The Top 100 Relievers of All Time

October 27, 2017
 2017-56

 

              The 100 Greatest Relievers of all time, presented with no commentary:

 

 

Names

Years

Best

 

Rank

First

Last

First

Last

Year

Points

1

Mariano

Rivera

1996

2013

2005

1801

2

Rollie

Fingers

1968

1985

1981

1111

3

Trevor

Hoffman

1993

2010

1998

1057

4

Goose

Gossage

1972

1994

1977

1039

5

Billy

Wagner

1995

2010

2010

1027

6

Joe

Nathan

2002

2016

2006

1000

7

Hoyt

Wilhelm

1952

1972

1964

981

8

Francisco

Rodriguez

2002

2017

2008

850

9

Lee

Smith

1980

1997

1991

805

10

Jonathan

Papelbon

2005

2016

2006

804

             

11

Dennis

Eckersley

1987

1998

1992

802

12

John

Franco

1984

2005

1988

784

13

Sparky

Lyle

1967

1982

1972

776

14

Craig

Kimbrel

2010

2017

2013

769

15

Robb

Nen

1993

2002

2000

745

16

Dan

Quisenberry

1979

1990

1983

727

17

Bruce

Sutter

1976

1988

1979

694

18

Mike

Marshall

1967

1981

1974

684

19

Doug

Jones

1982

2000

1997

675

20

Kent

Tekulve

1974

1989

1978

658

             

21

Tom

Henke

1982

1995

1989

652

22

John

Wetteland

1989

2000

1993

650

23

Lindy

McDaniel

1956

1975

1960

617

24

Kenley

Jansen

2010

2017

2017

595

25

Roy

Face

1953

1969

1959

581

26

Tug

McGraw

1965

1984

1972

570

27

Clay

Carroll

1964

1978

1972

561

28

Armando

Benitez

1994

2008

2004

544

29

Francisco

Cordero

1999

2012

2004

540

30

John

Hiller

1965

1980

1973

538

             

31

Ron

Perranoski

1961

1973

1963

538

32

Jeff

Reardon

1979

1994

1982

536

33

Roberto

Hernandez

1991

2007

1996

531

34

Stu

Miller

1954

1968

1965

530

35

Randy

Myers

1985

1998

1997

526

36

Huston

Street

2005

2017

2014

520

37

Aroldis

Chapman

2010

2017

2012

508

38

Keith

Foulke

1997

2008

2003

504

39

Eric

Gagne

2002

2008

2003

503

40

Jeff

Montgomery

1987

1999

1993

484

             

41

Todd

Worrell

1985

1997

1986

484

42

Willie

Hernandez

1977

1989

1984

464

43

Jose

Mesa

1994

2007

1995

463

44

Dick

Radatz

1962

1969

1964

455

45

Rick

Aguilera

1988

2000

1991

454

46

Rod

Beck

1991

2004

1993

445

47

Gene

Garber

1970

1988

1978

439

48

Mark

Melancon

2009

2017

2015

437

49

Gregg

Olson

1988

2001

1989

435

50

Jason

Isringhausen

1999

2012

2007

429

             

51

Dave

Righetti

1984

1994

1986

424

52

Ted

Abernathy

1955

1972

1967

423

53

Jesse

Orosco

1979

2003

1983

419

54

Mike

Henneman

1987

1996

1988

417

55

Steve

Bedrosian

1981

1995

1987

415

56

Bill

Campbell

1973

1987

1976

412

57

J.J.

Putz

2003

2014

2007

408

58

Troy

Percival

1995

2009

2002

404

59

Gary

Lavelle

1974

1987

1977

401

60

Zach

Britton

2014

2017

2016

398

             

61

Dave

Giusti

1962

1977

1973

395

62

Jose

Valverde

2003

2014

2011

393

63

Eddie

Fisher

1959

1972

1965

391

64

Brad

Lidge

2002

2012

2008

387

65

Firpo

Marberry

1923

1936

1926

386

66

Rafael

Soriano

2003

2015

2010

385

67

Joakim

Soria

2007

2017

2008

384

68

Jeff

Brantley

1988

2001

1996

384

69

Aurelio

Lopez

1974

1987

1979

373

70

Don

McMahon

1957

1974

1970

372

             

