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Best Baseball Relief Pitchers Ever



Jeff Reardon

Jeff Reardon is 54 years old and hails from Massachusetts. His baseball nickname was “The Terminator.” In 1988, Jeff Reardon became the first pitcher who had saved 40 games in a season in both leagues. He was also a four-time All Star, and earned a World Series ring in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins.

Reardon began his career in baseball with the Mets, and he pitched for seven teams during his career, which spanned 1979 to 1994. In 1985 he was the best closer in the league for the Expos. In 1992, Reardon broke the all-time Major League Baseball career saves record. His career total of 367 currently saves ranks 7th in history.



Bruce Sutter

Bruce Sutter is 57 years old and grew up in Pennsylvania. Hank Greenwald once said of him “Three more saves and he ties John the Baptist.” Bruce Sutter became the first pitcher voted into the Hall of Fame who had never started a game.

He helped the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series, and he was chosen for the All Star team six times. Sutter pitched in the major leagues from 1976 to 1988, starting with the Cubs and ultimately retiring with the Braves.

At the time of his retirement, he had the 3rd most saves (300) in history, and a career Earned Run Average of 2.83. Sutter led the league in saves for five seasons, and he won the Cy Young Award in 1979. It was he who made the split-finger fastball a household word.



Rollie Fingers

Rollie Fingers is 63 years old and from California. In 1981, while pitching for the Oakland Athletics, he not only won the Cy Young Award but the Most Valuable Player Award as well. Rollie Fingers pitched on the Athletics team that won three straight World Championships from 1972-1974, and he was named relief pitcher of the year four times during his baseball career.

Fingers also established a new career saves record in 1980, and his final career total of 341 saves stood as the record for 12 seasons. He pitched from 1968 to 1985, including stints with both the Padres and Brewers, while posting a career ERA of 2.90. Fingers has been credited with being the first closer in Major League Baseball.

Me and Rollie Fingers

Me and Rollie Fingers



Dennis Eckersley

Dennis Eckersley is 55 years old and was raised in California. He posted 390 career saves, good for 5th all time. In 1992, Dennis Eckersley won both the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award. He is the only pitcher on this page who was an outstanding starter early in his career.

In 1975, Eckersley won the Rookie of the Year Award while playing with the Cleveland Indians, and two years later he pitched a no-hitter. He set a new league record with 45 saves in 1988 with the Athletics, the same team with which he earned his World Series ring the following year. Three times Eckersley topped the league for saves.

His 1990 season was incredible, posting a 0.61 ERA (5 earned runs surrendered for the YEAR), and became the only pitcher in history to earn more saves than walks allowed.

Eckersley was the first pitcher, and one of only two ever, to become both a 20 game winner and a 50 save closer. He pitched 24 seasons before retiring in 1998---including tours of duty with the Red Sox, Cubs, and Cardinals---and was voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.



John Franco

John Franco is 49 years old and was reared in Brooklyn. He is the all-time career saves leader for Major League Baseball among left-handed pitchers, with a total of 424, which was 2nd ever for any pitcher when he retired in 2005 and stands 4th today.

John Franco was a 4 time All Star who finished with a career ERA of 2.89. Twice he was the relief pitcher of the year, and he pitched until he was 44 years old, making him the oldest player in baseball that year. Franco pitched in 1119 Major League games---the most ever.

While he started his career with the Reds and ended it with Astros, he is best known for the 14 years he spent with the New York Mets. Franco is unusual in that he threw a screwball.

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Lee Smith

Lee Smith is 52 Years old and a native of Louisiana. Sportswriter Jim Murray described him as “The best one inning pitcher the game ever saw.” Lee Smith held the major league record for career saves from 1993 to 2006 with 478---still 3rd most ever. His mentor was Fergie Jenkins.

The 6’6” 265 lb. Smith was a 7 time All Star, best known for his 95 mph fastball. He set what was the National League record for saves with 47 in 1991; he led the league in saves four times, and he holds the all time record for Games Finished with 802. Smith had an ERA of only 1.65 in 1983.

He pitched for eight teams over the course of eighteen seasons in the big leagues, starting with the eight years he played for my beloved Chicago Cubs.

Lee Smith and I

Lee Smith and I



Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner is 38 years old and was originally from Virginia. He is still an active player, and his 385 career saves are 6th most in the history of the game. Billy Wagner set a Major League record in 1997 by striking out 14.4 batters per nine innings for the season.

