A baseball closer is the last line of defense. Closers are responsible for saving (or blowing) hundreds of games each year. A closer has to be tough, confident, and skilled. Closers have to have thick skin. They can be anointed the hero, and criticized greatly all in the same week. They have to have a short memory, and continue to do their job with passion and confidence. One pitch can make or break a game, so a closer has to be clutch. A closer also has to have at least one great pitch. Many closers have an electrifying fastball with high velocity and movement. Others rely on finesse and location. Here is look at perhaps 10 of the greatest closers of all time.10. Joe Nathan-Minnesota Twins
Arguably, Joe Nathan has been MLB’s best closer the past 4 seasons. With 183 career saves, the Twins righty ranks in the top 50 all-time. Ranked 15th in saves amongst all active closers, Nathan has proven to be one of the most consistent relievers in the game. This two time all-star became the first closer in team history to record 36 or more saves in 4 straight seasons (2004-2007). He is a model of consistency, and should continue to rise in the record books.
9. Lee Smith-St. Louis Cardinals
Lee Smith was a dominating, and intimidating presence on the mound. Standing 6’6” 265lbs, and throwing a 95 mph fastball, Smith dominated the game to the tune of 478 career saves when he hung up his cleats. His all time career saves record stood from 1993-2006 when broken by current San Diego Padre Trevor Hoffman. 1991 could be classified as Smith’s best year when he had an NL best 47 saves with the Cardinals and was runner up in the Cy-Young award voting.
8. Billy Wagner-New York Mets
Currently 6th on the all time saves list with 376, this flame throwing lefty continues to dominate today with the New York Mets. As a kid, Wagner was a natural right handed thrower, but after multiple breaks to his throwing arm, taught himself to throw left handed against a barn door. This 5 time all star won the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award in 1999, and currently has over 1,000 career strikeouts.
7. Rich “Goose” Gossage
Another intimidating figure on the mound, Gossage sported wild facial hair, and a blazing fastball. The “Goose” spent time with 9 different major league teams, and finished with 310 career saves, good for 4th all time. Goose played in the league a remarkable 22 years, leading the AL in saves 3 different seasons. Gossage was given credit, along with Ron Davis of the 70’s and 80’s Yankees, for pioneering the setup man/closer pairing role. Gossage was voted into the MLB hall of fame in 2008, with a convincing 85.8 % vote.
6. Troy Percival-Tampa Bay Rays
This 4 time all-star continues to amass saves (343 career) with the upstart Tampa Bay Rays this year, currently with baseball’s best record. He had a career-high 42 saves in 1998, and enjoyed his best season in 2002 with a 4-1 record, 40 saves, 68 strikeouts, and a 1.92 ERA that year. His fast ball once was consistently clocked between 96-100mph, aiding in his dominating 763 career strikeouts.
5. Bruce Sutter- St. Louis Cardinals
Sutter is maybe best known for being the inventor of the split-finger fastball, which he called his “Jewel.” Dominating for the Cards in the 70’s and 80’s, he became the only player to lead the NL in saves 5 times. Winning four relief Pitcher of the Year Awards, and the 1979 Cy Young, Sutter dominated with his splitter to overcome his lack of velocity. Sutter was inducted into the hall of fame in 2006 after saving 300 career games.
4. Rollie Fingers-Brewers
Rollie Fingers was a very noticeable figure on the mound, and became famous for his stand out “handlebar moustache.” Fingers was much more about the mustache however, as he won the 1974 World Series MVP by saving two games and winning another for the Oakland A’s. In 1981, the he won both the Cy Young and MVP awards when he saved 28 games and posted a 1.04 ERA for the Brewers. By the time his career ended in 1985, Fingers had 341 saves and a career ERA of 2.90. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992 and wore his famous handlebar moustache proudly.
3. Dennis Eckersley-Oakland A’s
Eck arrived in Oakland in 1987, and many people thought his career was over. Needless to say, his career as a closer was just getting started, as manager Tony LaRussa appointed him to that role. Eckersley only responded with 53 saves in 1988, and 390 saves for his career, ranking him 5th all time. LaRussa’s revolutionary move of letting Eck pitch only 1 inning per game, when the game was close, was a revolutionary move at the time. This move let Eck win the Cy Young, MVP, and gain a Hall of Fame induction in 2004.
2. Mariano Rivera-New York Yankees
Best known for his unhittable “cutter”, Mariano Rivera continues to be lights out for the Yankees today. His cutter moves IN on the hands of hitters, making it nearly impossible to make contact with, let alone hit. Rivera has 4 world series rings, a world series MVP, and 465 career saves; a resume that speaks for itself. Rivera has an UNDER 1ER average in postseason play, making him one of the most, if not THE most, clutch relievers of all-time.
1. Trevor Hoffman-San Diego
Other closers may have had flashier nicknames, played in bigger media markets, or been in postseason more often, but none have been as productive as Trevor Hoffman, major league’s all time save’s leader with 538. The proof here clearly is in the production and longevity of Hoffman’s career. In 1998, Hoffman had a career record best 53 saves, along with a 1.48 ERA. His 53 saves that year tied an NL record. Its safe to say that “Hells Bells” will be ringing quite often in San Diego, as Hoffman continues to add to his all-time great records.
-Derek W. Mueller 2008