Sure, it may not be the most physically demanding position, but the closer needs to have a trait that cannot be measured.
While the closer needs to be a talented pitcher, they must also be mentally strong. The closer needs to be able to stand on the mound with the game on the line and always deliver their best performance. Eight innings of baseball could be thrown out of the window if the closer isn’t up to the task, and seasons can hang in the balance if the closer doesn’t do his job when he is called out of the bullpen.
So who is the greatest player to ever step into this unique position?
The importance of the closer was brought to the forefront with the sad news of Mariano Rivera, who tore his ACL shagging fly balls before the New York Yankees’ Thursday night game. Rivera has been a dominant force for the Yankees since becoming the Yankees’ full time closer in 1997. The Sandman holds the record for most career saves with 608, a number that might be final.
What makes Rivera’s career so impressive was his dominance in the postseason. Part of five championship teams, Rivera’s career postseason ERA stands at a microscopic 0.70, which is over 32 playoff series. Rivera’s 42 postseason saves is also a record, and his numerous clutch performances were a big reason for the Yankees’ success in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Of course, the man that Rivera passed for the all-time saves record was long-time San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman was one of the most consistent closers in baseball history and was the first player to reach the 500- and 600-save milestones. Hoffman was also a strikeout machine, holding the record for most career strikeouts per nine innings for a reliever.
With 601 saves, Hoffman was a staple for the Padres bullpen and is still a beloved figure in San Diego. Unfortunately for Hoffman, the seven-time All-Star did not play on the loaded World Series teams that Rivera was able to enjoy, and retired without a ring.
Both men chased Lee Smith for the saves record, as the long time Cubs closer held the record from 1993 until Hoffman snapped it in 2006. Smith played for eight teams during his 18 year career and was selected to seven All-Star games. With a dominant fastball and an intimidating figure, Smith was one of the best closers of his time.
Long time Mets close John Franco is fourth on the all-time saves list, but does hold the mark for most saves by a left-handed pitcher. Playing until he was 44-years-old, Franco was an important part of the Mets during the ’90s, serving as the Mets team captain from ’01-’04.
Billy Wagner was one of the most consistent closers in baseball during the mid-2000s, recording 422 saves during his 16-year career. Another strikeout machine, Wagner was a force for the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies and Mets, and was one of the best National League closers last decade.
Dennis Eckersley managed to finish with the sixth most saves in MLB history, despite spending a good amount of his career as a starter. When he did transition to the closer role in 1987, he became a star for the Oakland A’s, helping the club win the World Series in 1989 and helping the Athletics reach two others. With a filthy slider, Eckersley pulled off an impressive feat in 1992, winning both the American League MVP and Cy Young award after recording a career-high 51 saves.
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