The role of a closer sounds pretty easy on paper. For the most part, you are expected to pitch one, maybe two, innings in each game you’re in. In that limited workload, the job is to simply preserve the lead that was established by the starting pitcher, maybe a middle relief pitcher, and the bats on the lineup card.
However, there’s a lot of pressure to close out a game. Depending on the situation, those three outs could be extremely big. It could be the difference between finishing the 162-game marathon of a season in first place in a division or for a wild card spot. Or it could be in the playoffs with the World Series Championship at stake. Now add more pressure if that closer is on the visiting team and the thousands of fans are trying to distract and rattle the person on the mound.
Those three innings are certainly a difficult task. Only a few closing pitchers have dominated them on a consistent basis. When you consider what has happened in the final innings of some of the greatest games in Major League Baseball history, the accomplishments of closers like those of Mariano Rivera (652 saves in 19 seasons) are even more impressive.
While not every closing pitcher is being graded based on someone like Rivera, there’s still a certain standard that closers, like any player on any MLB roster, are held to. And just like every other position, there is a long list of duds in a position where the main statistic (the save) wasn’t recognized in record books until the 1969 season.
15 Dave Smith
Dave Smith had some success for a good amount of his 13-year career in MLB. After a few seasons, he had a 33-save season in 1986 with the Houston Astros. But over time, his numbers were declining despite getting two invitations to the National League All-Star team. Unfortunately, Dave Smith makes the list for having one of the worst seasons for any closing pitcher.
In 1991, Smith was now with the Chicago Cubs. He would pitch in a total of 35 games with 28 save attempts. While Smith converted 17 saves, he still had a WHIP of 1.758 and an ERA of 6.00. He also allowed more than one-and-a-half home runs for every nine innings he threw. The 1992 season was his final year in MLB where he blew all four of his save opportunities with the Cubs.
14 LaTroy Hawkins
Some credit has to be given to LaTroy Hawkins for being able to play in MLB for a total of 21 seasons. However, he had a lot of underwhelming seasons for someone that spent a good portion of his career as a closer. In 2001, he was the Twins closer who still had a respectable 28 saves. However, he had an ERA of 5.96 and a 1.909 WHIP. Hawkins was also giving up a home run every 18 innings.
Despite having seasons where he had a good number of saves, Hawkins' numbers show that his appearances were unpredictable and frustrating for baseball fans. He last played for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2015, recording the last of 127 saves in a 21-season career. His career ERA was 4.31 with a 1.406 WHIP.
13 Heath Bell
Heath Bell is another closer who is criticized for being extremely shaky after signing a big money contract. From 2009 to 2011 with the San Diego Padres, Bell had 132 saves with a 2.36 ERA. This included a league-leading 42-save season in 2009 and 47 saves in 2010. The three-time National League All-Star was able to capitalize to a big contract with the Miami Marlins.
In 2012, he had just 19 saves in 41 games finished with a 5.09 ERA in Miami. He would find himself in Arizona in 2013 and had just 15 saves with a 4.11 ERA. It was worse in 2014 with the Tampa Bay Rays. In his brief 13-game stint, he put up an ERA of 7.27 and a WHIP of 1.846; equaling more than 12 hits per nine innings.
12 Mike MacDougal
Kansas City Royal fans were the first to suffer through the frustrating closing career of Mike MacDougal. From 2001 until he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 2006, MacDougal had a total of 50 saves with an ERA just under 4.00. While the ERA isn’t the worst among the rest of the list, he still held a WHIP near 1.50 and gave up more than nine hits per nine innings. His first full season in Chicago saw an ERA of 6.80 through 54 appearances.
MacDougal saw some hope after a trade to the Washington Nationals in 2009, where he had an ERA of just 3.60 and 20 saves. But his numbers rose with an ERA of 7.23 in 2010 with St. Louis and 7.94 in 2012 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Overall in his 12-year career, MacDougal had only 71 saves in 209 games finished.
