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The All-Time MLB Team, relief pitchers: nominations open

The final group, which looks to be heavily skewed to the modern era.

San Diego Padres Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Before we get into the final group, I want to say how much I’ve enjoyed this series. It began as a desperate attempt to give us something to talk about while the lockout basically brought all contemporary baseball discussion to a halt. But I’ve found it fascinating to delve into baseball history and learn a little more about some of the best ever to have played the game in the major leagues. I’ve particularly appreciated discovering the Negro League greats, but even for names I knew something about e.g. Babe Ruth, I still know a signifcant amount more than I did when we started three months or so ago. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to that!

There have always been relief pitchers. Just, in the early days of the game, not very many of them. Arguably, the earlier was Clark Griffith, who in 1905 became the first man to relieve more than twice as many games as he started, for the New York Highlanders (he was also their manager at the time). The following season, 15 of his 17 appearances were out of their bullpen, and that same year, Cecil Ferguson of the cross-town rival Giants became the first pitcher with 20 relief appearances in a season. But few teams of the time would have more than one or two bullpen arms, and it wasn’t until well after the end of the dead-ball era, in 1930, that the majority of games saw a reliever at all.

The save did not become an official baseball statistic until 1969, but it has been retrofitted to older box-scores. The first pitcher to record 10+ saves in a season was Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown, who notched 13 in 1911 for the Cubs - though he also started 27 games for them. Perhaps the original closer was Firpo Marberry of the Washington Nationals. From 1924-26, he saved 53 games, including 16 in 1925 when he didn’t make a single start, followed by a then-record 22 saves the following year. That would remain the high-water mark for more than two decades, until Joe Page racked up 27 for the 1949 Yankees. It would not be until the sixties before anyone would surpass him.

Figuring our an objective measure for ranking relief pitchers is also not easy. However, let’s still go with bWAR as the approved metric. There does appear to be a glitch on the tools for B-R.com when you sort relievers by career bWAR, but I worked around that by sorting by WAA (Wins Above Average) instead. The numbers are pretty similar, though WAA seems to benefit pitchers with shorter, high-success careers over those with longer, less successful ones. Here’s the full list, by WAA. That includes active relievers like Craig Kimbrel, who are not eligible here. The table below excludes him, sorts by bWAR instead, and is just the top ten. As ever, the names go over to their Baseball Reference page.

Best relievers ever

Player WAR From To ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP
Player WAR From To ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP
Mariano Rivera 56.3 1995 2013 2.21 1115 652 1283.2 998 340 315 71 286 1173 205 2.76 1.000
Hoyt Wilhelm 49.8 1952 1972 2.52 1070 228 2254.1 1757 773 632 150 778 1610 147 3.06 1.125
Rich Gossage 41.6 1972 1994 3.01 1002 310 1809.1 1497 670 605 119 732 1502 126 3.18 1.232
John Hiller 31.1 1965 1980 2.83 545 125 1242.0 1040 438 391 110 535 1036 134 3.39 1.268
Lee Smith 29.3 1980 1997 3.03 1022 478 1289.1 1133 475 434 89 486 1251 132 2.93 1.256
Lindy McDaniel 28.9 1955 1975 3.45 987 174 2139.1 2099 934 821 172 623 1361 110 3.19 1.272
Trevor Hoffman 28.1 1993 2010 2.87 1035 601 1089.1 846 378 347 100 307 1133 141 3.08 1.058
Billy Wagner 27.8 1995 2010 2.31 853 422 903.0 601 262 232 82 300 1196 187 2.73 .998
Stu Miller 27.3 1952 1968 3.24 704 153 1693.1 1522 697 610 140 600 1164 115 3.35 1.253
Joe Nathan 26.4 1999 2016 2.87 787 377 923.1 690 317 294 84 344 976 151 3.36 1.120

As you would expect, the modern era dominates, with none of the pitchers having appeared in the majors before 1952. Then again, using the ‘80% of games in relief’ rule, there were very few “relievers” in the early days of baseball. The first qualifier with even 50 career appearances was Lou North, who didn’t reach the majors until 1913. Again using the 80% rule, only one pitcher reached fifty career saves entirely in the pre-integration era: Joe Heying, who got 65 saves between 1930 and 1945. Again, saves didn’t officially exist at the time, so were a lot less common. As discussed above, only one player (Marberry) saved twenty games in a season through the end of World War II.

As with starters, we do see that previous generations or relievers tended to be less dominating, but throw more pitches. To illustrate this, Hoyt Wilhelm averaged 1.84 innings per relief outing, and his K-rate out of the pen was 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings. At the other end, Billy Wagner averaged 1.06 innings, but struck out 11.9/9 IP. Even Mariano Rivera, who had a reputation for getting more than three outs, averaged only 1.12 innings per career bullpen appearance: 21.8% of his games in relief were more than an inning. Though that number shot up to more than 60% when it came to the postseason, including three of four in the 2001 World Series, of course.

This will be an interesting category, since there’s no obvious definition that determines the “best” reliever. Saves are one measure, but are dependent on a number of other factors outside the pitcher’s control, so feel like using RBI to measure a hitter’s effectiveness. ERA is also dependent on things like inherited runners, I don’t feel there’s one particularly “correct” answer here, and consequently, the good news is, there’s no particularly “wrong” ones either! So, make your case in the comments and we’ll see where we end up!


Back to a single winner here, and I’m not splitting this into LH and RH (not least because we now have actual baseball to discuss!). So usual rules apply again, i.e. one nomination per comment. As normal this will be done largely on the basis of recs in the comments, though the decision of the judging committee i.e. me, will be final in this regard. Just identify the player in the subject line, and make your case in the body of the comment. If you agree with a choice already made, give it a rec. If you don’t see your choice, post a new comment. I will delete subsequent top-level comments about the same player. Poll to follow on Friday!