There have been generations of great players in Major League Baseball. Since the league’s official inception around 1869 there have been many different eras and changes to the game. It is difficult to place each great player against each other, but here is the CHEAP SEATS take on the greatest players, by position, the game has ever produced. (All stats are current of September 20, 2010)
In the final entry in the GOAT series analyzing each position’s greatest players in over a century plus of Major League Baseball, we shift symbolically to where it often ends in real games, the relief pitchers. This is a role that is quite different from the role of a starter and is also in it’s relative infancy to other roles in the game. For years, the starting pitcher would often pitch the entire game, everyday, for his team (Old Hoss Radbourn once started over 40 games in a row in the 1800′s). However, in the mid-to-late 70′s, the overall development of a layered pitching staff developed and now it has become chiefly centered around the “closer”.
The closer is called upon often to get the last few outs of the game, and has drastically altered and shifted the importance of winning early in baseball. This fresh pitcher throws to very few players and is often one of the hardest throwing to most effective pitchers on the team. Having a good closer, will make the difference often between a team that can win a few games, and one that can go all the way in the modern game. With no further delay, here are the game’s greatest stoppers in the roles brief, but significant, history.
1. Mariano Rivera: New York Yankees (1995-Present): 79.5 points
- 2.22 ERA, 558 Saves, 1050 K’s, 827 Games Finished, 89% Saves Converted
- 5 World Series, 6 40 SV years, 5 Rolaids Awards , 3 Saves Champs, 10 All-Star Games
He is nearly universally regarded as the greatest reliever and closer in the history of the game. Has the second most saves in history and almost certainly will finish will the most ever. He is third most efficient closer of all time. His ERA is the lowest career mark of any pitch since 1920. His postseason dominance has sealed his legacy in the game. His 39 postseason saves (including 23 consecutive), 0.79 ERA and 34.1 consecutive scoreless innings are all-time postseason records.
2. Trevor Hoffman: San Diego Padres (1993-Present): 68 points
- 2.87 ERA, 600 Saves, 1132 K’s, 853 Games Finished, 89% Saves Converted
- 0 World Series , 9 40 Save Yrs, 2 Rolaids Awards, 2 Saves Champs, 7 All-Star Games
The all-time saves leader and the first player to ever reach 600 in the category. No player has more 40 save seasons than him. His 8 consecutive 30 save seasons, 14 consecutive 30 save and 15 consecutive 20 save campaigns are both Major League records. He also has the most games finished ever. His change-up is among the greatest pitches ever.
3. Rollie Fingers: Oakland A’s (1968-1985): 60.5 points
- 2.90 ERA, 341 Saves, 1299 K’s, 709 Games Finished, 76% Saves Converted
- 3 World Series , 0 40 SV years, 6 Rolaids/MVP/Cy Young Award, 3 Saves Champs, 7 All-Star Games
He revolutionized and brought the role of the late inning specialist to the game. He became the all-time saves leader in 1980 with his 228th save and was the career leader for another 12 years. He become the first reliever to win the Cy Young and MVP awards and was the second relief pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame.
4. Lee Smith: Chicago Cubs (1980-1997): 60 points
- 3.03 ERA, 478 Saves, 1251 K’s , 802 Games Finished, 82% Saves Converted
- 0 World Series, 2 40 SV years, 3 Rolaids Awards, 4 Saves Champs, 7 All-Star Games
Held the Major League record for saves from 1993-2006. Set the National League record for saves with 47 in 1991. At one point in time he held the record for career saves for both the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Finished 2nd in the 1991 Cy Young vote.
5. Dennis Eckersley: Oakland A’s/Boston Red Sox (1975-1998): 54.5 points
- 3.50 ERA, 390 Saves, 2401 K’s, 577 Games Finished, 85% Saves Converted
- 1 World Series, 2 40 Save years, 4 Rolaids Award/Cy Young/MVP, 2 Saves Champs, 6 All-Star Games
- Achieved nearly 200 wins in a career that began as a starter, but became greater later as a converted closer. One of two players to have both a 20 win and 50 save season. He gave up 5 runs the entire 1990 season and finished with a 0.61 ERA and became the only reliever in history to have more saves (48) than base runners (45) over the course of a season. In 1992, he became one of three players to ever win the Cy Young and MVP in the same season.
