It's an art form that's only come into vogue in the past 40 years of baseball history: Relief pitching. Before the 1970s, relief pitchers (with the exception of at least one) just weren't good enough to start, guys who filled in when another pitcher failed. Strategy evolved later, and some of the greatest pitchers became specialists at getting those tough outs at the end of games. These are the best of the best, the top 10 relief pitchers in baseball history.
Most relief pitchers have dazzled with their fastball. A few others with their control. Rivera did it with both, and a cut fastball that was perhaps the best in baseball history, and unhittable at his peak. Rivera will likely be the all-time saves leader by early 2012, and he holds just about every other record for a closer as well. As of 2011, he'd won five World Series. His postseason stats are also incredible: 8-1, 0.71 ERA, 42 saves. He's already the gold standard for relief pitchers all-time.
Indians (1975-77), Red Sox (1978-84, 1998), Cubs (1984-86), A's (1987-95), Cardinals (1996-97)
He's sixth on the all-time list for saves, and likely would be in Rivera's statistical neighborhood if he hadn't been a journeyman starter for 12 years. When he became a reliever in 1987 with the Oakland A's - a stroke of genius/luck for manager Tony La Russa - Eckersley became the most dominant closer in the game. In 1988, he gave up Kirk Gibson's iconic World Series homer (which made it even more improbable). In 1990, "Eck" was so automatic, he had 48 saves and allowed just 45 batters to reach base. He finished with 390 saves, and was the first reliever to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
3. Hoyt Wilhelm
Giants (1952-56), Cardinals (1957), Indians (1958), Orioles (1958-62), White Sox (1963-67), Angels (1969), Braves (1969-71), Cubs (1970), Dodgers (1971-72)
Wilhelm is an oddity on this list in more ways than one. He was the first relief pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame, playing in an era when bullpens were used much differently. He also wasn't a hard thrower - a knuckleball specialist. He didn't break into the big leagues until he was 29 (going 15-3 for the 1952 Giants) and pitched primarily in relief for the next 21 seasons. He finished with a then-record 227 saves, a 2.52 ERA, a 1.125 WHIP and an ERA+ of 147. A five-time All-Star, he holds the record with 124 relief wins and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985.
Marlins (1993), Padres (1993-2008), Brewers (2009-10)
The all-time leader in saves at the time of his retirement, Hoffman was the first to have 600 saves, finishing with 601. He had 20 or more saves 15 times (Hoffman and Rivera are the only members of that club as of 2011), and 30 or more 14 times. He was a master at changing speeds, and stayed a little under the radar because he played almost his entire career in San Diego. His career WHIP was 1.058.
A's (1968-76), Padres (1977-80), Brewers (1981-85)
The best closer of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, he was one of the first career closers, just as they were just coming into fashion (even as his trademark handlebar mustache was going out of style). Closers in his era often worked more than one inning, and he had 114 wins to go with his 341 career saves. He won three World Series with the A's and is the only player on this list with an MVP award, winning it and the Cy Young in 1981, when he went 6-3 with a 1.04 ERA, an 0.872 WHIP and 28 saves. Fingers was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992.
White Sox (1972-76), Pirates (1977), Yankees (1978-83, 1989), Padres (1984-87), Cubs (1988), Giants (1989), Rangers (1991), A's (1992-93), Mariners (1994)
Perhaps no reliever was more feared than the hard-throwing Gossage, who threw one basic pitch - a fastball that touched 100 mph - and was at his fiercest with the Yankees from 1978 to 1983. A nine-time All-Star with 310 career saves, he recorded the final out to clinch a division, league or World Series title seven times. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008.
Royals (1979-88), Cardinals (1988-89), Giants (1990)
Too high on the list? Maybe, but few were better in their prime than Quisenberry. The submarining right-hander had 244 career saves, a 2.76 ERA and a 1.175 WHIP in his 12-year career. He rarely blew any batters away, but was a master at getting ground balls with a great sinker. He was the dominant closer in the AL in the early 1980s for some very good Royals teams. He was the first to save 40 games in a season in 1983. His ERA+ is 147, fifth all-time, and the only reliever better in that stat is Rivera. (He's tied with Wilhelm.) Quisenberry, who was a cruel one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot, died of brain cancer in 1998.
8. Billy Wagner
Astros (1995-2003), Phillies (2004-05), Mets (2006-09), Red Sox (2009), Braves (2010)
His career stats sneak up on you, just as his fastball did. In 16 seasons, he had 422 saves, an ERA of 2.31 and a startlingly good WHIP of 0.998. That's better than Rivera, Eckersley, Hoffman, all of them. He never led the league in saves, and never pitched in a World Series. He was a six-time All-Star, and had 10 years of 30 saves or more. Wagner and John Franco are perhaps the best left-handed relievers ever.
9. Bruce Sutter
Cubs (1976-80), Cardinals (1981-84), Braves (1985-88)
A great closer for 13 seasons, he's been considered one of the most suspect Hall of Famers ever. Perhaps that's a bit unfair, as he was a pioneer with the split-fingered fastball that was almost unhittable when he was in his prime. He finished with 300 saves, made six All-Star teams and was the 1979 NL Cy Young Award winner. He had two saves in the 1982 World Series for the winning Cardinals.
10. Lee Smith
Cubs (1980-87), Red Sox (1988-90), Cardinals (1990-93), Yankees (1993), Orioles (1994), Angels (1995-96), Reds (1996), Expos (1997)
The hard-throwing Smithwas never the best closer in the game at any point, as he was overshadowed by contemporaries such as Eckersley and Sutter. But Smith compiled more saves (478) than both in an 18-year career, and he led the NL in saves three times. But his teams never won a postseason series, and doesn't seem likely to make the Hall of Fame despite being the career leader in saves from 1993 to 2006 and still ranking third, all-time. His career ERA was 3.03.
The next 5: Jeff Reardon, John Franco, Joe Nathan, Tug McGraw, Jonathan Papelbon.