Closers are the last men opposing teams want to see enter the game. Usually it means they’re trailing and the only hope of leaving the ballpark with a victory is a heroic comeback against a guy whose job is exclusively to get the final three outs of a game. It’s tough to do because these men are trained for the exact situation they’re in.
In recent years, closers have become vital to succeeding in the standings. The save wasn’t even a statistic for most of MLB’s history, but ever since it was born, teams have seen the importance of finding security in the final frame. They actually have a job title deeper than relief pitcher. Earning saves is a measure of their success along with the other statistics we look at for pitchers.
Often eccentric, a little strange, or even mean; closers are a unique breed. They play in the most pressured situation of an MLB game. There’s also that whole idea about closers not being able to pitch in a save situation which we do see on occasion. Sometimes when the game is not on the line and a closer has the opportunity to pitch in a blowout, we see a different side of him just because he’s not in the right frame of mind. In spite of these quirks, closers are fun to rely on to seal the victory.
Throughout the history of baseball teams have had closers who lost the job quickly and those who remained stellar throughout their role as the last man off the field. This is a look at the best closers from each team’s history and why they were so memorable.
Arizona Diamondbacks: J.J. Putz
J.J. Putz is not the all-time leader in saves for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he has been the most effective in the franchise’s brief history. First arriving to the desert back in 2011, Putz saved 83 games over four years with the Diamondbacks. This average isn’t particularly great, as the bulk of them came in the first two years. In 2011, he had 45 of them to go along with a 2.17 ERA. At the very least, he never gave up a World Series home run to the New York Yankees, an act that eliminated Byung-Hyun Kim from competing here.
Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel
In his first year as the Atlanta Braves’ closer in 2011, Craig Kimbrel was an All-Star and led the league in saves. This trend continued for three more seasons until he was eventually traded to the San Diego Padres. It took Kimbrel only five seasons, four as the official closer, to amass 186 saves for the Braves. Additional statistics, like his 1.43 ERA and 14.8 strikeouts per 9, add to the allure and simple decision to name Kimbrel the best closer in Braves’ history. Plus, he’s pretty electric with the quirkiness we love in closers.
Baltimore Orioles: Gregg Olson
The run Gregg Olson had with the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the team’s closer was an underappreciated one. Although he never led the league in saves, he did have five consecutive seasons with 27-37 saves, back when this was a pretty good total. Pitching as a rookie in 1989, Olson shined. He saved 27 games while posting a 1.69 ERA. Honors for Olson that season included a Rookie of the Year win and a sixth place finish in the Cy Young Award voting.
Boston Red Sox: Jonathan Papelbon
A big part of the Boston Red Sox awesome run from 2005-2011 was the sureness of Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning. Papelbon went to four All-Star Games with the Red Sox, saved 219 games total and did it with a 2.33 ERA. His 197 ERA+ is another statistic showcasing his awesomeness as he somehow managed to routinely have “lights out” stuff. Between 2006 and 2009, Papelbon was at his best with an average of 38 saves per year and a 1.74 ERA. The Red Sox have a deep history yet their greatest closer is someone from recent memory.
Chicago Cubs: Bruce Sutter
The Chicago Cubs have actually had quite a few notable closers. Lee Smith leads the way with 180 saves, however it is Bruce Sutter’s briefer run with them that earns him the title of the best in the team’s history. Sutter was an All-Star every season from 1977 through 1980 during his time with the Cubs, where he saved a total of 133 games with a 2.39 ERA. Sutter is also a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the extra edge needed to beat out anyone else considered for this award.
Chicago White Sox: Bobby Thigpen
During some rather lean years for the Chicago White Sox in the 1980s and early 1990s, the team employed their best closer in franchise history. Bobby Thigpen is the man with this distinction as the organization’s all-time saves leader with 201 of them. In 1990, Thigpen set a record with 57 saves in one year which has since been broken. He finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting and fifth in the MVP in his historic season. Despite this being the only year where he was named to an All-Star team, Thigpen had a successful career in a White Sox uniform.
