Closing pitchers are somewhat specific to the major leagues and college baseball teams, and they weren’t even really used until the late 1960s. Up until then, teams relied on starting pitchers to start and finish games and if a closer or relief pitcher was needed, then it was usually a sign that a pitcher was having a bad day. Closing pitchers typically throw power pitches such as fastballs, sliders, and cutters to overcome batters and secure the final few outs of a baseball game. So, who are the best MLB closers of all time?
Before we dive into the best MLB closers of all time, it’s important to understand just how far pitchers have come over the last several decades, especially as it relates to injuries. Tearing the UCL in the elbow used to mean the dreaded Tommy John surgery for pitchers. Today, researchers say a new MRI approach improves the detection of arm injuries. The new approach stresses the importance of incorporating the FEVER (flexed elbow valgus external rotation) view as a practical addition to standard elbow MRI protocols. Researchers say that incorporating the FEVER view will help pitchers’ arms stay healthier, for longer. Definitely great news for your favorite MLB team.
However, regardless of the health of pitchers, many fans might not get a chance to see their favorite MLB team anytime soon. A new poll finds that money issues will make it hard for fans to see their favorite MLB teams play in 2023. The poll of 1,000 baseball fans finds that 35 percent of fans won’t be buying tickets to an MLB game in 2023. The poll also took a scientific look at the average worker’s salary in each MLB team’s market and compared it to the rising cost of going to a game in modern times. Overall, the average American would need to work approximately five hours to attend three MLB games in 2023. Furthermore, the study found that fans of the Houston Astros have to work the most hours to watch their team play. Astros fans need to work a staggering nine hours just to afford tickets to watch their team play in 2023. Of course, that could be worth it to a lot of fans given the Astros won the World Series in 2022 and are consistently vying for a championship.
So, who are the greats that were known for finishing off games with a bang? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports and baseball websites in an effort to bring you the best MLB closers of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed closing pitchers from across these sites. As always, feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!
The List: Best MLB Closers of All Time, According to Experts
1. Mariano Rivera
The experts agree, the best MLB closer of all time is Yankees legend, Mariano Rivera. Mariano Rivera was utterly dominant during pretty much all of his career, sporting one of the best cutter fastballs in the history of MLB. When “Enter Sandman” by Metallica hit the ballpark speakers, hitters knew Rivera was coming out to close out yet another Yankees victory.
“There is no doubt about this honor. Just like Rickey Henderson at the leadoff spot, nobody comes close. Rivera has been dominant with his cutter and has kept his velocity in the lower 90s for his entire career. Once ‘Enter Sandman’ starts playing at Yankee Stadium and Rivera comes to the mound, teams go to sleep. He is probably the classiest closer of our generation, is the all-time saves leader, and is the last player left wearing the hallowed and Major League retired number 42 jersey worn by Jackie Robinson,” explains Bleacher Report.
Wearing Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is quite the honor, and Rivera wore that number with pride, respect, and dignity. But, Rivera wasn’t the fanciest pitcher of all time and he relied heavily on his main pitch – the cutter.
“Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in MLB history. There’s so much to say and rave about Rivera, but it’s best to start with the pitch selection. This plays a huge role in why he was the most intimidating relief pitcher of all time. When batters walked to the plate with the game on the line against Rivera, they already knew what pitch was coming. New York Yankees catchers didn’t even have to bother to conceal their signs. It was the cutter,” writes Call to the Pen.
Yes, Mo Rivera was intimidating and threw one heck of a cut fastball, but what about the numbers? The saves? The earned run average (ERA)? The postseason? Well, as one expert explains, Mariano Rivera’s career numbers are beyond impressive, they’re downright gaudy.
“Mo is, quite simply, the GOAT of closers. He has 51 more career saves than Trevor Hoffman, who is second on the all-time list. His 42 career postseason saves are more than double the runner-up, Kenley Jansen, who has 19. Mo’s 11 World Series saves nearly double Rollie Fingers’ six. And those are just the accolades related to saves. Rivera also owns the lowest postseason ERA at 0.70 over an incredible 141 innings pitched and the lowest career ERA for a reliever with over 500 IP. And he did it primarily with one pitch – a nearly unhittable cut fastball,” raves Pitcher List.
