In the early days of baseball, the closer position simply didn’t exist. Instead, pitchers that started the game would end up finishing it, and probably come back and pitch another nine innings a day or two later. These days, though, managers are changing pitchers throughout the entire game to get the best matchups, and the closer position has become an important one.
Since the advent of the closer spot, there has been a lot of great talent on the mound. Let’s take a look at the five best closers in MLB history. Before we get into the list, some of the honorable mentions include Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Aroldis Chapman, Rollie Fingers, and John Smoltz.
5. Billy Wagner
Those that started watching baseball during the mid-to-late 2000s might remember Billy Wagner better for his time with the Philadelphia Phillies or New York Mets, but fans from the late 1990s of National League Central teams certainly remember Wagner when he was with the Houston Astros. Wagner spent nine seasons with Houston and then played for four other teams during his 16-year career.
Over that time, Wagner didn’t make a single MLB start as he went straight into a closing role during his first full season. Wagner would finish with 422 career saves, including a whopping 44 during the 2003 season. Wagner also had an impressive earned run average of 2.31 in his career and was a seven-time All-Star.
4. Rich Gossage
Though his birth name is Richard, everyone will forever know Mr. Gossage simply as “Goose.” Gossage played for nine different franchises during his long MLB career, with much of that time being spent with the Yankees, White Sox, and Padres. Originally beginning his career as a starting pitcher, Gossage moved into the closer’s role in his fourth season, collecting 26 saves with Chicago.
Gossage would finish his career with a total of 310 saves and an earned run average of 3.01 over 22 seasons. Gossage had to wait a while to hear his name called for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but it finally happened for the nine-time All-Star when he was inducted in 2008. At the time, he had been on the ballot for nine seasons.
3. Dennis Eckersley
Winning the Most Valuable Player Award is difficult to do as a pitcher, especially since the position has its own award. Dennis Eckersley did just that, though, and also won a Cy Young Award in the process. Eckersley played in 24 different Major League seasons, making appearances for five different teams.
Much of Eck’s career was spent with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, combining for 17 seasons between the two franchises. Overall, Eckersley had an earned run average of 3.50 and notched 390 career saves. Prior to becoming a closer, Eckersley was a phenomenal starting pitcher and finished with a career record of 197 wins and 171 losses.
2. Trevor Hoffman
It’s easy to forget that Trevor Hoffman actually entered Major League Baseball as a member of the expansion Florida Marlins, but in his rookie season was traded to the San Diego Padres. A bit of a late bloomer, Hoffman made his MLB debut at 25 years old and instantly became the go-to for the Padres during the rest of the 1990s and almost the entirety of the 2000s.
Hoffman was a seven-time All-Star during his MLB career and was the two-time Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year. He finished with a career record of 61-75, notching just over 600 career saves, and held a low earned run average of 2.87 with three different franchises, ending with Milwaukee in the 2010 season.
1. Mariano Rivera
Pretty much a unanimous pick for the top closer in baseball history, Mariano Rivera was able to make a career out of having just one pitch: his cutter. Rivera was a member of the New York Yankees for all 19 of his Major League seasons, winning a whopping five World Series titles and five more Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year titles.
“Mo” was named to the All Star Game 13 times during his illustrious career and was an easy choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He would finish with the all-time record of 652 saves, carrying an ERA of just 2.21 while striking ou 1,173 batters with his devastating cutter. It’s unlikely we’ll see that type of career-long dominance from a closer again.