Some of the greatest relief pitchers of all-time are in Major League Baseball at this very moment. While relief pitching is a relatively modern phenomenon in baseball’s long history, there are still plenty of names from years past that can be considered some of the greatest to ever come out of the bullpen.
Greatest relief pitchers of all time
Comparing generations is never easy. The relief pitching demands have altered, and the standards out of ‘pen are only ever increasing. There are some, however, who stand the test of time, or we know they will do at least.
Here are a few of the best relief pitchers in Major League Baseball history.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame via the Veteran’s Committee in 2019, Lee Smith has the third most saves ever.
In 1991 and 1994, Smith led all of baseball in saves and received plenty of Cy Young votes in both campaigns. Now working for the San Francisco Giants, Smith is a deserving member of the Hall and shouldn’t have had to wait for the Veteran’s Committee after seven All-Star appearances three Rolaids Relief awards.
Rivera’s postseason dominance is well known. No player with 30 career postseason innings has a better ERA, no pitcher converted more than his 23 consecutive save opportunities and he pitched in the most games in each round (the list can go on). He more than earned his five World Series rings.
The cutter is commonly attributed to Rivera’s brilliance. He’s the first unanimous inductee to the Hall of Fame and belongs with the greats of all time (Mays, Ruth, Williams).
Starting out with the Angels and later pitching for the Mets, Brewers and Tigers, Francisco Rodriguez last appeared in the Majors in 2017, putting him several years away from the Hall of Fame ballot. His 437 career saves rank fourth all-time, while his 62 for the Angels in 2008 is the most ever in a single season.
Regularly racking up the strikeouts – particularly on a devastating changeup – Rodriguez pitched his way into six All-Star games and finished in the top four of Cy Young voting on three occasions.
Commonly known as ‘Goose’, Rich Gossage was, in many ways, the groundbreaker for closing pitchers. The Yankees started off the idea of having a set-up man and a flame-throwing ninth-inning man (Gossage).
His red-hot fastball was pretty much his only pitch. Gossage threw offspeed stuff occasionally, but only to distract hitters from the 100mph cheese. He wasn’t afraid to brush hitters off the plate either.
Gossage ranks third all-time in innings pitched in relief, and finished with 310 saves and 1502 strikeouts, the second-most Ks of ever for a relief pitcher.
Only one left-hander, John Franco, has more saves than Billy Wagner. Wagner is on the Hall of Fame ballot at the moment, but faces an uphill battle to enter Cooperstown. He’s still clearly one of the best relievers of all time.
Much of that is down to only pitching 903 career innings, although his 33.2% strikeout rate in those innings is the best of any pitcher with over 800 frames on the mound. Wagner beat hitters with a searing fastball and was near unhittable at his best.
His career WHIP of 0.998 and 422 saves should be in Cooperstown.
From Wagner’s Hall of Fame candidacy to Trevor Hoffman, who was inducted to Cooperstown in 2018.
Hoffman, unlike most pitchers on this list, excelled with an offspeed pitch. His circle change developed after injury and became one of the most famous pitchers in MLB history. When Hoffman retired, he had the best career strikeout rate of any reliever.
The first man to the 500-save and 600-save milestones, Hoffman is now second on the list to Rivera. The longtime Padre was twice runner-up in the National League Cy Young voting, and unquestionably among the greatest relief pitchers of all time.
No rookie has ever been credited with more saves than Craig Kimbrel’s 46 for the Atlanta Braves. He led the National League in saves that season and did so through the next three campaigns. Moving on to the Padres and Red Sox before signing with the Cubs in the summer of 2019, Kimbrel was the youngest ever pitcher to reach 300 saves.
Only Rivera has a better ERA+ than Kimbrel’s 203. Currently just 31 years old, Kimbrel is 13th on the all-time saves list and could easily make his way into the top five if he remains healthy over the next couple of seasons.