2. Dennis Eckersley
The second spot on the list of the best MLB closers of all time goes to none other than Dennis Eckersley. With his long, slender build, jet-black hair, and mustache to match, Eckersley was an intimidating force on the mound during the late 80s and early 90s. Eckersley is an Oakland A’s legend and he’s credited with essentially inventing the closer position.
“This is my home. I’m a Boston Red Sox.” – Dennis Eckersley pic.twitter.com/vCnyPnZ2mq
— Thomas Carrieri (@Thomas_Carrieri) October 5, 2022
“Eckersley and Tony LaRussa basically created the modern closer role. Players like Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter were multi-inning relief aces – feared by hitters and celebrated by managers and the starting pitchers that entrusted them with securing valuable wins. That all changed in 1987 when LaRussa tabbed a 32-year-old, side-armed journeyman starting pitcher to pitch the ninth inning, and usually only the ninth – shutting down opponents and racking up saves,” writes Athlon Sports.
Athlon Sports is referring to Tony Larussa, who is a great manager and an innovative baseball mind. Eckersley truly paved the way for pitchers such as Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman to star in the closing pitcher’s role.
“Dennis Eckersley beats out Trevor Hoffman for the second spot because he more or less invented the 9th inning closer position. During his time at that spot, he was basically unhittable. From 1988 to 1992 he was the most dominant closer in the league and earned both the Cy Young and the AL MVP in 1992,” explains Bleacher Report.
Eckersley was essentially a journeyman pitcher before this point in his career, he had a few good seasons but nothing to the magnitude he experienced as a full-time closer. Not bad when you consider Eckersley tallied a staggering 390 saves in his MLB career. Makes it fun to imagine what Eckersley could’ve accomplished with a full 15 to 20-year career as a full-time closer.
“In 1988, Eckersley led the AL with 45 saves and finished second in the Cy Young voting. In addition, he joined the All-Star squad as a reliever for the first time. He returned in that capacity three times over the next four seasons. The A’s blossomed during this period, and Eck flourished, posting a 0.61 ERA in 1990. His best season came in 1992 when he won the Cy Young and MVP. He led the league with 51 saves that season and compiled a 1.91 ERA. The A’s went to three World Series during this period, winning once,” adds Pitcher List.
3. Trevor Hoffman
Similar to Rivera, Trevor Hoffman was a long-time closer. Although Hoffman didn’t have the same supporting cast as Mariano Rivera did with the Yankees, Hoffman was an excellent closing pitcher for more than 15 seasons. “Hoffman took over as the Padres closer during 1994, finishing the year with 20 saves. Over the subsequent fifteen seasons, he finished with fewer than 30 saves only once, in 2003, when he underwent two shoulder surgeries. Hoffman led the NL in saves twice during his run and was a seven-time All-Star. When AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Bells’ started playing, you knew you were in trouble,” writes Pitcher List.
Rivera had ‘Enter Sandman’ and Hoffman had ‘Hell’s Bells,’ two of the best rock bands of all time for two of the best MLB closers of all time. However, that’s about where the similarities ended between Rivera and Hoffman. Where Rivera used a devastating cutter, Hoffman relied on his off-speed pitches to get hitters out.
“The second greatest closer of all-time was a little different from the others, at least in terms of his pitch selection. Many of the names on this list rely or relied on an overpowering fastball to finish the final three outs of their saves. But for Trevor Hoffman, he did things a little bit differently. Instead, it was all about his devastating changeup. Don’t be mistaken, Hoffman did plenty of damage with his fastball. But, the putaway pitch, the strikeout pitch, it was all about changing speeds. And, after 18 years of this tricky combo, Hoffman walked away from the game as one of the best to ever do it,” writes Call to the Pen.
Trevor Hoffman was really good for a really long time. Hoffman amassed a stunning 601 saves over the course of his career, and as the experts explained, he was a master at intimidating his opponents.
“The former shortstop who was part of the 1993 trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Marlins made San Diego competitive. When he came over in the trade, he threw a mid-90s fastball. After having rotator cuff surgery, his velocity dropped but he developed his famous unhittable changeup. He was also known for his high leg kick and a stare similar to Dave Stewart,” explains Bleacher Report.