71

Greg

Holland

2010

2017

2014

370

72

Jeff

Shaw

1991

2001

1997

370

73

Jim

Brewer

1961

1976

1971

369

74

Heath

Bell

2004

2014

2010

359

75

Phil

Regan

1960

1972

1966

354

76

Pedro

Borbon

1969

1980

1973

342

77

Ellis

Kinder

1946

1957

1953

341

78

Jay

Howell

1980

1994

1985

339

79

Bob

Wickman

1994

2007

2001

339

80

Tim

Burke

1985

1992

1987

337

             

81

Dave

Smith

1980

1992

1985

335

82

Bob

Stanley

1977

1989

1978

334

83

Fernando

Rodney

2002

2017

2012

324

84

Ugueth

Urbina

1997

2005

1998

324

85

Bob

Locker

1965

1975

1967

321

86

Duane

Ward

1986

1995

1993

321

87

Mark

Davis

1985

1997

1989

316

88

Tom

Gordon

1988

2009

1998

316

89

Bryan

Harvey

1987

1995

1991

314

90

Todd

Jones

1993

2008

2005

312

             

91

Wade

Davis

2012

2017

2015

308

92

Frank

Linzy

1963

1974

1965

307

93

Jeff

Russell

1986

1996

1989

305

94

David

Robertson

2008

2017

2017

303

95

Clem

Labine

1950

1962

1955

301

96

Greg

Minton

1976

1990

1982

300

97

Steve

Farr

1985

1994

1990

300

98

Johnny

Murphy

1932

1947

1941

298

99

Al

McBean

1961

1970

1964

297

100

Danny

Graves

1996

2006

2000

295

 

 

              OK, minimal commentary.  

              1)  It’s a purely numbers-based ranking, with no subjective adjustments after the fact (although, of course, subjective judgment is always used, by all analysts, in determining what goes into the numbers. 

              2)  There are five "rules" for awarding points, four of which are derived in one manner or another from Season Scores; it’s really a system of looking at the Season Scores this way, and then looking at them that way, and then a third way, and then a fourth way. 

              3)  The only points that aren’t awarded in that way are bonuses for winning the Cy Young Award and the MVP.   Without the Cy Young/MVP points, Rollie Fingers would rank fifth, behind Hoffman, Gossage and Wagner.

              4)  I don’t intend to explain the points, because that’s a four-page explanation and I’m interested in the rankings, not the method; the points are really just displayed here to show how absurdly far ahead of everyone else Mariano is.  

              5)  I started the system with one idea of how I would rank players, but that didn’t really work, so I added a second element and adjusted the points and re-ranked them, added a third element, etc., etc.; it went through about 15 iterations before I was ready to go with it.   The only consistent thing was that Mariano was always absurdly far ahead of everybody else, no matter how I did the rankings.   And none of this even considers post-season play.  

              6)  There are no actual ties; there are un-displayed decimals which would make it all but impossible to have a tie. 

              7)  The guy who always gets screwed in these discussions is Joe Nathan; it was actually just in the last iteration of the system that he dropped to sixth.   Until then he was third or fourth.   People talk about Billy Wagner as a Hall of Fame candidate and K-Rod and Lee Smith and Franco and Quisenberry; Sutter and Wilhelm are actually in the Hall of Fame.   But Nathan had a LOT more impressive seasons than K-Rod did or most of those other pitchers, really more high-impact seasons as a reliever than almost anyone other than Rivera, but somehow he always gets left out of those discussions.

              8)  Active relievers (2017) who are on the list:  Francisco Rodriguez (8th), Craig Kimbrel (14th), Kenley Jansen (24th), Huston Street (36th), Aroldis Chapman (37th), Mark Melancon (48th), Zach Britton (60th), Joakim Soria (67th), Greg Holland (71st), Fernando Rodney (83rd), Wade Davis (91st), and David Robertson (94th).  

              9)  Number of pitchers on this list active by decade:  1920s, 1; 1930s, 2; 1940s, 2; 1950s, 9; 1960s, 23; 1970s, 32; 1980s, 43; 1990s, 46; 2000s, 39; this decade, 24.    Highest number is 46, in the 1990s. 

