When fans talk about the best pitchers in baseball history, the conversation is sometimes limited to starting pitchers, leaving the best relief pitchers of all time overlooked and forgotten.
The greatest relievers ever are just as good as some of the all-time great starting pitchers, they just had a different role. To make up for these pitchers being overlooked, we wanted to create a list of the best relief pitcher of all time, so these legends can finally get the credit they deserve.
Best relief pitchers of all time
Surely, the top pitcher on this list won’t come as a surprise. But ranking the best closers of all time was otherwise a difficult task.
In order to limit our list to 15 pitchers, we had to leave some great pitchers off entirely. However, that did leave us with the best of the best as we countdown the 15 best relief pitchers of all time.
15. Dan Quisenberry
He’s been forgotten by fans to some extent because he only pitched from 1979 to 1990. But in that time, Quisenberry led the American League in saves five times, including a run of four years in a row. During his prime years, he was surely one of the most unpleasant pitchers for big leaguers to face. He ended his career with a 2.76 ERA, 244 saves, and three all-star selections.
14. Joe Nathan
While sometimes overlooked, Joe Nathan surely deserves to be mentioned among the best relief pitchers of all time. He pitched in the majors for 16 seasons, racking up 377 career saves and posting an ERA of 2.87.
Nathan was an all-star six times and finished among the top-five in the Cy Young voting twice. Most of Nathan’s best seasons came with the Giants and Twins, although he pitched for three other franchises during his career.
Most people probably don’t realize that he has the highest save percentage of any pitcher with at least 200 saves, out-performing some of the all-time greats in that category, closing out 89.33% of his save chances.
13. Jonathan Papelbon
While known for being a hothead at times, there’s no denying that Jonathan Papelbon was one of the elite closers in baseball during long stretches of his career.
He was the type of pitcher who fans loved to have on their team and hated when he played for the opposing team. Papelbon was the best reliever in baseball in 2007 when he helped the Red Sox win the World Series. He was also a six-time all-star who collected 368 saves and had a career ERA of 2.44.
12. Aroldis Chapman
At the peak of his career, Aroldis Chapman was truly one of a kind. He holds the all-time record for fastest pitch in the majors, clocking in at 105.1 mph. That’s a record that won’t be easy to break.
We’re also talking about a seven-time all-star who already has more than 300 saves and over 1,000 strikeouts.
Chapman is truly a modern marvel who was close to unhittable when he was at his best, especially since he had a devastating slider to complement his fastball. He may not have been able to sustain his success long enough to become the best closer of all time, but he’s certainly among the most unique pitchers in MLB history.
11. John Franco
Calling John Franco a crafty lefty wouldn’t be justice to what he did on the mound. While he wasn’t always the hardest-throwing pitcher, especially during the latter part of his 22-year career, Franco was constantly fooling hitters with a changeup that many suspected was a screwball.
The southpaw constantly befuddled hitters with that pitch, making him a fan favorite throughout his time with the Mets, with whom he spent the majority of his career. Franco led the National League in saves three times and retired with the second-most saves in MLB history with 424. He still has the most saves of any left-handed pitcher in baseball history and finished his career with an ERA of 2.89.
10. Bruce Sutter
While it took him 13 years to get there, Bruce Sutter is one of the few closers to get into the Hall of Fame. He pitched 12 seasons in the majors, making the All-Star Team in six of those seasons, including the 1979 season when he won the Cy Young.
Sutter led the National League in saves five times, amassing an even 300 saves during his career, which was third on the all-time list when he retired. Knee and shoulder problems late in this career cut Sutter’s career short. Otherwise, his career numbers would have been even more impressive.
9. Craig Kimbrel
As of 2023, Craig Kimbrel is still pitching in the majors. However, he’s already done more than enough to cement his legacy among the best closers ever.
In his prime, Kimbrel could throw in the triple digits and had one of the nastiest breaking pitches of any pitcher of his generation. Kimbrel won Rookie of the Year honors while leading the National League in saves for what would be the first of four consecutive seasons. He also has eight all-star selections under his belt and has a chance to join the short list of closers to eclipse the 400-save mark.
8. Billy Wagner
Considering he was undersized and a natural righty who had to throw left-handed after breaking his arm twice as a kid, Billy Wagner might have one of the most impressive careers in baseball history.
Despite being just 5’10’’ tall, Wagner threw the ball with incredible velocity, blowing hitters away. Wagner finished his career with nearly 1,200 strikeouts, averaging 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, which is the highest strikeout volume in MLB history for any pitcher with at least 800 innings.
