statistics. Not enough can be made about how amazing his postseason credentials are.

    For his career, he is 8-1 with a 0.71 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, and 42 saves. What's even more incredible are his post season HR/9 (0.1) and BB/9 (1.4).

    Mariano Rivera is a once in a generation type talent, and his spot in history is well assured among the game's greatest of all-time. Congrats, Mo!