He has been the relief pitcher of the year once and he was selected six times for the All Star team. Wagner, a left-hander, is not a big man, but he throws the ball 100 mph. After breaking in with the Astros in 1995, he has since pitched for four other clubs. Wagner sports a 2.39 ERA for his CAREER.



Trevor Hoffman

Trevor Hoffman is 42 years old and a native Californian. He is the rare pitcher who throws a palmball. Trevor Hoffman holds numerous Major League records including: 8 straight 30 save seasons; 15 seasons with more than 20 saves; 14 years with over 30 saves; 9 with 40 saves or more.

In 2002, Sports Illustrated magazine named him the “greatest closer in baseball history.” Hoffman is a 7 time All Star who had his best year in 1998 when he saved 53 games with an ERA of 1.48. Twice he has been the relief pitcher of the year, and he sports a 2.73 lifetime ERA.

Hoffman pitched briefly with the Marlins, and he is currently rostered by the Brewers, but he is best known as a San Diego Padre, the team with which he logged 16 seasons. He is the all time career saves leader with 591.



Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera is 40 years old, and he is a native of Panama. The only team he has played for in the 15 years of his career is the New York Yankees.

Trevor Hoffman says, “Rivera will go down in history as the best reliever in the history of the game.”

Dennis Eckersley chimed in with “The best ever, no doubt.”

In 1999 Mariano Rivera saved 45 games out of 49 opportunities, with a 1.83 ERA, and at one point was not scored upon for 43 consecutive innings; in 2004 he made good on 53 of 57 save chances while posting an ERA of 1.94; in 2005 he converted 43 out of 47 with an ERA of 1.38; in 2008 he blew only one save opportunity in 40 tries, finishing with an 1.40 ERA---and he only walked a total of six hitters in the entire SEASON.

Rivera possesses many all time postseason records including: 34 consecutive scoreless innings; 23 consecutive saves; 39 career saves; and a career ERA of 0.74. Rivera is a ten-time All Star; five-time relief pitcher of the year; and a five-time World Champion.

He has accomplished all of this with essentially one pitch: a devastating cut fastball. Rivera is currently second in career saves with 526. He has the lowest career ERA in 100 years of baseball at 2.25. Rivera is a devout Christian, and he credits God with all of his success.

UPDATE: Mariano Rivera became the first ever unanimous selection for the Hall of Fame in 2019.


James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on March 02, 2019:

Ron ~ Thank you very much for visiting. I appreciate your keen insights and kind compliments. And now look at who is our newest member of the Hall of Fame!

Ron on July 26, 2013:

Three years later and your post is still just as relevant. Rivera has proven beyond a doubt that he is the best the game has ever seen. It's funny, every hitter knows that his cutter is coming and it doesn't make a difference. At 43 years old he has 33 saves in 35 chances and a 1.69 ERA. His postseason ERA is 0.70 which is a little lower than it was 3 years ago. Great work on the blog post!

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on March 21, 2012:

proudtobeadad— Thank you for taking the time to come by and read my article. I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful remarks. There is no doubt that Sparky Lyle and Tug McGraw were big stars of their day as relief pitchers, and, as you say, "perhaps some of the first dominant lefty closers."

proudtobeadad on March 20, 2012:

Interesting. Agree with many of your choices. Like the comment above about Sparky Lyle. Another closer in the 70s that had a dominant streak was Tug McGraw. Those were 2 really good lefties, perhaps some of the first dominant lefty closers

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 13, 2012:

steve-o— Yes, Sparky Lyle as great. I remember him quite well. He was a character. I agree with you that Lyle deserved that Cy Young Award.

Thank you for visiting my Hub and leaving such insightful comments. I appreciate the compliments as well. Troll free so far! :D

steve-o on January 12, 2012:

Sparky Lyle was one of the best I ever saw. His excellence gets lost in the Wilcy Moore-Joe Page-Ryne Duren-Goose to Mo wave of dominant NYY relievers. Sparky often closed innings 6 through 9. Cy Young Award in 1977 and he deserved it. Dude was a beast. Nice site and nice comments. Troll free is refreshing.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on April 06, 2011:

mortgage-news— You are quite welcome. I think Rollie Fingers got the nickname "the closer" because he was the first reliever used to finish every game in which his team was ahead. So he would close the door, or close the deal. Soon thereafter, other teams copied the idea and the "closer" as a specialist was born.

