Who are the best MLB relief pitchers of all-time?


Incredible closers top this list.

Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees

Over the first 100 years of Major League Baseball, the usage of relief pitchers was not as prevalent as it is today. But since the 1960s, things have changed considerably for relievers. With pitch counts and the presence of analytics, relief pitchers have seen their roles change, yet their importance has grown.

However, let’s take a minute and talk about the greatest relievers of all-time. Here’s a look at our top five relievers in Major League Baseball history?

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5. Billy Wagner

We start our top five with arguably the best left-handed closer in Major League Baseball history: Billy Wagner. Wagner broke out in the late-1990s with a dominant Astros team and proved to be a shutdown reliever nearly as soon as he was called up to the Majors. The seven-time All-Star recorded at least 30 saves in nine different seasons, and struck out 1,196 relievers over 903 regular season innings.

Wagner, who recorded the sixth-most career saves (422) in his MLB career, is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame but could earn a spot in Cooperstown in the near future. 68.1% of BBWAA writers voted to elect Wagner into the Hall of Fame in 2023 in his eighth year on the ballot, just a shade under the 75% needed.

4. Francisco Rodriguez

If you’re wondering who owns the record for most saves in a single MLB season, look no further to Francisco Rodriguez. The man known as “K-Rod” first burst onto the scene in late 2002, when he played a pivotal role in October for the eventual World Series champion Anaheim Angels. Rodriguez quickly rose up the ranks to become one of the more devastating relievers in the game, thanks to a dominant changeup that proved to be unhittable for most of his career. Rodriguez has the fourth-most saves (437) in Major League history, as his 62 in 2008 is still a single-season record.

Rodriguez, much like Wagner, is on a small shortlist of relievers that could make into the Baseball Hall of Fame at some point in the near future. However, Rodriguez’s wait will likely be similar to the one his former Mets teammate has endured in recent years. In Rodriguez’s first year on the ballot, the right-hander’s name was on just 10.8% of ballots.

3. Lee Smith

Prior to the mid-2000s, Lee Smith‘s name would likely be the first one to be mentioned when talking about the greatest reliever of all-time. Smith proved to be quite dominant early on his Major League career with the Cubs. The right-hander recorded 180 saves over eight seasons with Chicago, in a career that would later see him shut down games with the Red Sox, Cardinals, Orioles, and Angels. Smith led MLB twice in saves and the savvy righty posted ten 30+ save seasons.

Smith finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young award vote twice, and his 478 career saves ranked as the most in MLB history until 2006. The seven-time All-Star was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.

2. Trevor Hoffman

There’s a reason why “Hell’s Bells” by AC/DC would play right before Trevor Hoffman came into a game. The former Padres star was a shutdown reliever in his heyday, in a career that saw the right-hander earn two Reliever of the Year awards and seven All-Star nominations. Hoffman recorded 14 30+ save seasons in his lengthy career and he broke Smith’s all-time saves record in 2006 with San Diego.

Over his 18-year career, Hoffman earned 601 career saves, thanks in large part to a changeup that’s regarded as one of the best out pitches in MLB history. The star reliever was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018.

1. Mariano Rivera

Among baseball fans, former Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera is widely-regarded as the greatest relief pitcher of all-time. The 13-time All-Star owns career-high records in games finished (952) and saves (652), thanks in large part to a nasty cutter that proved to be untouchable in his run with the Yanks. The five-time World Series champion also proved to be just as good in the playoffs. He owns a career ERA of .70 in postseason action, and notched 42 career MLB Playoffs saves.

In 2019, Rivera became the first player to be unanimously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Yankees closer’s name appeared on every single one of the 425 ballots submitted.

1 thought on “Who are the best MLB relief pitchers of all-time?

  1. I would say that Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher of all time. I say this because he was such a perfect pitcher!! Please feel free to come subscribe and take a look at my blog. I would really appreciate it if you could come subscribe and look at my blog. Here is the link to my blog… https://sophiakd4.wordpress.com.

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