              10) Number of pitchers per decade by their best seasons:  1920s, 1; 1930s, none; 1940s, 1; 1950s, 3; 1960s, 11; 1970s, 17; 1980s, 18; 1990s, 18; 2000s, 17; this decade, 14.  

              11)  Pitchers who usually get overlooked in this discussion:  Joe Nathan, Doug Jones, Clay Carroll, Francisco Cordero, John Hiller, Jeff Montgomery, Gregg Olson, Mike Henneman, Gary Lavelle, Don McMahon, Bob Wickman, Todd Jones, Frank Linzy, Greg Minton, Al McBean, Danny Graves.   Pitchers who maybe get overrated in this discussion:  K-Rod, Sutter, Tekulve, Roy Face, Eric Gagne, Mark Davis, Bryan Harvey, Jim Konstanty (101), Al Hrabosky (103), Joe Page (108), Rob Dibble (148).  

              

 
 

COMMENTS (32 Comments, most recent shown first)

RMc
Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Doug Jones and Jose Valverde were all great relievers...except when they pitched for the Tigers.
6:25 PM Nov 18th
 
trn6229
My bad again, Tugger is at number 26. I missed those two when I scanned the list. Take Care, Tom Nahigian​
11:52 PM Oct 30th
 
trn6229
Whoops. Missed Sparky at number 13, but still no sign of Tug McGraw. He was good in 1969, great in 1971 and 1972, up and down in 1973 and had some good years with the Phillies and a great year in 1980. Take Care, Tom Nahigian
11:51 PM Oct 30th
 
trn6229
I am surprised that Sparky Lyle and Tug McGraw did not make the list. Take Care, Tom Nahigian
11:48 PM Oct 30th
 
BryanBM
86 players have 300+ IP in the 9th inning from 1913-2017. 72 of those players make the list. 27th Clay Carroll, 30th John Hiller, 39th Eric Gagne, 44th Dick Radatz and 48th Mark Melancon are the highest rated relievers without 300+ IP in the 9th. 3 of the 14 that don't make the list with 300+ IP in the 9th are for obvious reasons: Gaylord Perry, Robin Roberts and Warren Spahn

The other 11: Brian Fuentes, Kevin Gregg, Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Michael Jackson, Darold Knowles, Roger McDowell, Dan Plesac, Bobby Thigpen, Mike Timlin and Mitch Williams

The 28 without are 9 with 250-299.2 IP in the 9th: Heath Bell 279, Jim Brewer 270, Clay Carroll 289.2, Eric Gagne 268.1, John Hiller 290.2, Greg Holland 255.1, Frank Linzy 256, Mark Melancon 281 and Jeff Russell 281

15 with 200-249.2 IP in the 9th: Pedro Borbon 207.1, Tim Burke 227, Mark Davis 204.1, Steve Farr 236.1, Eddie Fisher 246, Bryan Harvey 240.1, Ellis Kinder 232.1, Clem Labine 217.1, Bob Locker 204.2, Aurelio Lopez 220, Johnny Murphy 221, Dick Radatz 239.2, Phil Regan 225.2, David Robertson 235.2 and Duane Ward 241.1

180 players have 200+ IP in the 9th with 109 (Eckersley) or fewer starts that they reach the 9th inning and 96 of them make the list. The other 4: Zach Britton 182 (1 start), Wade Davis 142.1 (3), Firpo Marberry 62 (27) and Al McBean 165 (28)

Information provided by baseball-reference.com Play Index.
2:40 PM Oct 30th
 
OldBackstop
Papelbon surprised me at being that highly rated but out of the game at 35.