Thank you for visiting and commenting.

mortgage-news from Los Angeles, CA on April 05, 2011:

Thank so much for including Rollie Fingers on the list with that awesome handle-bar mustache. In the late 70's, I actually got dressed up as Rollie for haloween! (the infamous mustache made it an easy costume) I never knew he was credited as the first ever 'closer" How did they determine that?

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on November 20, 2010:

bogerk— Yes, that was cool to see. He's in terrific shape, too. Wagner doesn't get as much mention but he had an awesome career. I look for big things from Carlos Marmol next season. :D

Thank you for visiting my Hubs. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Nice to meet another baseball fan on HubPages.

bogerk from Midwest on November 19, 2010:

It was great to see Hoffman get his 600th save in Milwaukee this season. I'm not sure if there is a classier player in all of baseball, or a better teammate after hearing reports from the clubhouse. I also agree on Wagner deserving more credit .. and how cool is it that he is leaving baseball on his own terms while still extremely talented. The Braves will miss him in 2011.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on July 06, 2010:

Double Down— I don't know why we don't hear Wagner's name in discussions of the upper echelon relievers but he certainly has the stats to back up his inclusion. Thank you for visiting and commenting. It's nice to hear from you.

Double Down on July 05, 2010:

I like the inclusion of Wagner. He usually gets lost in the shuffle. I wonder if it's due to flipping teams vs the steady nature of Hoffmann and Rivera?

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on June 02, 2010:

nickg480— Gotta love 'em! Thanks for visiting. Welcome to the Hub Pages Community.

nickg480 on June 01, 2010:

Gotta love them A's, got 2 on the list!

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on June 01, 2010:

optimus gridlock— Yes, I agree. I have a soft spot for Eck and Lee Arthur, too, since both were Cubs. Thanks for visiting and leaving your comments.

optimus grimlock on June 01, 2010:

eric gagne deserve the really good for a short time award. great hub, Jason isringhausen was as good as wagner, the eck and lee arther are my favorite.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on May 16, 2010:

tom hellert— Dave Smith was good. And Percival was one of my last cuts before I decided on this roster. I had about 15 pitchers but decided to pare it down for brevity's sake. I do appreciate you coming by and offering your remarks. Welcome to HubPages!

tom hellert from home on May 15, 2010:

I always liked Astros pitcher Dave Smith but his career was too short Troy Percival- over 340 saves but he played on teams that went no where so I see his omission

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on February 02, 2010:

Carol Podolak--- Hello my friend! It's nice to see you commenting here. Rivera is truly one of a kind. I, too, appreciate his humility. Thanks for reading and leaving your compliment. :)

Carol Podolak on February 02, 2010:

Love this article!! Mariano Rivera - "The Closer" is my favorite relief pitcher in the game. His humble attitude is such a breath of fresh air in the world of professional sports.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on February 01, 2010:

Pamela99--- I love baseball. I'm glad you enjoyed this article. Thanks for coming and you are welcome.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 31, 2010:

caretakerray--- Thank you. I appreciate your kind words. And you are welcome.


Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 31, 2010:

James, Interesting details on the pitchers. I used to get to games quite often years ago. Thanks for an interesting hub.

Ray Van Hoff from Michigan U.S.A. on January 30, 2010:

James A Watkins:

Well done. Though I am not a big baseball follower. I found this hub to be both informative and interesting. Thanx for reviving my interest in this all American sport.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

ethel smith--- How kind of you to drop by in spite of the topic. You're a trooper. I'll get over and check out your Hubs soon. Thanks for coming.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

creamice--- Thank you. I'm glad you liked it. Nenn and Quisenberry were in my top 21 along with Wetteland, Hernandez, Aguilera, Jones, Henke, Montgomery, Mesa and Nathan. The Goose is in the Hall of Fame so perhaps I'll redo this and add him in by popular acclaim. He deserves it.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on January 30, 2010:

Nice write up but meaningless to me James :)

creamice on January 30, 2010:

I really liked this Hub. I am a baseball nut. I was wondering how Rob Nenn and Dan Quisenberry did in your rankings. I know he did not make the list because of your formula but I think Goose is definitely one top nine, if not the top five best relief pitchers of all time.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

Tom T--- The Goose was great. I had him 10th and I only published 9. I gave equal footing to ERA; WHIP; and saves+wins-losses. Using that formula the Goose came up 10th and Percival 11th. Randy Myers would have been 12th. I had to draw the line somewhere and 9 seemed like a good number for baseball.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

Dim Flaxenwick--- I am well pleased that you are surprised and enjoyed this Hub. Thank you for letting me know and you are quite welcome, too.