Cincinnati Reds: Aroldis Chapman
No closer in Cincinnati Reds’ history was as dominant as Aroldis Chapman during his time with the team. The fireballing Cuban threw heat and made sure leads were not blown late in games. During parts of six seasons with the Reds, Chapman saved 146 games while more impressively striking out 15.4 batters per 9 innings. His 2.17 ERA and four consecutive seasons with 100+ strikeouts to finish off his tenure in Cincinnati secures his spot in Reds’ history as the franchise’s best closer. The decision to make him a closer rather than a starter was obviously the best one for everyone.
Cleveland Indians: Bob Wickman
One pitch to Edgar Renteria ruined Jose Mesa’s chances at being named the best closer in Cleveland Indians’ history. Thankfully, Bob Wickman came along shortly after to earn this honor. Wickman had an overlooked career as a member of the Indians during a six year span beginning in 2000. He saved 139 games while pitching to a 3.23 ERA. The Indians do unfortunately lack any superstars in the team’s history at the closer spot. However, Wickman is a fine enough choice to represent them.
Colorado Rockies: Brian Fuentes
Who knows what Brian Fuentes could have been if he pitched for a team other than the Colorado Rockies? The thin air surely limited his success at times. During his seven seasons with the team, Fuentes recorded a franchise high 115 saves while also posting a 3.38 ERA. His 144 ERA+ suggests he could have had even more amazing numbers pitching in another city. Pitching in the ninth inning is tough enough. Imagine doing it at Coors Field with a runner on second base and nobody out. Fuentes managed to survive this more than not.
Detroit Tigers: Todd Jones
Todd Jones wasn’t a particularly consistent closer, but he did have some good years with the Detroit Tigers. He managed to have two separate runs as the team’s closer eventually resulting in 235 career saves in their uniform. Jones’ best season came in 2000 when he saved a league leading 42 games while also earning his lone All-Star appearance. This same season he finished fifth in the Cy Young Award voting. Even though the team was never very good when Jones was around, he made a big impact on the franchise’s history.
Houston Astros: Billy Wagner
A no doubt choice, Billy Wagner is the best closer in Houston Astros’ history. He saved 225 games for them over nine seasons with a 2.53 ERA attached to him. One terrible season in 2000 did hurt his overall numbers, but there’s still no denying how awesome Wagner was. “Billy the Kid” managed to strike out 12.4 batters per 9 innings adding to his elite label and possible Hall of Fame candidacy. Very few closers during the time Wagner pitched were as scary to face; especially for left-handed hitters.
Kansas City Royals: Dan Quisenberry
Submarine hurling Dan Quisenberry has some stiff competition on his path to winning the title as the best closer in Kansas City Royals’ history. Jeff Montgomery may have more saves, but Quisenberry had better overall numbers. Perhaps most impressive, even with his unorthodox delivery, Quisenberry only threw four wild pitches as a member of the Royals over 10 seasons. This is just the added topping to appreciating everything Quisenberry did for the Royals. Honorable mentions also go out to Greg Holland and Wade Davis, whose recent dominance as closers could pass Quisenberry over time.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Troy Percival
There are two really good choices in the history of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim whom can be considered the best in franchise history. However, when we think of Angels’ closers, the first name that comes to mind is Troy Percival. While Francisco Rodriguez had a nice career with the Angels and earned his nickname K-Rod while in their uniform, Percival crushed him in total saves by over 100. Percival’s time with the Angels spanned 10 seasons where he saved a franchise high 316 games to go with his very strong 2.99 ERA.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen
Already Kenley Jansen is closing in on Eric Gagne for the most saves in Los Angeles Dodgers’ history. He should accomplish this in 2016 thus ending any argument in favor of someone else. Already Jansen’s 2.28 ERA and 162 ERA+ make him a notable name to consider when discussing the best closers in history. Surprisingly, he has yet to make a trip to the All-Star Game despite his brilliance on the mound. Because he has accomplished all of this in such a short period of time and is likely going to secure his spot as the saves leader by the end of the 2016 season, Jansen gets the nod as the best closer the Dodgers have ever had. Hopefully, they offer him a contract extension.
