Closer (baseball)

Closer (baseball)

A right-handed Hispanic baseball pitcher, wearing a grey uniform with the lettering
Mariano Rivera, one of the most prominent closers, has the most career saves in baseball history.

In baseball, a closing pitcher, more frequently referred to as a closer (abbreviated CL), is a relief pitcher who specializes in getting the final outs in a close game when his team is leading. The role is often assigned to a team's best reliever. Before the 1990s, pitchers in similar roles were referred to as a fireman, short reliever, and stopper. A small number of closers have won the Cy Young Award. Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm are closers who have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.


A closer is generally a team's best reliever and designated to pitch the last few outs of games when their team is leading by a margin of three runs or fewer. Rarely does a closer enter with their team losing or in a tie game.[1] A closer's effectiveness has traditionally been measured by the save, an official Major League Baseball (MLB) statistic since 1969.[2][3] Over time, closers have become one-inning specialists typically brought in at the beginning of the ninth inning in save situations. The pressure of the last three outs of the game is often cited for the importance attributed to the ninth inning.[2][4]

Closers are often the highest paid relievers on their teams, making money on par with starting pitchers.[2][5] In the rare cases where a team does not have one primary pitcher dedicated to this role, the team is said to have a closer by committee.[6]


Bruce Sutter was the first pitcher to start the ninth inning in 20 percent of his career appearances.

New York Giants manager John McGraw in 1905 was one of the first to use a relief pitcher to save games. He pitched Claude Elliott in relief eight times in his ten appearances. Though saves were not an official statistic until 1969, Elliot was retroactively credited with six saves that season, a record at that time.[7][8] In 1977, Chicago Cubs manager Herman Franks used Bruce Sutter almost exclusively in the eighth or ninth innings in save situations.[6][9] While relievers such as Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage were already being used mostly in save situations, Franks's use of Sutter represented an incremental change.[9] Sutter was the first pitcher to start the ninth inning in 20 percent of his career appearances. Clay Carroll in 1972 was the first pitcher to make a third of his season's appearances in the beginning of the ninth inning, which would not be repeated until Fingers in 1982. John Franco in 1987 was the first to be used over 50 percent of the time in the beginning of the ninth in a season;[10] he had a then-record 24 one-inning saves.[11] Lee Smith in 1994 was the first to be used over 75 percent of the time in that situation.[10] Using the save leader from each team in the league, the average closer made his appearances in the beginning of the ninth inning 10 percent of the time in the 1970s to almost 23 of the time by 2004.[12]

Lee Smith in 1994 was the first pitcher to start the ninth inning in over 75 percent of his appearances.

Tony La Russa while with the Oakland A's is frequently named as the innovator of the position, making Dennis Eckersley the first player to be used almost exclusively in ninth inning situations.[1][13] La Russa explained that "[the Oakland A's would] be ahead a large number of games every week ... That's a lot of work for somebody throwing more than one inning ... Also, there was the added advantage of [Eckersley] not getting overexposed. We tried to get [him] to only face three or four batters an outing."[2] Baseball teams often copy one another, following a strategy based on one team's success.[14] In 1990, Bobby Thigpen set a record with 57 saves while breaking Franco's one-inning saves record with 41. Francisco Rodriguez set the current record with 54 one-inning saves in 2008.[11]

As late as 1989, a team's ace reliever was called a fireman,[15] coming to the rescue to "put out the fire", baseball terminology for stopping an offensive rally with runners on base.[2][16][17] They were occasionally referred to as short relievers, stoppers and closers. By the early 1990s, the top late-inning reliever was called a closer.[15] The firemen came in whenever leads were in jeopardy, usually with men on base, and regardless of the inning and often pitching two or three innings while finishing the game.[2][18][19] An example of this is that Goose Gossage had 17 games where he recorded at least 10 outs in his first season as a closer, including three games where he went seven innings. He pitched over 130 innings as a reliever in three different seasons.[18] For their careers, Sutter and Gossage had more saves of at least two innings than saves where they pitched one inning or less. Fingers was the only pitcher who pitched at least three innings in more than 10 percent of his saves.[20] The game evolved to where the best reliever was reserved for games where the team had a lead of three runs or less in the ninth inning.[12] Mariano Rivera, considered one of the greatest closers of his era,[21] earned only one save of seven-plus outs in his career, while Gossage logged 53.[22] "Don't tell me [Rivera's] the best relief pitcher of all-time until he can do the same job I did. He may be the best modern closer, but you have to compare apples to apples. Do what we did", said Gossage.[23]


