MLB

Top 10 Closers with the Most Saves in MLB History

Who has the most saves in MLB history? Are any active players among the top 10 all-time leaders?

June 5, 2024

Give them the ball, they end the game. No rally by opposing batters, no blowing the lead. That’s how it’s supposed to work, at least in theory.

They are the closers — the most trusted relief pitchers on the team, and the guys with some of the nastiest stuff in baseball. After all the work of the earlier innings is done, they’re the guys who are supposed to seal the victory.

In most situations, when a pitcher finishes off the victory, they are awarded a save, the most coveted statistic a relief pitcher can get.

The Evolution of the Save Statistic

What is a save and how do you earn it? The rule was adopted for the 1969 season and was amended in 1974 and ’75. According to MLB.com:

A save is awarded to the relief pitcher who finishes a game for the winning team, under certain circumstances. A pitcher cannot receive a save and a win in the same game.

A relief pitcher recording a save must preserve his team’s lead while doing one of the following:

  • Enter the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitch at least one inning.
  • Enter the game with the tying run in the on-deck circle, at the plate or on the bases.
  • Pitch at least three innings.

The Pitchers with the Most Saves Ever

In the more than five decades of the save statistic, some relievers have piled up a bunch of saves and have led their teams to division titles and playoff glory, including World Series championships. Check out the top 10 — these are regular season saves only.

1. Mariano Rivera (652)

The man with the nigh-impossible-to-hit cutter is the only player in baseball history to be unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame. He helped the New York Yankees win five World Series titles and has, by far, the best ERA+ ever (205). He converted 89.1 of his save opportunities and struck out 23 percent of all batters.

2. Trevor Hoffman (601)

The former Padre, Marlin and Brewer had a 88.8 percent save percentage and struck out nearly 26 percent of the batters he faced, in large part to a brutal changeup that had batters reeling. Hoffman averaged 44 saves per season from 1994-2009 and finished with a 2.87 ERA. He appeared in only one World Series in the San Diego Padres’ four-game defeat at the hands of the New York Yankees in 1998.

3. Lee Smith (478)

Smith closed for eight different teams during his 18-year career and saved at least 25 games in 13 straight years. He had a 1.65 ERA in his first full season with the Chicago Cubs and saved 47 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1991.

4. Francisco Rodriguez (437)

“K-Rod” led MLB in saves twice, including a 62 save season for the Los Angeles Angels in 2008, and closed out 194 games in a four-year stretch from 2005-2008. He struck out 28.5 percent of batters he faced during a career in which he pitched for five different teams and won one World Series.

5. Kenley Jansen (429, still active)

The 6-5, 265-pound right-hander is likely to pass up K-Rod and possibly even Smith on the saves list. He has had 40 or more saves four times and has struck out more than 36 percent of opposing batters.

6. Craig Kimbrel (426, still active)

The right-handed reliever with the unusual stance recorded 185 saves in his first four full seasons, leading the National League each year and leading MLB as a whole one year. He has bounced around a bit since helping the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series, pitching for five different teams while saving 122 games. Kimbrel has a chance to move up the rankings while playing for one of the best teams in baseball this season, the Orioles.

7. John Franco (424)

The southpaw leader in saves had a 21-year career, missing one season because of injury. A childhood Mets fan who later became a Met, Franco was consistent, saving 30 or more games eight times and leading the league in saves three times. He had a sub-2.00 ERA in three different seasons.

8. Billy Wagner (422)

The seven-time All-Star has the second-most saves of all left-handers in MLB history (two behind John Franco) and he struck out more than 33 percent of batters he faced with a fastball in the upper 90s and a changeup in the low 90s. Alas, Wagner fell a few votes short of reaching Cooperstown in 2024 and has one more year of eligibility.

9. Dennis Eckersley (390)

For the first 12 seasons of his career, “Eck” racked up a total of three saves. The 6-2 mustachioed right-hander initially was a starting pitcher for the Red Sox, Indians (now Guardians) and Cubs before converting to a closer. As a starter, Eckersley was very good, with a 165-140 record.

But after becoming a closer with the Oakland A’s, Eck saved 387 games in 12 seasons — most of those with Oakland. During the glory years of 1988-92, during which time the A’s reached three straight World Series and won one, Eckersley had 220 saves over five seasons.

Unfortunately for Eck, a save that got away might have been the cause of their 1988 World Series loss to the Dodgers — a pitch that Kirk Gibson launched into the night for a Game 1 victory. The Dodgers went on to win the Series in five games.

10. Joe Nathan (377)

Originally a starting pitcher, Nathan struck out more than a quarter of the batters he faced and saved 260 games in seven seasons with the Minnesota Twins. During that tenure, he had a 2.16 ERA and struck out an average of nearly 11 batters per nine innings. He was a six-time All-Star.

Conclusion

As in past decades, modern closers still bring the heater but also mix in a bit more versatility in their breaking balls and by using different speeds. The closer’s role has also evolved with the use of analytics. Stats like WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched), FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) help inform managers on when and how to deploy their closers.

In the past, closers were considered to be the team’s best relievers, and they were basically inserted in the eighth or ninth innings, maybe after a couple of innings from the middle relievers. In current baseball, a team’s best reliever might be used well before the ninth inning to squelch a rally and preserve a lead. So the idea of a traditional “closer” is changing.

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Alex Valdes
Alex Valdes is Web Content Manager at Tipico North America. He has written, edited and performed user and site analysis at MoneyTalksNews, NBC Sports, MSN, Bing, MSNBC, as well as newspapers and magazines.
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