It's like he became a choker.
1:19 PM Oct 30th
 
jwilt
#6 Joe Nathan
In relief: 761 innings of a 2.50, 377 saves, 0.7 HR/9, 10.4 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
High leverage situations: .592 OPS in 1509 PA
9th inning: 2.37 ERA, .592 OPS, 553 innings
Nine seasons with 50+ innings in relief and en ERA under 3.00

#7 Hoyt Wilhelm
In relief: 1872 innings of a 2.49, 228 saves, 0.6 HR/9, 6.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9
High leverage situations: .618 OPS in 3083 PA
9th inning: 2.54 ERA, .563 OPS, 528 innings
13 seasons with 50+ innings in relief and an ERA under 3.00

7:12 AM Oct 30th
 
MooseforCooperstown
Like FireballWenz, I'm a little confused as to why Rollie Fingers is so high on this list. Bill in the New Historical Abstract, said something like: "I fail to see what was so remarkable about Rollie Fingers' career."
8:50 PM Oct 29th
 
mikeclaw
I frequently find myself putting Billy Wagner's career next to Trevor Hoffman's and finding Wagner to be the better pitcher. Hoffman hung around, and Wagner retired while he was still unhittable. For that reason, Hoffman has more saves and more innings, but Wagner seems to me to be far more effective and amazingly consistent. If memory serves, except for one or two injury-shortened seasons, Wagner never had an ERA over 3.00, or even anywhere close to three.

Hoffman is ahead of him here, but only by a couple of points, so I would assume that reflects the longer career. If one of them was going to be my closer and I was going to have his full career as-is, I would take Wagner in an instant.
4:01 PM Oct 29th
 
KaiserD2
Dave Smith did a fine presentation last summer at SABR on why the theory behind closers is meaningless. He said some organization people have told him they know it but they have to use them anyway because everybody expects it.

DK
2:53 PM Oct 28th
 
jollydodger
The stupidity/stubbornness/laziness of managers giving their not-best reliever all the save opportunities is sort of a thing, isn't it?
11:29 AM Oct 28th
 
CharlesSaeger
What would the list look like without the criterion for awards?
10:52 AM Oct 28th
 
KaiserD2
I have no argument with the list. I didn't do anything similar in my book but I certainly found that Rivera was head and shoulders above any other reliever. I also found, ironically, that his best year in terms of value to the his team was 1996, before he was the closer. I do regret that Bill did give us at least a general opinion of the comparative value of great relievers and great starters. I did not find any reliever, including Rivera, whose value could remotely be compared to that of a legitimate Hall of Fame starter. What has happened regarding the Hall of Fame is that, having made saves a recognized stat, we assume that the men who have the most saves deserve to be in the Hall. But as a group I have no doubt that relievers, within the Hall, did relatively little to help their teams win games.


9:06 AM Oct 28th
 
nettles9
I wish Bill called it the Best Fireman list of the Best Stopper list. Seems to me Best Reliever list is the most appropriate name.
8:50 AM Oct 28th
 
hotstatrat
BryanBM vs. BJames - or Reed, O'Day & Eichhorn vs. Wickman, McBean, & Graves -

What about O'Day vs. Graves. ERA+ normalizes the ERA to park and league/season context - with 100 being average and 150 being 50% better than league average. In his first 535 innings Darren O'Day has a 170 ERA+ (2.52 in just plain old fashioned ERA). Graves had a 133 ERA+ (3.42) in his first 518 innings, then after a bad year had only one more good year of 68 innings and a 108 ERA+ (3.95). Graves' only plus is his 170 Saves during his good years. O'Day has only 19. I'm not taking sides, but it is fair to say Bryan's original point (not put as nicely as I'm going to) seems to hold up - that Bill factors in Saves more heavily than Bryan would appear to.
8:16 AM Oct 28th
 
hotstatrat
BobGill: Making a rough estimate, Firpo Marberry reach no. 1 in the mid to late 1920s and held that spot until Roy Face and Hoyt Wilhelm passed him sometime likely in the early 1960s with a cluster of relievers coming right behind.

Mariano has 62% more points than no. 2 guy Rollie Fingers and 70% more than his N.L. rival Trevor Hoffman. I wonder who had 2nd and third most reliever points after Marberry's final year and if they were as close.
10:00 PM Oct 27th
 
BobGill
I've always thought Fred Marberry was a really interesting figure from the past. Just out of curiosity, how long did he hold the top spot? It looks like it must've been 20 years, at least.

9:06 PM Oct 27th
 
BryanBM
For baseball-reference.com pitching WAR go to any player page and hover your cursor over WAAadj for the full explanation. Pretty sure gmLI is the same as aLI, Average Leverage Index. Bruce Sutter has the highest career aLI at 1.971 among pitchers with at least 500 IP, 52 pitchers have at least 1.5.

