Once upon a time, aging pitchers were placed in the bullpen to finish their careers in case they might be needed, but were not considered an important part of the team. But baseball evolved and roles were established and relief pitchers were categorized as long relief, middle relief, setup and closer and every team has at least one of each. The closer has become a major piece of a team’s arsenal and in some cases the most important piece. Let's take a look at the 10 best relief pitchers of all time.
10. The Nasty Boys
The 1990 triumvirate of Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers were interchangeable parts for manager Lou Piniella’s 1990 World Series champion Reds. Piniella used all three at setup and closer and after wins the clubhouse resounded with M.C. Hammer’s song ‘U Can’t Touch This.’ Myers was an eccentric who kept military gear in his locker, including a hand grenade, saved 347 games in his career. Charlton, a feisty competitor with a three-major degree from Rice, saved 97. Dibble, former owner of a 100-mph fastball, once fought his manager, Piniella, and saved 89 games in an injured-shortened seven-year career.
9. Rollie Fingers
His handlebar mustache qualifies him for any top-10 list. He began as a starter, but was put in the bullpen and usually pitched more than one inning. But when manager Dick Williams began using him late in games in which the Athletics led, he became one of the game’s first closers. He won the AL MVP and Cy Young for the Brewers in 1981 and was the second relief pitcher to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame with 341 saves.
8. John Franco
He featured the rarely used screwball as his out pitch, a pitch that matched his personality. He pitched 21 years, mostly for the Reds and Mets and saved 424 games while appearing in 1,119 games, a National League record for a pitcher. He grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and always wore an orange T-shirt under his uniform to honor his father, a lifelong employee of the Department of Sanitation.
7. Mike Marshall
A flesh and blood "Iron Mike," he astounded baseball by appearing in 106 games for the 1974 Dodgers, including 13 games in a row. Owner of a PhD in kinesiology, he developed a pitching motion designed to eliminate arm injuries. He won the Cy Young in 1974 and won the Fireman of the Year Award for three different teams (Expos, Dodgers and Twins), featuring a screwball that is normally a pitch extremely hard on a pitching arm. He finished with 188 saves.
6. Bruce Sutter
If Sutter didn’t invent the dive-balling split-fingered fastball, he perfected it; it has become the dominant pitch in the game today. He led the National League a record five times in saves (1979-82, '84) and won the Cy Young in 1979 with a 6-6 record, a 2.22 ERA and 37 saves en route to an even 300 career saves. From 1976 to 1980 he saved 133 of 379 games won by very ordinary Cubs teams.
5. Lee Smith
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound intimidator may be the best pitcher eligible for the Hall of Fame who hasn’t been voted in. His 478 saves are third most in history, well ahead of Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, who are in the Hall. He led in career saves from 1993 until 2006, when Hoffman passed him. He saved 47 games for the Cardinals in 1991 and was runner-up to Tom Glavine in Cy Young voting.
4. Billy Wagner
Billy the Kid was a gun-slinger and it was no delight trying to come from behind in the ninth inning to face Wagner’s 100 mph fastball, one he used to amass 422 saves, fifth on the all-time list. Amazingly he was a natural right-hander, but twice broke his arm in his youth and taught himself to throw left-handed by slinging thousands of pitches against a barn.
3. Dennis Eckersley
The Eck, sixth on the all-time list with 390 saves, is one of only two pitchers (along with John Smoltz) to reel off a 20-win and a 50-save season in a career. Eckersley was a starter for the Indians, Red Sox and Cubs before he was traded to Oakland in April of 1987 and Tony La Russa put him in the bullpen. When closer Jay Howell was injured, La Russa put Eck in that role and his Hall of Fame plaque was assured. Eckersley also is famous for coining the term, ‘Walk-off home run,’ which is what he called the famous game-ending homer by lame-legged pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series.
2. Trevor Hoffman
His 601 saves were the most all time until No. 1 on this list passed him in the 2011 season. He signed with the Reds in the 11th round as a shortstop, but was quickly converted to a relief pitcher. His entry song, ‘Hell’s Bells’ aroused fans and he saved 40 or more games nine times, a career-best 53 in 1998, and he pitched mostly with mediocre Padres teams. St. Louis closer Jason Isringhausen once said, ‘When you go to San Diego you wanted to win two of three just so one time you could hear the bong of the bell that starts ‘Hell’s Bells’ when Trevor walked out of the bullpen.’
1. Mariano Rivera
The Ultimate Closer, the ‘Turn on the showers, the game is over’ when he walked to the mound to Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman.’ He retired after the 2013 season with an MLB-record 652 saves and 952 games finished, also the most in history. Pitching his entire 19-year career with the Yankees, Rivera excelled behind a mid-90s cut fastball that hitters knew was coming but still couldn’t hit. He sawed more wood than a lumber mill, once breaking three Ryan Klesko bats in one at-bat. His 25 or more saves 16 times is a record and he also owns 42 postseason saves with a 0.70 ERA. He is the all-time leader in ERA-plus — ERA adjusted to a player’s league and ballpark — for pitchers with a minimum of 1,000 innings. The average ERA-plus is 100. Rivera’s career mark is 205. The next best is Pedro Martinez at 154.