Closers get all the love. They get all the glory. Coming in to finish out a tight game in the bottom of the ninth, all eyes on them, they’re the ones who make the headlines the next day.
But you gotta give credit to the hurlers who got them there to begin with.
That’s the relievers. The setup guys. The long men. In between the starting pitcher and the finisher is the man in the middle, for whom they bestow little recognition or accolade.
Some make All-Star Games. None have won a Cy Young Award.
And it is those pitchers that we’ll be discussing today—the best relievers in the game, not the best closers.
Technically, yes, closing pitchers are relief pitchers, but modern baseball has cast a clear delineation between the two. Nowadays calling a closer a reliever because they both pitch in relief is the same as calling a reliever a starter because they’re both pitchers.
They serve distinctly different roles.
*Even when a reliever serves as an opener, he is still largely acting in the role of a relief pitcher: Tossing one or two innings before surrendering the ball.
For the sake of this piece, to qualify as a reliever rather than a closer, no more than 10 percent of a pitcher’s appearances resulted in a save and 80 percent of his games, at least, had to be in relief. And a pitcher could not have been a team’s primary closer more than two or three seasons. To whittle it down further, I limited it to hurlers with over 500 appearances.
That leaves us with 42 guys.
Among the worst were John Grabow, Shawn Camp and Boone Logan. Grabow and Logan were lefties—ah, what a blessing it is to be sinistral in baseball. While more capable right-handed pitchers around you get cast off, you keep getting job after job after job …
Grabow made 506 appearances from 2003 to 2011, posting a 4.31 ERA and 99 ERA+, while averaging more than a hit allowed per inning and more than 4 walks per 9. Camp pitched from 2004 to 2014, appearing in 541 games and posting a 4.41 mark; he averaged only 6.1 K/9 IP and allowed nearly 100 more hits than innings pitched. Logan pitched in 635 games from 2006 to 2018, finishing with a 4.50 ERA. His saving grace was his strikeout ability—he averaged nearly 10 per 9 frames, and he did have some good seasons … but a bunch of clunkers, too. Respectively, their Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference, were 1.9, 2.0 and 2.3.
They don’t belong here.
But Jared Hughes, he was pretty good. The quirky hurler with all the goofy headshots spent ten seasons in the majors, until 2020, posting a 2.96 ERA and 138 ERA+ in 542 games. Between 2014 and 2018, pitching for Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, he had a 2.41 mark in 345 games—and just 9 saves.
Yeah, that’s the kind of guy I’m talking about.
So is submarining Chad Bradford, who during the high-flying 1990s and 2000s, made 561 appearances and posted a 3.26 ERA and 138 ERA+. In his second-to-last campaign, his numbers were 2.12 and 211, respectively. Total saves: 11. Ooh yeah, Chad, you were better than people give you credit for. If they credit you at all.
But let’s kick it up a notch. He of the funky motion, Pat Neshek, defied the odds and made two All-Star Games in a career that spanned from 2006 to 2019. After a rocky start in which he missed all of 2009 and had an ERA of 4.40 from 2008 to 2011, he cranked it into high gear and had a 2.64 ERA the rest of the way. In 544 career games, his mark was 2.82; he had just 12 saves.
Starters get credit for the win. Closers seal the win. These are the guys who keep the games winnable.
For 10 seasons, Jesse Crain, who spent most of his career with the Twins, was among the best at doing just that. He began his career with a 2.00 mark in 22 games in 2004 and ended it with a 0.74 ERA and an All-Star selection in 38 games in 2013; he was only getting better, too, improving his ERA each year from 2010 onward; his mark from 2011 to 2013 was 2.10 with a 205 ERA+ in 156 games. A bum shoulder ruined him. He had 4 total saves.
But those 4 saves aren’t even the fewest of the qualifying relief pitchers here. Rather, Ray King, a solid hurler from 1999 to 2008, converted only 2 in 593 games. He wasn’t bad—his career ERA+ was 126—but his services were more valuable as a left-handed specialist rather than a stopper.
We’re not talking solid here, however. We’re talking the best.
Tony Watson, currently of the Giants after beginning 2021 with the Angels, has had a fairly rough go of it this year, to the tune of a 3.77 ERA. That’s almost a full point higher than his career mark of 2.87. From 2013 to 2020, he posted a 2.65 ERA and 149 ERA+ for three teams; his performance earned him an All-Star selection in 2014 and some save opportunities in 2016 and 2017. But because he had no more than 15 in a season—and he has just 32 for his career—Watson earns a mention here.
And it is hard to deny, for the roles they were called upon to fill, they were among the best.
Without Nelson, the Yankees might not have won four World Series. Without Nelson, they might not have gone deep into the playoffs, at all.
The hurler spent 15 years in the majors, five-and-a-half in New York. He made 331 appearances with the Yanks in the regular season, but it is in the postseason where he shined. In 55 October games, he had a 2.65 ERA, averaging more than a strikeout per inning. In 13 of the series he pitched for New York, he didn’t allow a single run; in the Fall Classic, his career mark was 1.69.
Mariano Rivera made the papers. Nelson made the right pitches.
Smith, technically, is still going, but he missed all of 2020 and is having a poor 2021. No matter. From 2007 to 2019, the hurler appeared in 782 games. He was the consummate middle man, finishing only 161 of them and saving just 30. But he also had a 2.98 ERA and a 136 ERA+; he and Reed are the only two pitchers with 800 or more total appearances and ERA+s of greater than 130.
And Steve Reed, he tossed 833 games in his career—more than half with the Rockies!—with marks of 3.63 and 132, respectively. The former number seems a little elevated, but recall, he pitched in the thin Denver air during the 1990s and 2000s, when balls were flying all over the place. Reed owns the most WAR among anyone on this list at 17.8.
But he took more than 830 games to get there.
Making over 200 fewer appearances, current Yankees hurler Darren O’Day has just 0.4 less WAR at 17.4. Beginning his career in 2008, O’Day has been nothing but dominant. In his second campaign, he had a 1.84 ERA in 68 games between the Mets and Rangers, and from then until 2015, he posted a mark of 2.07 and a 206 ERA+, averaging more than a strikeout per inning and allowing just 286 hits in 400 1/3 frames. Home runs against him are a rarity, and so are walks, as he allows 0.9 and 2.5 per 9 innings, on average.
Since 2016, health issues have hampered him, but effectiveness issues have not—he’s averaged 11.3 K/9 IP over the past six years.
He is head and shoulders above anyone else on the list. Neshek had the second-best ERA and ERA+ at 2.82 and 146, respectively. O’Day’s are 2.53 and 171. In WHIP (1.023), K/BB ratio (3.77) and, heck, wild pitches (3), no pitcher bests him.
All that, and he has just 21 saves.
If ever relief pitchers—not closers, not relievers who spent a few years closing, but relievers who spent their whole careers in a non-closing role—begin to make the Hall of Fame, O’Day better be at the front of the line.
You think I’m joking? Dennis Eckersley became a reliever in 1987 and a closer in 1988; in 695 games between those two roles, he had 16.8 WAR. That’s 0.0242 WAR per appearance. Trevor Hoffman averaged 0.0271 WAR per game. Rollie Fingers, 0.0265.
O’Day has averaged 0.0283 WAR per appearance—that’s a rate more than 15 percent higher than Eckersley; it’s better than two other Hall of Fame closers.
Few truly great pure relief pitchers exist today, and they’ve been almost just as rare throughout baseball history. Chad Bradford was good and Jesse Crain, he was great.
But Darren O’Day, well, they don’t get better than him.