Relief pitchers WAA is multiplied by (1+gmLI)/2, the entire league gets a small negative WAAadj to get the sum of the league WAA+WAAadj back to 0.

WAR = WAA + WAAadj + Replacement Value

Rivera's entire career is 10.2 WAAadj and is most likely one of the highest career WAAadj.
7:41 PM Oct 27th
 
jimmybart
Question for those who follow sabermetric developments more than myself: have adjustments been made recently to attribute more value to relievers/closers? There seemed to be a disconnect between the computed valuations vs. how the teams actually valued these players, especially the one-inning relievers.​
7:09 PM Oct 27th
 
BryanBM
What are the chances that Craig Kimbrel from this point forward has Billy Wagner's entire career? He's currently given Wagner a ~4 year head start, Wagner has 0.1 IP at 23, 6.18 ERA at 28 and because of a July birthday for Wagner and May for Kimbrel they are closer in Age if you consider Wagner before his Age 29 season.

Kimbrel needs something like: 875 IP, 2.19 ERA, 1168 K, 12.0 K/9, 282 BB, 2.9 BB/9, 416 Saves in 476 Opportunities or 87.4% in 14 more seasons which are Wagner's stats once you eliminate 1995 and 2000. 62 IP, 83 K, 20 BB and 30 saves in 34 opportunities. Kimbrel's average season 2011-17 is 64 IP, 1.86 ERA, 105 K, 23 BB, 41 saves in 45 opportunities.

Depending on how the points scale a season of 70 IP, 0.50 ERA, 110 K, 15 BB, 44 saves in 45 opportunities and a season of 58 IP, 3.10 ERA, 100 K, 31 BB and 38 saves in 45 opportunities could be worth a lot more than 2 average seasons but the baseline for Kimbrel to reach Mariano is Wagner's entire career.

I have no problem with the list, but if Bill had made a list of best 100 pitchers and didn't include Mariano I would have suggested it would be more accurate to call it the best 100 starting pitchers since Bill would most likely exclude the 19th century and 100th might be Frank Tanana or Steve Rogers and there are an assortment of metrics which suggest Mariano was a better pitcher. Or simply "only players with 2000+ career IP are considered" or "only players with 100+ saves are considered".

The vast majority of the best pitchers start. The vast majority of the best relievers close. Making parameters and/or metrics which cater to starting or closing makes a lot of sense. If you do that though I disagree with an article title which implies Mariano isn't one of the best 100 pitchers.
4:36 PM Oct 27th
 
Fireball Wenz
Interesting how well Fingers does, as I believe that elsewhere Bill made the case that he was overrated and not comparable to Gossage.
4:21 PM Oct 27th
 
Brian
The era of Tigers baseball that began with a near-miss for the playoffs in 2009 and ended with a near-miss for the playoffs in 2016 is generally considered a very good era in team history, but one that came up short mostly due to their bullpen. In 2006, the bullpen was the strength of the AL Champion team. Prior to that, the team had a horrendous history dating back to 1989. I think it would be fair to say the bullpen was just as bad as the rest of the team. The 1987 division champs were clearly weakest in the pen.

Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Willie Hernandez, Mike Henneman, Jose Valverde, Joakim Soria, Fernando Rodney, Ugueth Urbina, Todd Jones - 9 of the top 100 - all played significant roles at one time or another on those teams. I can't imagine that Benoit, who didn't make the top 100, is too far down the list.

Seems like a high number of top 100 pitchers to be on a unit that can be fairly described as a weakness over a 30 year period. When you look at it, other than Henneman and Rodney, none of these pitchers started with Detroit. In fact, most were pitchers who were acquired later in their career. While they often got 1 and sometimes 2 good years out of these guys, the acquire an old closer strategy was a doomed long term plan.