Miami Marlins: Robb Nen
Back when they were referred to as the Florida Marlins, the Miami Marlins’ franchise employed the best closer in the organization’s history, Robb Nen. Pitching for the Marlins from 1993 to 1997, Nen saved a franchise high 108 games. His 1996 season was the standout year for Nen in a Marlins’ uniform, saving 35 games with a 1.95 ERA. He was also around for their amazing 1997 season nobody saw coming when the team won the World Series in part because they had a solid closer to rely on.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rollie Fingers
The Milwaukee Brewers have employed several really good closers in their history. Unfortunately, most had their best success somewhere else. Factoring in the total of saves and other statistics, Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers is the best Brewers’ closer in team history. He also happens to have the sweetest mustache too. Fingers spent the last four years of his career with the Brewers with one very elite season in 1981. Fingers saved a league leading 28 games with a 1.04 ERA that season for Milwaukee on his path to winning the Cy Young Award and MVP. Very few pitchers have done this and Fingers is one of them.
Minnesota Twins: Joe Nathan
Plenty of really good closers have earned saves for the Minnesota Twins. The best, however, is Joe Nathan. Nathan managed to save a franchise high 260 games in seven seasons with Minnesota. He did this with a miniscule 2.16 ERA along with a 204 ERA+. Trapped in Minnesota where the media only occasionally takes a look, Nathan is without a doubt one of the best closers since 2000 and the best in Twins’ history. He also happened to have some really good years with the Texas Rangers, but his time in Minnesota is the most notable representation of his career.
New York Mets: John Franco
An easy choice, John Franco is the best closer the New York Mets have had. Franco saved 424 games in his career putting him fourth on the all-time list. Among all of those saves, Franco tallied 276 as a member of the Mets where he spent 14 years of his career. Franco was never overpowering or a typical strikeout pitcher you would guess could become one of baseball’s best closers, but he still managed to get his outs and save plenty of games.
New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera
Is there any argument here? The greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, is by default the best closer in New York Yankees history. His 652 saves beat everyone else. Rivera is also the all-time leader in ERA+ at 205. Several other numbers amassed over his 19 year career, all spent with the Yankees, make Rivera the clear choice. He is the prototype of the closer every team wants and nobody will ever replicate again. There’s very little bad to say about Rivera who should come close to a unanimous Hall of Fame vote once eligible.
Oakland Athletics: Dennis Eckersley
Dennis Eckersley logged 320 career saves with the Oakland Athletics, all after the age of 30. An ex-starting pitcher who became an elite closer, Eckersley is the greatest ninth inning man in Athletics’ history, even over Rollie Fingers, as twice he led the league in saves. In 1992, Eckersley saved a league leading 51. That same season he took home the Cy Young Award and MVP. Arguably the best starting pitcher/closer combination pitcher, Eckersley is best remembered for finishing off games.
Philadelphia Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon
As painful as it might be to admit, Jonathan Papelbon is the best closer the Philadelphia Phillies have ever had. Papelbon has more saves than everyone else, an awesome 2.31 ERA, and is the only closer the team has with multiple All-Star appearances. Guys like Jose Mesa and Tug McGraw may have had their moments, but there’s no real way to argue against Papelbon. He may have made plenty of enemies in Philadelphia while there, but in a few years, with any luck, fans may finally appreciate getting to see him pitch regularly.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Roy Face
Surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Pirates do have a slew of really good closers in their history. Even current closer Mark Melancon could be considered the best with a 1.85 ERA and 100 saves through three seasons. However, it’s Roy Face who is the best in the team’s history thanks largely to his 186 saves. Face pitched for the Pirates from 1953-1968 and was an All-Star six times. Although his 3.46 ERA might not be the greatest, he managed to save nearly 30 more than the next closest closer in team history.
