5 Greatest Relief Pitchers in MLB History

MLB’s 5 Best Ever Relief Pitchers

  • Lee Smith
  • Billy Wagner
  • Dennis Eckersley
  • Trevor Hoffman
  • Mariano Rivera

When we talk about the greatest relief pitchers in MLB history, we talk about game-saving heroes. Closers, as they are often called, are expected to finish out the last portions of the ballgame and prevent the opposing team from a last-minute win. It’s the end of the game, and tensions and emotions are on overdrive. Can this relief pitcher pull it off? These five greatest relief pitchers in MLB history certainly could.

1. Lee Smith

Widely hailed as the fifth best MLB relief pitcher of all time, Lee Smith was a major intimidator, standing at 6′ 6″ and weighing 265 pounds. Between 1993 and 2006, Smith led in career saves. His 478 saves also put him in 3rd place all-time for any MLB player. In total, this African American, right-handed pitching phenom put in 18 years of excellent play and served eight teams in that time. Smith has remained active in baseball after his official retirement through coaching in minor league baseball in the US as well as European baseball leagues overseas.

2. Billy Wagner

Popularly known as “Billy the Kid”, Billy Wagner certainly earned his accolades as an all-time great relief pitcher. Wagner scored 11.9 strikeouts per every nine innings pitched for a ratio of K/9. This is the all-time best MLB strikeout ratio for any player who has pitched 800 innings or more. Also, he has won various, other awards and accomplished seven MLB All-Star Game appearances. Wagner’s total save count stands at 422 with an accompanying 1,196 strikeouts. Wagner was naturally right-handed, but he played baseball left-handed since childhood when injuries forced him to practice to perfection with his left arm while resting his right.

3. Dennis Eckersley

Widely considered to be the third best relief pitcher of all time, Dennis Eckersley was a real hero to the game. “The Eck” was a devastating, right-handed closer, and in his time, he scored 2,401 strikeouts and 390 saves. The legendary John Smoltz is the only other player aside from Eckersley to score a 20-win, 50-save season. Eckersley is also widely known as a critical component of the powerhouse Oakland A’s that made it to three consecutive MLB World Series from 1988 to 1990.

4. Trevor Hoffman

Trevor Hoffman was a nightmare for batters to face in the late innings. His assured pitching style ushered in by the fan-rousing entry song “Hell’s Bells” always gave a good show. He ended his career in 2010 with an astounding 601 saves. His right-handed prowess also saved 40 or more games nine different times and led him to Hall of Fame entry in 2018. Since his retirement, Hoffman has remained active in baseball and currently is a senior advisor aboard the staff of the Padres.

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5. Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera is, hands-down, the ultimate and best closer to ever play the game of baseball. The Encyclopedia Britannica cites Rivera as also holding the lowest post-season earned run average despite the next best player pitching 100 fewer innings – a phenomenal feat. Additional numbers on Rivera wow with 652 saves, a total of 1,173 strikeouts, and a win-loss record of 82-60. Since his retirement from the only team of his career, the New York Yankees, Rivera has also remained a great achiever in the world of philanthropy in addition to serving on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.

The skill and showmanship of a good reliever can be one of the most memorable parts of a game. Without a great game-saver to wrap things up in the final innings, a team’s efforts for eight innings prior can be all for naught. These five past players rule the class and title of the greatest relief pitchers in MLB history.