4:18 PM Oct 27th
 
tangotiger
I took Bill's list and converted it into a WAR-like number, just so we can compare to what Fangraphs WAR has. Here is the top 25:

diff BJ FG Reliever
2 41 39 Mariano Rivera
-1 25 26 Rollie Fingers
-2 24 26 Trevor Hoffman
-5 24 29 Goose Gossage
0 24 24 Billy Wagner

4 23 19 Joe Nathan
3 23 19 Hoyt Wilhelm
3 20 17 Francisco Rodriguez
-7 19 26 Lee Smith
0 19 19 Jonathan Papelbon

-2 19 20 Dennis Eckersley
2 18 16 John Franco
3 18 15 Sparky Lyle
0 18 18 Craig Kimbrel
-1 17 18 Robb Nen

2 17 15 Dan Quisenberry
-3 16 19 Bruce Sutter
2 16 14 Mike Marshall
-6 16 22 Doug Jones
1 15 15 Kent Tekulve

-5 15 21 Tom Henke
0 15 15 John Wetteland
-5 14 19 Lindy McDaniel
-3 14 17 Kenley Jansen
4 14 9 Roy Face


3:54 PM Oct 27th
 
jollydodger
Helluva'n undertaking.
3:51 PM Oct 27th
 
sansho1
I'm reminded of this deathless quote: "If I didn’t do it the way that you would have done it, that is because I did it and you didn’t."

Yeah sure, he just said it a couple days ago, but I'm predicting deathlessness.
3:37 PM Oct 27th
 
evanecurb
Just as he did while active, Doug Jones continues to surprise us. (number 19 on this list). I never understood how he got everyone out. But he did.
3:32 PM Oct 27th
 
tigerlily
Yes, Mariano is miles ahead of the other relievers based on this method. I wonder, however, what sort of odds would you give to Kimbrel in catching Rivera. Rivera had 18 years as a reliever in which he earned those 1801 points - so 100 points per year. Kimbrel has relieved for 8 years and has 769 points - 96 points per season. If,and it's a big if, he can maintain that pace for another 10 years, he'd be within spitting of distance of Mariano by then. And since Kimbrel (who just finished his age 29 season) began his career as a reliever 3-4 years younger than Mariano, he'd be 39 (Mariano played through age 43). I doubt he'll get there but he does have a real chance.
2:37 PM Oct 27th
 
BryanBM
Edit: are not similar caliber
2:37 PM Oct 27th
 
BryanBM
Bob Wickman 807 games and 895 IP in relief, Steve Reed 833 games and 870.2 IP in relief. Eckersley's ranking strongly suggests you're only considering relief appearances. Wickman does have the 3.37 to 3.63 ERA in relief lead you mentioned, I'm not seeing how that indicates a gap of 79th and not a credible candidate for the Top 100.

Weirdly I do consider effective relief pitching to be getting batters out in games you didn't start. There are even various studies which suggest your best reliever should enter the game in the highest leverage situation and/or to face the heart of the order regardless of the inning.

I was disappointed that yet another list of "relievers" didn't include Eichhorn one of my favorite players because his un-orthodox delivery amused me as a child. I considered that he might have been somewhere in the low 100s so spot checked two additional names and identified that it was extremely likely that Saves factored into the list.

Thank you for confirming that Saves are indeed a criteria, changing the title of the article would make it more accurate even if you feel it's redundant as you feel and your rankings reflect that Wickman and Reed are similar caliber relievers.
2:33 PM Oct 27th
 
bjames
Violating my own rule against arguing with readers.. . there is no way in hell that Steve Reed can be considered one of the 100 top relievers of all time. You can't IGNORE saves in evaluating a reliever, just as you can't ignore strikeouts, walks, ERA, innings, or game appearances. Comparing Steve Reed to Bob Wickman, Wickman has more games, 20% more innings, and a better ERA--and he ranks 79th on the list. The fact that Wickman has a 267 to 18 advantage in Saves is not THE reason for that; it is merely the last straw.
1:56 PM Oct 27th
 
wovenstrap
On what basis are you calling Tekulve overrated? If he's the 20th-greatest reliever of all time (higher than I would have estimated), he ought to be mentioned a lot more often than he is! I suppose there's a serious timeline bias there, because I guess people don't mention Quiz or Sutter that much either. But at least those guys I'd have pegged for possibly top ten; not Tekulve.
1:53 PM Oct 27th
 
BryanBM
100 best closers not relievers. You have Saves or something else factored in that excludes Steve Reed, Darren O'Day and Mark Eichhorn most notably.
1:35 PM Oct 27th
 
 
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