Tom T from Orange County, CA on January 30, 2010:

As a Red Sox Fan, I hate to admit it but Mariano will probably be the best ever. Great List but where's the Goose. He was an old school intimidating HOF pitcher. Hated him too...

Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on January 30, 2010:

I know absolutely nothing about baseball, at least I didn't until now. I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed this hub. Thanks again James.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

Hello, hello,--- Well, at least you came by and let me know you were here. That counts for something. :)

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

maven101--- It's great to see you, Larry. That is a great story about Fingers. I had forgotten about it but I remember it now. You are welcome and thanks for the compliments. :-)

Hello, hello, from London, UK on January 30, 2010:

Sorry, but baseball is not a game over here and therefore doesn't mean a thing to me. S O R R Y

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

Angela Blair--- I am glad you enjoyed it, Sis. That mustache is something, alright. I love it. Thanks for coming and commenting.


Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on January 30, 2010:

My favorite Rollie Fingers story is the one where he faked out Johnny Bench in the World Series with a pretend pitch-out and instead threw a strike down the middle...The stunned look on Bench was priceless...

Great list expertly assembled and researched...Thanks for the memories...Larry

Angela Blair from Central Texas on January 30, 2010:

Enjoyed this Hub -- and Rollie's mustache is a hoot! As I don't follow baseball this was a good "get up to speed" for me! Best, Sis

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

Tom Whitworth--- Thank you, brother. I hear you about Face. I did consider him and Hoyt Wilhelm. The game has changed so much that in the end I decided to go with the guys since the "closer" era began. But Elroy was tops. No doubt about that.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

kingis--- I am glad we are in agreeance. Yes, KROD looks to be on his way. Joe Nathan, too. Goose was the last guy I cut. I wanted to go with nine and I had him tenth using the formula I created, which was: ERA; saves+wins-losses; and WHIP. Troy Percival was 11th. The three former Cubs you mentioned I saw pitch many, many times. Thanks for coming and leaving your fine comments.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

carolina muscle--- Minnie Minosa? I agree, that is the mustache of the century, alright. Thanks!

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

stars439--- Thank you very much for saying so. It's always a pleasure to hear from you, my friend.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

tony0724--- Thank you, brother, for coming by and leaving me your affirmation. I figured you'd like seeing Hoffman in there. Great career, no doubt.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 30, 2010:

Truth From Truth--- Thank you and you are welcome. Congratulations! You are my first caller! I appreciate it.

Tom Whitworth from Moundsville, WV on January 30, 2010:


Great hub on baseball firemen. I have my own partisan choice, ElRoy Face without whom the Pittsburgh Pirates couldn't have beaten the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. "Fork 'em to death ElRoy" was often heard at Forbe's Field throughout the late 1950's and through the early 1960's.

Patrick King from Springfield, IL on January 29, 2010:

I agree with everyone on your list. Future names I am sure will include Francisco Rodriguez aka KRod, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jonathan Broxton. One man I am surprised you left off is Goose Gossage. He is one of the all time relief pitchers. One additional thing, three of the names, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, and Dennis Eckersley all pitched for my favorite team the St. Louis Cardinals and also played for the Chicago Cubs as well.

carolina muscle from Charlotte, North Carolina on January 29, 2010:

Baseball been berry berry good to me....

Rollie Fingers had the mustache of the century!!

Great post!

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on January 29, 2010:

Wonderful Hub and very informative. God Bless You

tony0724 from san diego calif on January 29, 2010:

James every one of these is a rock solid choice ! I had the pleasure of watching Trevor Hoffman so many times here locally in San Diego. And what can you say about Rivera he is as close to bulletproof as there is. That high heater is virtually unhittable. Great work here James !

Truth From Truth from Michigan on January 29, 2010:

Great hub, Reardon was dominate. My favorite on your list was Dennis Eckersley, and Jonathon Papelbon is doing great things today. Well done James, Thanks.

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