6. Billy Wagner: Houston Astros (1995-Present): 53 points
- 2.37 ERA, 420 Saves, 1182 K’s, 698 Games Finished, 86% Saves Converted
- 0 World Series, 2 40 SV years, 1 Rolaids Award, 0 Saves Champs, 6 All-Star Games
One of the most intimidating pitchers in history, In 2005, he threw 159 pitches that exceeded 100 miles per hour. He has averaged 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings for his career. Despite pitching usually less than two innings per game, he has passed 100 strikeouts three times in his career. He has six seasons over 35 saves in career.
7. John Franco: New York Mets (1984-2005): 51 points
- 2.89 ERA, 424 Saves, 975 K’s, 774 Games Finished, 81% Saves Converted
- 0 World Series, 0 40 SV years, 2 Rolaids Awards, 3 Saves Champ, 4 All-Star Games
His 424 saves are the most ever by left handed reliever, and his 1,119 games pitched are a National League record. At the time of his retirement, his career saves total was the second highest ever, the fourth most currently. Despite never reaching 40 saves, he had eight seasons over 30, including five consecutive from 1987-91.
8. Bruce Sutter: St. Louis Cardinals/Chicago Cubs (1976-1988): 49.5 points
- 2.83 ERA, 300 Saves, 861 K’s, 512 Games Finished, 75% Saves Converted
- 1 World Series, 1 40 SV year, 5 Rolaids Awards/MVP, 5 Saves Champs, 6 All-Star Games
- He pioneered the split-finger fastball in route to becoming the only pitcher to lead the National League in saves five times. He tied the NL record for consecutive strikeouts in a game for a reliever in 1977 with six, including a nine pitch, three strikeout inning. He became the first pitcher to never start a game to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
9. Goose Gossage: New York Yankees (1972-1974): 46.5 points
- 3.01 ERA, 310 Saves, 1502 K’s, 681 Games Finished, 73% Saves Converted
- 1 World Series , 0 40 SV years, 1 Rolaids Award, 3 Saves Champs, 9 All-Star Games
He was the first true example of the intimidating, hard throwing finisher now common in the game. His career strikeout total is second amongst players who served primarily as relievers. He ranks third in relief innings pitched and relief wins as well. Over a seven year stretch from 1977-83, he never had an ERA over 2.62, with a low mark of 0.77 in 1981. 112 blown saves are a Major League record. He threw the final out in division, league or World Series clincher 7 times.
10. Hoyt Wilhelm: Chicago White Sox/Baltimore Orioles (1952-1972): 46.5 points
- 2.52 ERA, 227 Saves, 1,610 K’s, 651 Games Finished, 79% Saves Converted
- 1 World Series, 0 40 SV years, 0 Rolaids Awards, 0 Saves Champs, 8 All-Star Games, 1 No-Hitter He was the first pitcher who primarily pitched in relief to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He is the first player to reach 200 saves and appear in 1,000 games. His 124 relief wins are a Major League record. He is different from modern closers, as he used a knuckleball primarily, which allowed him to pitch until he was nearly 50 years old. He threw 8.2 innings of no-hit relief in 1959, after entering in the 9th inning and not surrendering at hit until the 17th.
Left on deck: Randy Myers, Jeff Reardon, Francisco Rodriguez
Achievement Measurements: World Series = .5 pts, 40 Save Season = 1 pt, Rolaids Relief Award, Cy Young Awards & MVPs = 2 pts, Saves Champion = 1 pt, All-Star Game = 1 pt, No-Hitter (if from starting appearance) = 2 pts
If curious on other scoring measures, please contact me as the point rubric was adjusted from starting pitcher measures from Volume 9.