4. Rich “Goose” Gossage
Next up on the list of the best MLB closers of all time is the legendary Rich “Goose” Gossage. Goose Gossage was a presence on the mound, and as the experts explain, Goose was a dominant closer and relief pitcher throughout his career. “The moustache, the presence, the Yankee pinstripes made Hall of Famer Goose one of the fiercest closers in the game. In the late 70s through the early 80s, he was the closer. Hitters did not want to stand in the batter’s box during his heyday. He was the most recognized Yankee closer before Mariano Rivera took that role. He won a World Series in 1978 with the Yankees and turned in nine All-Star appearances,” explains Bleacher Report.
Rich Gossage pitches during a game at Three Rivers Stadium, 1977 pic.twitter.com/vlFEFrCQtt
— Pittsburgh Pirates History (@HistoryPirates) September 7, 2021
Yes, Goose Gossage defined late-inning pitchers during his era. Regardless of his presence, Goose Gossage was a dominating relief pitcher and he helped define that role during his time in MLB ballparks. Still, Goose Gossage bounced between full-time starter and relief specialist during the early part of his career.
“Rich “Goose” Gossage began his MLB career in 1972 with the White Sox when he was only 20. Over two decades later, Goose retired as a Seattle Mariner with over 1,000 games under his belt, predominantly as one of the most feared relievers of his day. Gossage’s career took off in 1975 when he led the AL with 26 saves and made his first All-Star team. He returned to the Midsummer Classic eight of the next ten summers, including the following season, 1976, when the Chisox used him as a starter. Starting didn’t agree with Goose, and after Chicago traded him to Pittsburgh in December 1976, he returned to the bullpen for good,” explains Pitcher List.
It makes sense that teams would want to turn Gossage into a full-time starter. Although he finally settled into his role in the bullpen, Gossage played during an era when he might have to come in and pitch several innings before earning a save. It was also a possibility that Gossage would need to come in when his team was trailing or tied in the game and he would have to win it. The result was a career with more than 100 wins and 300 saves.
“‘Goose’ blossomed into a relief ace in 1975 when he posted a 1.84 ERA and a major league-best 26 saves in 141.2 innings across 62 appearances. It was the first of nine All-Star seasons for Gossage, the first of five top-five Cy Young finishes, and the first of five seasons in which he received votes for MVP,” adds Athlon Sports.
5. Rollie Fingers
Rollie Fingers was a talented reliever who was especially used to coming into games early, around the sixth or seventh innings. And, as the experts agree, Rollie Fingers is considered one of the founding fathers of the modern-day closers.
Rollie Fingers, early 1970s pic.twitter.com/BH8AfRu1SI
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) April 13, 2023
“As the father of the modern day closer role, Rollie would come into games in the sixth or seventh inning to close games out. He was instrumental in the Oakland A’s back-to-back-to-back World Series Championships in 1972-74, earning the World Series MVP in 1974… This Hall of Famer was a seven-time All-Star, won the AL Cy Young and AL MVP with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1981 and has had his jersey (No. 34) retired by both the Athletics and the Brewers franchises,” writes Bleacher Report.
Rollie Fingers undoubtedly had a distinguished career as an MLB pitcher and he’s recognized as one of the best MLB pitchers of his era. Still, Rollie Fingers was a clutch postseason pitcher when given the chance. “Fingers wasn’t a closer in the modern sense. Rather, he was a reliever who averaged 125 innings per season over the first decade of his career. As the A’s ascended, Fingers’ notoriety grew. He was dominant in the team’s three World Series championships from 1972-74. Fingers tallied six saves over those three series with an ERA of 1.35. He was the MVP of the 1974 series after winning Game 1 and saving Games 4 and 5,” explains Pitcher List.
Rollie Fingers won more than 100 games and earned over 325 career saves during his time as an MLB relief pitcher. Furthermore, Fingers was a master at getting out of jams with hitters in position. “In a 17-year career, Fingers finished 709 games – 75 percent of his total appearances and 78.2 percent of his relief opportunities – and averaged 1.8 innings per game. In 1981, his 12th big league season and first with the Brewers, Fingers won both the American League MVP and Cy Young Award after posting a 6-3 record, 1.04 ERA and 0.872 WHIP in 78 innings across 47 appearances. Fingers led the major leagues with 28 saves for his third and final MLB saves title,” adds Athlon Sports.
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