The 10 Best Relief Pitchers in Major League History

Kenny DeJohn@@kennydejohnAnalyst IIIFebruary 25, 2012

The 10 Best Relief Pitchers in Major League History

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    A dominant relief pitcher is often viewed as the most clutch pitcher on a team's staff. Some team's have relied on the efforts of their exceptional relievers for regular season success, and some have relied on them for postseason success.

    Ever since saves became an official statistic in 1969, teams have always worked hard to develop a dominating closer.

    Some teams have been lucky enough to have a consistent closer for several consecutive years, while others were left scrambling to fill the vacancy left by their former closer.

    Being a good reliever means being consistent, clutch and mentally tough, and those are traits that the following men have all displayed during their fantastic Major League careers.

Honorable Mentions

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    Dan Quisenberry

    The side-winding righty just missed making the top 10 of this list. Quisenberry ranks 31st on the all-time saves list (244) and owns a career ERA of 2.76.

    He misses the cut mostly because of his lack of longevity. He was a dominant closer for just six seasons with the Royals (1980 to 1985). He led the American League in saves in five out of those six seasons.

    Sparky Lyle

    Lyle was one of the most consistent closers in the league from 1968 to 1980, with the latter two seasons of his career being spent as primarily a setup man for the Phillies and White Sox.

    He ranks 33rd on the career saves list (238) and owns a career 2.88 ERA. He also won 99 games out of the bullpen in his career.

    The reason Lyle is not ranked higher is because of the fact that he only led the league in saves twice.

    Joe Nathan

    Nathan deserves mention as one of the greatest closers of all-time because of the relatively short amount of time he's been a closer. Despite missing the entire 2010 season, 260 of his 261 career saves (28th all-time) have come since the 2004 season.

    He struggled in 2011 after coming back from injury, but he figures to get the bulk of the save opportunities in Texas in 2012.

    If he revitalizes his career with the Rangers, Nathan may be moving up this list in the near future.

10. John Franco

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    Franco ranks fourth on the all-time saves list with 424. He was a productive closer for 15 of his 21 career seasons.

    Although a majority of his saves were recorded as a member of the Mets, his best season came in 1988 as a member of the Reds.

    In 70 games (86 innings), Franco posted a 1.57 ERA, 39 saves and a record of 6-6. He was first in the league in games finished (61) and saves. His 1.012 WHIP was also the lowest of his career.

    In his career, Franco pitched to the tune of a 2.89 ERA with a record of 90-87.

    Despite being fourth in career saves, Franco ranks relatively low on this list. This is based mostly off the fact that he overstayed his welcome in the majors.

    In 2004 and 2005 with the Mets and Astros, he posted a 6.24 ERA over 83 games (61 innings). He was also just 2-8 during that time.

    In his first season on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011, Franco received just 4.6 percent of the vote.

9. Bruce Sutter

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    With exactly 300 saves, Sutter ranks 22nd on the all-time list. Nearly all of them were recorded from 1977 to 1985 as a member of the Cubs and Cardinals.

    The best season of his 12-year career came in 1984 with the Cardinals.

    He posted a 1.54 ERA that season with a league leading 45 saves. He also pitched in a career-high 122.2 innings.

    The six-time All-Star and 1979 National League Cy Young Award winner was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006 after 13 seasons on the ballot. After garnering 76.9 percent of the vote, Sutter was elected into the hall as the first pitcher to never record a start.

    Sutter was one of the most valuable pitchers of his era, receiving MVP votes during six different seasons and Cy Young votes in five different seasons.

8. Billy Wagner

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    Despite never leading the league in saves, Wagner is one of the most dominant closers of all-time.

    His 422 saves are good enough for fifth on the all-time list, however.

    Wagner compiled five seasons of an ERA less than 2.00, which helped lower his career ERA to a remarkable 2.31.

    The hard throwing lefty also showed great consistency over the course of his 16-year career, saving at least 20 games in 12 of those seasons.

    Unfortunately, Wagner may have retired too early. In his final season (2010 with the Braves), Wagner was one of the most effective closers in the league.

    He posted a 1.43 ERA with a 7-2 record, while recording 37 saves and a .865 WHIP.

    Wagner will surely be elected to the Hall of Fame when he is eligible after the 2015 season. 

7. Lee Smith

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    Despite being one of best closers in history, Smith never seemed to be able to latch on with a team for more than three seasons after leaving the Cubs before the 1988 season.

    He ranks third on the all-time saves list with 478, and owns a career 3.03 ERA.

    Smith led the league in saves four times, with arguably his best season coming in 1991 with the Cardinals. In 67 games (73 innings), Lee recorded 47 saves and a 2.34 ERA. He also posted six wins and three losses.