11 Fernando Rodney
Baseball writers and fans in Seattle would make a joke about the “Fernando Rodney Experience” being a roller coaster at the end of baseball games in 2014 and 2015. Despite having a league leading 48 saves in 2014, there were several games where he had to fight not to blow a game. That continued into the first half of 2015 when his ERA in Seattle jumped to 5.68 and he lost the closer role.
This has been a consistent problem with Rodney since he first debuted in MLB in 2002. He had a 37-save season with the Detroit Tigers in 2009, but then had poor numbers in 2010 and 2011 with the Los Angeles Angels. He was last with the Miami Marlins after they picked him up in a trade. After 17 saves and a 0.31 ERA in 28 games with San Diego in 2016, he was traded to Miami and had an ERA of 5.89 with eight saves in 39 games.
10 Ambiorix Burgos
While Ambiorix Burgos didn’t have a very long stint in MLB, there was a reason for that. His first two seasons with the Kansas City Royals were among the worst in team history. Despite having a 3.95 ERA in his first season in 2005, Burgos only had two saves in 17 games finished. It wasn’t until the 2006 season when his numbers jumped up to a 5.52 ERA in 68 games.
Burgos was giving up two home runs every nine innings as he converted only 18 saves out of 41 games finished. His numbers improved slightly in the 2007 season with the New York Mets with an ERA of 3.42 in 17 games. But he could collect a save and he was still allowing an average of about three or more walks for every nine innings.
9 Carlos Marmol
There were some good seasons for Carlos Marmol during his tenure with the Chicago Cubs. After being selected to the All-Star Game in 2008, Marmol would be moved to the closer role and had 38 saves in 2010 and 34 saves in 2011. But his production would begin to drop from there. He dropped to 20 saves in 2012 and by the time 2013 hit, he was an easy option to trade away. In his last season in Chicago in 2013, Marmol had an ERA of 5.86 with a WHIP of 1.699.
The statistics show that he was giving up two home runs per every nine innings. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers where he would fail to record a save in 21 games. His final season in the MLB was in 2014 with the Miami Marlins. Marmol had an ERA of 8.10 with no saves in eight games finished.
8 Billy Koch
Sometimes, a big payday contract can cause a pitcher to struggle. It was hard to blame the Chicago White Sox for offering Billy Koch a lot of money for the 2003 season. For his first three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, Koch had 100 saves and an ERA of 3.57. He would follow that up with a 44-save season in Oakland in 2002 – where he also had an 11-4 record.
But his first year in Chicago saw his ERA jump to 4.77 with only 11 saves in 45 games finished. Things didn’t get better in 2004 when he had only eight saves and an ERA of 5.40 in 24 games. Koch was last in the MLB in 2004 after being traded from Chicago to the Marlins. Despite a 3.51 ERA, he failed to record a save in 16 games finished.
7 Brandon Lyon
The early professional career of Brandon Lyon included a stint as a starter for the Toronto Blue Jays, but a 6.53 ERA through 10 starts led to him being waived. He bounced around the league as a relief pitcher for teams like Arizona, Detroit and Houston. There was hope that he would have turned things around in the 2010 season with the Astros – a 20-save season with an ERA of 3.12.
But 2011 saw him finish 13 games with only four saves. His ERA skyrocketed to 11.48 through the 15 total games he appeared in. His WHIP reached 2.400 with an average of giving up more than 18 hits every nine innings. Lyon would eventually find himself traded back to Toronto before a rough season with the New York Mets ended his MLB career. Through 12 seasons, he finished with a 4.16 ERA and a 1.318 WHIP.
6 Brad Lidge
Through 67 appearances for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 season, Brad Lidge was 0-8 with an ERA of 7.21. His WHIP was an atrocious 1.807 and he gave up nearly two home runs for every nine innings. Lidge was a black mark on an otherwise great season for the Phillies, who had 93 wins and advanced to the World Series that season.