He was a seven-time all-star who finished his career with 422 saves, making him one of six closers to surpass the 400-save threshold. Unfortunately, like many of his fellow closers, Wagner has struggled to gain the Hall of Fame support he deserves despite being among the top closers of all time.
7. Hoyt Wilhelm
If we turn back the clock, we’ll discover Hoyt Wilhelm, who is sometimes overlooked among the best relievers ever. He spent his 20s serving during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, and then needed some time in the minors, so Wilhelm didn’t get to the big leagues until he was 29.
However, his knuckleball helped him to have a career that lasted 20 years. Those 20 years ended with 143 career wins, including 124 that came as a reliever, still giving Wilhelm the all-time record for wins by a reliever. For what it’s worth, Wilhelm also pitched a no-hitter as a starter. But most of his career was spent as a reliever, helping make Wilhelm the first pitcher to amass 200 saves, giving him a special place in baseball history.
6. Dennis Eckersley
For much of his Hall of Fame career, Dennis Eckersley was known for his unique delivery. He combined a sidearm motion with a big leg kick that often kept hitters unbalanced. On top of that, Eckersley also had incredible accuracy with his pitches despite all of the moving parts.
It made him a nightmare to face, especially since Eckersley was also one of the most animated and intimidating pitchers of his era.
Most people forget that he was a starter for more than a decade before becoming one of the greatest closers in MLB history. As a closer, Eckersley helped the A’s win a World Series in 1989 and also took home both Cy Young and MVP honors in 1992 when he saved 51 games with a 1.91 ERA, helping to give him 390 career saves.
5. Goose Gossage
Goose Gossage is one of the great trailblazers among relief pitchers and closers. He became one of the best closers in baseball during the 1970s and 80s, at one point helping the Yankees win 77 of 79 games after leading after six innings.
Somehow, Gossage became one of the best closers of all time using just one pitch. He threw his fastball well over 90% of the time but knew how to locate it and knew how to intimidate hitters and own the inside part of the plate to make them uncomfortable.
Gossage was truly a master of his craft, leading the American League in saves three times while accumulating 310 career saves and making nine All-Star Teams. Decades after he retired, Gossage remains among the all-time leaders in several categories for relief pitchers.
4. Lee Smith
Standing 6’6’’ and weighing over 260 pounds, Lee Smith was one of the most intimidating closers in baseball history. He threw his fastball in the mid-90s, which was a less common occurrence in the early 80s when he first broke into the majors. Smith was a seven-time all-star and nearly won the Cy Young in 1991 when he set a new National League record with 47 saves.
By the time he retired, Smith was the all-time saves leader for both the Cubs and Cardinals while racking up 478 career saves. Despite being one of the elite closers in baseball history, Smith was denied entry into the Hall of Fame for more than 30 years until the Today’s Game Committee rectified the error and inducted Smith into the Hall of Fame in 2019.
3. Rollie Fingers
In addition to his glorious mustache, Rollie Fingers is best known for being one of the first modern closers. He transformed how relief pitchers could be used and earned respect for late-game relievers rather than everyone viewing them merely as pitchers who couldn’t hack it as a starter.
On his way to the Hall of Fame, Fingers was a seven-time all-star who helped the A’s win three straight World Series titles during the 70s. Fingers also won both Cy Young honors and MVP in 1981 when he went 6-3 with 28 saves and a 1.04 ERA, accomplishing something that most relief pitchers can only dream about.
2. Trevor Hoffman
For a short period of time, Trevor Hoffman was the all-time leader in saves, not to mention the first to cross the 500-save and 600-save thresholds. Even during the latter stages of his career, he remained an elite closer, solidifying his standing among the best closers of all time.
Hoffman is among the most consistent closers ever, amassing at least 30 saves 14 times and having nine seasons of at least 40 saves while being named an all-star seven times. In addition to his devastating changeup, which is one of the best ever, Hoffman was also regarded as one of the best teammates and hardest-working players of his era.
1. Mariano Rivera
It’s hard to imagine any relief pitcher putting together a better career than Mariano Rivera. Fittingly, he became the first player to ever be unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the most impressive thing is that his entire career was based primarily on one pitch. He threw his cutter in a way that made it almost impossible for hitters to square up. They knew exactly what was coming and still couldn’t hit it.
Rivera spent all 19 seasons in the big leagues with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.21 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP while amassing 652 saves. He helped the Yankees win five World Series championships and even won World Series MVP honors in 1999.
The 13-time all-star was also the last player to ever wear the no. 42, which was retired permanently in honor of Jackie Robinson, although that number will still be attached to Rivera for many years to come.