    The only thing preventing Smith from being higher up on this list is his career ERA. As a closer, allowing three runs per nine innings is pretty high. He also posted five seasons with an ERA over 3.50 in his career as a full-time major leaguer.

    In the end, Smith's inconsistency hurts him from being one of the top five closers in history.

6. Rich "Goose" Gossage

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    Gossage ranks sixth on this list partially because of his career numbers and partially because he is considered one of the most intimidating pitchers of all-time.

    He ranks 19th on the all-time saves list with 310 and owns a 3.01 career ERA.

    He was one of the best closers in the league from 1975 to 1985, despite a one-year experiment as a starting pitcher in 1976 with the White Sox. The interesting thing about the experiment is that he led the league in saves with 26 the season prior.

    Not that it's relevant to his placement on this list, but he went 9-17 that season with a 3.94 ERA in 224 innings pitched. He tossed 15 complete games.

    Similarly to Lee Smith, Gossage does not rank in the top five of the list because of his inconsistency with maintaining an ERA under 3.00. In his career as a reliever, he posted eight seasons with an ERA above 3.50.

    Gossage was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008 by receiving 85.8 percent of the vote.

5. Rollie Fingers

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    This isn't the only list that Fingers cracks the top five of, as he also sports arguably one of the greatest mustaches in baseball history.

    Fingers ranks in the top five of this list not only because of his career statistics, but also because of his impact on the position. He is one of the first "career" closers.

    The best season of his career came in 1981 as a member of the Brewers. He won both the American League MVP and Cy Young that year, posting a career low ERA of 1.04, a 6-3 record and a league leading 28 saves.

    He ranks just 10th on the all-time saves list with 341, but his career ERA is 2.90 and he won 114 games during his career as a reliever.

    After receiving 81.2 percent of the vote in 1992, Fingers was elected to the Hall of Fame.

4. Hoyt Wilhelm

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    Wilhelm is definitely the most unique member of this list, seeing as he pitched in a time when bullpens were used very differently than in today's game and because he pitched his entire career as a knuckleball specialist.

    With 227 saves, Wilhelm ranks just 35th on the all-time list. Over his 21-year career, though, he recorded eight seasons of over 100 innings pitched as a relief pitcher.

    His career ERA and WHIP are a sparkling 2.52 and 1.125, respectively, and he went 15-3 with a league-leading 2.43 ERA as a rookie in 1952. Ironically enough, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Joe Black.

    Despite never winning a Cy Young Award and being elected to the All-Star team just five times, Wilhelm was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1985 by receiving 83.8 percent of the vote.

3. Trevor Hoffman

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    Hoffman's was knocked out of first place on the all-time saves list this season when Mariano Rivera recorded his 602nd career saves.

    Despite being one of the softest tossers on this list, Hoffman is a lock for one of the top three closers of all-time.

    He is one of only two men to record 600 career saves and owns a career ERA of 2.87.

    In 1998, he put together one of the best seasons ever from a closer, saving a league-leading 53 games, pitching to a 1.48 ERA and recording a .849 WHIP.

    He recorded 20 or more saves 15 times during his 18-year career, as well as 30 or more 14 times.

    When Hoffman is able to be put on the Hall of Fame ballot, it's not unlikely to see him being inducted during his first season of eligibility.

2. Dennis Eckersley

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    Eckersley ranks as the No. 2 reliever of all-time partially because of his ability to transition flawlessly from being a full-time starting pitcher as a member of the Red Sox before joining the Athletics.

    His 1992 season is still one of the best seasons by a reliever of all-time. He led the league in games finished (65) and saves (51), while posting a 1.91 ERA and a 7-1 record. He won the American League Cy Young and American League MVP as well.

    His career ERA as a closer is a respectable 2.99, and he ranks sixth on the all-time saves list with 390.

    In 1990, he recorded one of the lowest single season ERAs in history (0.61) and saved 48 games, the second highest total of his career.

    In 2004, his first year on the ballot, Eckersley was elected to the Hall of Fame by receiving 83.2 percent of the vote.

1. Mariano Rivera

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    There is no question that Mariano Rivera is the best closer in Major League history. After breaking the career saves mark last season, he now stands alone with 603 saves and counting.

    Rivera is the career leader in games finished (883), second in career WHIP (.998) and 13th in career ERA (2.21).

    What puts Rivera so far ahead of the other members of this list, though, is his postseason career.

    In 141 innings pitched in the postseason, Rivera owns an absurd 0.70 ERA with 42 saves. His WHIP is also a ridiculous .759.

    Rivera will go down as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, let alone as one of the best relievers of all-time, when he chooses to retire. Presumably, 2012 will be his last one in the league.

    He will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, as well as a member of Monument Park at Yankee Stadium when he chooses to call it a career.

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