Lidge would have a few seasons here and there where his ERA was under 2.00, but he was more often than not hit hard by opposing batters. His professional career came to an end after putting up an ugly 9.64 ERA in 2012 with the Washington Nationals. He finished an 11-year career with a final ERA of 3.54 with a WHIP of 1.291.
5 Danny Graves
While Danny Graves finished an 11-year MLB career with 182 saves, fans were not very confident in his curveball that often hanged over the plate for opposing hitters. Cincinnati Reds fans were the most frustrated after having Graves pitch nine seasons with the team from 1997 to 2005. More often than not, he was likely to blow a game than lock down a save. His ERA with the Reds between 4.00 to 5.00.
The 2005 season was his worse season with a 7.36 ERA in 20 games with the Reds. He would be traded to the New York Mets in that same season with an ERA that improved a little to 5.75. He also failed to get a save in 11 games finished. His last chance was with the Cleveland Indians in 2006, but he had an ERA of 5.79 in 13 games.
4 Mitch Williams
Mitch Williams is another mediocre closer who had a few good seasons, including an All-Star nomination in 1989 with the Chicago Cubs. However, there were more black marks than gold stars in his 11-year MLB career. In the 1990 season with Chicago, Williams' saves fell from 36 to just 16 and his ERA ballooned from 2.76 to 3.93. He had a minor comeback with 30 saves and a 12-5 record with the Philadelphia Phillies as a closer in 1991.
But then the numbers grew with the Phillies. He eventually found himself with the Houston Astros in 1994, where he failed to get a save in 18 games finished and an ERA of 7.65. It wasn’t much better with a 6.75 ERA in 20 games with the California Angels in 1995. Williams pitched himself out of the league with the Kansas City Royals in 1997 – a 10.80 ERA in seven games.
3 Kevin Gregg
Despite having a few seasons with more than 30 saves, Kevin Gregg is part of the group of frustrating closers with more blown opportunities than saves. Gregg was inconsistent through his entire 13-year career as he bounced around six different MLB teams. He had a rough patch with the Los Angeles Angels from 2003 to 2006 where he had one save in 125 total games. He showed some progress in two seasons with the Marlins – 61 saves with an ERA of 3.48.
But the more he played, the more big games he was unable to lock down. The bottom fell out late in his career where he was injured for most of 2014 – still turning in a 10.00 ERA in 12 appearances with the Miami Marlins. The 2015 season was worse with a 10.13 ERA in 11 games for the Cincinnati Reds. He was last signed by Seattle to a minor league contract that he opted out of a month later.
2 Esteban Yan
Unlike some of the closers who are mentioned in this list, Esteban Yan never really had a good season during his MLB career. Not even six seasons of developing in the minor leagues helped Yan. He was first signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1990 but didn’t appear in the MLB until 1996 with the Baltimore Orioles. Yan didn’t record a save until the 1998 season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
While there were some large numbers in seasons where the sample size was small (i.e. 15.83 in three games in 1997), Yan was consistently terrible with a career WHIP of 1.473 and 5.14 ERA. His worst season was in 2003 when he split time between the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals. Yan would play in a total of 54 games with an ERA of 6.35 and just one save in 23 games finished.
1 Shawn Chacon
Shawn Chacon was mostly a starting pitcher with some respectable numbers for a few seasons. He did have a brief stint with the New York Yankees where he went 7-3 with a 2.85 ERA. But that was after he was traded away from the Colorado Rockies. Chacon had a 22-29 record with a 5.10 ERA in his first three seasons as a starter in Colorado. This led to him being demoted to a reliever for the 2004 season.
Despite having 35 saves, Chacon was one of the more frustrating players on a 68-win team in 2004. Chacon had nine blown saves with an ERA of 7.11; his record was also 1-9. His overall numbers through eight seasons included a career ERA of 4.99. Chacon wasn’t good as a starter nor coming out of the bullpen.