Perhaps no other job in sports is as stressful as that of a closing pitcher in baseball. Often, the difference between being a hero and being a goat comes down to one swing of an opponent’s bat. Being a closing pitcher in baseball is like a kicker who is expected to kick a 45-yard game-winning field goal in dozens of games each season, or a boxer who is expected to deliver a knock-out punch in the last round of every boxing match.
Nonetheless, the history of baseball is full of men who have lived up to the challenge, and here in my humble opinion is a list of the best closing pitchers to ever play the game.
1. Dennis Eckersley. Although only being fifth in all-time saves, Eckersley belongs on this list because he was the very epitome of a closing pitcher. A Hall-of-Famer, the “Eck” piled up 390 career saves; no small feat considering that he was never labeled as a closing pitcher until he was traded to Oakland in 1987, a full eleven years into his pitching career. Had Eckersley been used a closer during his early years in Cleveland and Boston, there is no doubt he would be the all-time leader in saves. Eckersley was also a 6-time All-Star, another reason why he is number one on this list.
2. Rollie Fingers. Fingers revolutionized the position of relief pitching. In an era where starting pitchers rarely left the mound, Fingers managed to accumulate 341 career saves, placing him 10th on the all-time list. Another Hall-of-Famer, Fingers was a 7-time All-Star, and 3-time World Series Champion.
3. Bruce Sutter. Despite only playing eleven seasons, Sutter managed 300 career saves. This number is incredible when you consider the fact that he only pitched in 661 career games. Sutter was elected to the Hall-of-Fame in 2006, and was a 6-time All-Star.
4. Trevor Hoffman. He is baseball’s all-time leader in saves with 554, but Hoffman’s numbers reflect the modern era of pitching, where closing pitchers are no longer a specialty, but a necessity. Unlike Eckersley or Fingers, Hoffman played the majority of his games as a closing pitcher. Nonetheless, Hoffman is a 6-time All-Star and a future Hall-of-Famer.
5. Lee Smith. With 478 career saves, Smith ranks third on the all-time list. Despite being a 7-time All-Star, Lee Smith is not in the Hall-of-Fame, a fact that leaves many people scratching their heads. The only possible reason for Smith’s exclusion is the fact that he pitched in an era where closing pitchers were becoming common throughout baseball. If there is ever a place in Cooperstown for Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, or Mariano Rivera, there surely will be a place for Lee Smith.