San Diego Padres: Trevor Hoffman
Second on the all-time saves list, Trevor Hoffman is the best closer the San Diego Padres have had. Hoffman spent 16 seasons with the Padres amassing 552 saves to go with a very good 2.76 ERA during the Steroid Era when no pitchers were safe. Although he only led the league in saves twice, Hoffman topped 40 nine times and in 1998 saved 53. His consistency allowed the Padres to earn several playoff appearances including a run to the World Series in 1998, which unfortunately ended with a sweep against the New York Yankees.
San Francisco Giants: Robb Nen
The closest call of all when naming the best closer in a team’s history belongs to the San Francisco Giants. Robb Nen’s 206 saves narrowly beats out Rod Beck who saved 199 games. More saves in fewer games and a better ERA give Nen the win by an eyelash. Nen’s time with the Giants, after securing his spot as the best closer in Florida/Miami Marlins history, was a brief five year one where he was an All-Star three times. Nen’s performance was often overshadowed by Barry Bonds because after all, chicks dig the long ball and not the save.
Seattle Mariners: Kazuhiro Sasaki
Only two pitchers have ever reached triple digits for saves as a member of the Seattle Mariners. The guy with the most is also the best in franchise history, Kazuhiro Sasaki. Sasaki narrowly beats out J.J. Putz for this honor with 129 games saved compared to 101. Sasaki’s two All-Star appearances and exclusiveness as the closer, whereas Putz also worked as a regular relief pitcher, helps earn him the title of best closer in Mariners’ history. Nothing all that fantastic, Sasaki was still an important part of the team.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jason Isringhausen
Even though Lee Smith was one of the best closers in St. Louis Cardinals’ history and in the history of the MLB, Jason Isringhausen was better exclusively with this team. Isringhausen had more saves, a better ERA+, and happened to spend more time in St. Louis to accomplish this. As great as Smith was, Isringhausen had better numbers than Smith did as a Cardinal. You also have to give Isringhausen credit for bouncing back from his failed attempt as a starter with the New York Mets to become a consistent closer for St. Louis.
Tampa Bay Rays: Fernando Rodney
The two seasons Fernando Rodney spent with the Tampa Bay Rays were awesome. They were also more than enough to award him the honor of calling himself the best closer in team history. Rodney saved 85 games during his two years in Tampa Bay with an incredible 1.91 ERA. In 2012, Rodney had one of the best years a closer could possibly put together. He saved 48 games and had a 0.60 ERA. In 74.2 innings, Rodney gave up only five earned runs all season long. This season alone probably won him the best closer title.
Texas Rangers: John Wetteland
John Wetteland turned heel on the New York Yankees when he went to the Texas Rangers for the 1997 season to make room for Mariano Rivera. Although never as great as Rivera, Wetteland was a very good closer and had enough success with the Rangers from 1997-2000. He saved a franchise high 150 games with a 2.95 ERA attached to it. He would unfortunately see the Yankees a ton in the postseason with his former team always coming out on top. This was not Wetteland’s fault as he was very stable for the Rangers during his tenure there.
Toronto Blue Jays: Tom Henke
Tom Henke doesn’t get the credit he deserves. From 1985-1992, he saved 217 games for the Toronto Blue Jays thus solidifying his spot as the best closer in franchise history. This total is more than 100 more than second place Duane Ward who saved 121 games. Henke was more than the guy who shut the door in Toronto whenever his team had the lead. He had other notable numbers like a 2.48 ERA and 644 strikeouts in 563 innings. Henke was better than lucky. Henke was really good.
Washington Nationals: Jeff Reardon
It’s only fair to include the Montreal Expos here as the Washington Nationals don’t have a long enough history of closers. This is where Jeff Reardon comes in with his 152 saves he had as a member of the Expos before their move to Washington. If you want to know exclusively who the best closer in Nationals’ history is, that honor probably belongs to Chad Cordero who is second in franchise history with 128 saves. Reardon had more opportunity though, earning him the designation.
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