By relegating Dennis Eckersley to mostly one-inning save situations, manager Tony La Russa (pictured) was instrumental in the development of the modern closer. writer Jim Caple wrote that closers' saves in the ninth "merely conclude what is usually a foregone conclusion."[18] Dave Smith of Retrosheet researched the seasons 1930–2003 and found that the winning percentage for teams who enter the ninth inning with a lead has remained virtually unchanged over the decades. One-run leads after eight innings have been won roughly 85 percent of the time, two-run leads 94 percent of the time, and three-run leads about 96 percent of the time.[18] Baseball Prospectus projects that teams could gain as much as four extra wins a year by focusing on bringing their ace reliever into the game earlier in more critical situations with runners on base instead of holding them out to accumulate easier ninth inning saves.[24] In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Tom Tango et al. wrote that there was more value to having the ace reliever enter in the eighth inning with a one- or a two-run lead instead of the ninth with a three-run lead.[25] "Managers feel the need to please their closers—and their closers' agents—by getting them cheap saves to pad their stats and their bank accounts", wrote Caple.[18] Tango et al. projected that using a great reliever over an average one to start the ninth with a three-run lead resulted in a two percent increase in wins, versus four percent for a two-run lead or six percent for a one-run lead.[26] Former Baltimore Orioles manager Johnny Oates once told Jerome Holtzman, the inventor of the save statistic, that he created the ninth-inning pitcher by inventing the save. Holtzman disagreed, saying it was baseball managers who were responsible for not bringing in their top reliever when the game was on the line, in the seventh or eighth inning, which had been the practice in the past.[27] He noted that managers' usage of closers can "abuse the pitching save ... to favor the closer."[28]

La Russa says it is important that relievers know their roles and the situations which they will be called into a game. He added, "Sure, games can get away from you in the seventh and eighth, but those last three outs in the ninth are the toughest. You want the guy who can handle that pressure. That, to me, is most important."[2] Oakland general manager Billy Beane said there would be too much media criticism if a pitcher other than the closer lost the game in the ninth."[18] Managerial moves are immediately questioned with millions of fans having access to ESPN, the MLB Network, and other cable channels.[29] Former manager Jim Fregosi said managers do not like to be second-guessed.[30] "Even if you know the odds, it's more comfortable being wrong when you go to the closer", said Beane. He noted the incremental increase gained by a closer in a three-run save situation "is worth it because losing is so painful in that situation."[18] Baseball announcer Chris Wheeler noted that there is pressure on managers to pitch closers in the ninth inning when they were paid big money to pitch in that role.[31] Former general manager Pat Gillick said closers become one-inning pitchers as managers began copying the practice of having setup pitchers enter before closers. "There are just too many specialists, guys who can only pitch one inning and only pitch certain innings and throw only 20 pitches. I think most pitchers are capable of pitching more", said Gillick.[32] La Russa noted that losing clubs risk their closer being under-worked with this strategy.[2]

Hall of Fame

Five relievers have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Hoyt Wilhelm was the first to be elected in 1985,[33] followed by Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage. Eckersley believes he was inducted because he was both a starter and a reliever. No other closer in the one-inning save era has been inducted.[34] "If I came up today as a closer and played 20 years, would I have made it [into the Hall of Fame]? These pitchers did the job they were supposed to do for 20 years. What else are they supposed to do?" said Eckersley.[35]

Major awards and honors won by closers

Major League Baseball

Award Closer Team Year
Hall of Fame Goose Gossage New York Yankees 2008
Bruce Sutter St. Louis Cardinals 2006
Dennis Eckersley Oakland Athletics 2004
Rollie Fingers Oakland Athletics 1992
Hoyt Wilhelm New York Giants 1985
Cy Young Éric Gagné Los Angeles Dodgers 2003 (NL)
Dennis Eckersley * Oakland Athletics 1992 (AL)
Mark Davis San Diego Padres 1989 (NL)
Steve Bedrosian Philadelphia Phillies 1987 (NL)
Willie Hernández * Detroit Tigers 1984 (AL)
Rollie Fingers * Milwaukee Brewers 1981 (AL)
Bruce Sutter Chicago Cubs 1979 (NL)
Sparky Lyle New York Yankees 1977 (AL)
Mike Marshall Los Angeles Dodgers 1974 (NL)
Award Closer Team Year
MVP Dennis Eckersley * Oakland Athletics 1992 (AL)
Willie Hernández * Detroit Tigers 1984 (AL)
Rollie Fingers * Milwaukee Brewers 1981 (AL)
Jim Konstanty Philadelphia Phillies 1950 (NL)
WS MVP Mariano Rivera New York Yankees 1999
John Wetteland New York Yankees 1996
Rollie Fingers Oakland Athletics 1974
Larry Sherry Los Angeles Dodgers 1959
ROY Craig Kimbrel Atlanta Braves 2011 (NL)
Neftalí Feliz Texas Rangers 2010 (AL)
Andrew Bailey Oakland Athletics 2009 (AL)
Huston Street Oakland Athletics 2005 (AL)
Kazuhiro Sasaki Seattle Mariners 2000 (AL)
Scott Williamson Cincinnati Reds 1999 (NL)
Gregg Olson Baltimore Orioles 1989 (AL)
Todd Worrell St. Louis Cardinals 1986 (NL)
Steve Howe Los Angeles Dodgers 1980 (NL)
Butch Metzger San Diego Padres 1976 (NL)
Joe Black Los Angeles Dodgers 1952 (NL)
LCS MVP Koji Uehara Boston Red Sox 2013 (AL)[36]
Mariano Rivera New York Yankees 2003 (AL)
Rob Dibble, Randy Myers Cincinnati Reds 1990 (NL)
Dennis Eckersley Oakland Athletics 1988 (AL)
ASG MVP Mariano Rivera New York Yankees 2013

* Won both the league Cy Young Award and league Most Valuable Player Award in the same year

Nippon Professional Baseball

Award Closer Team Year
Meikyukai Kazuhiro Sasaki Whales/BayStars 2000
Shingo Takatsu Swallows 2003
Hitoki Iwase Dragons 2010
MVP Kazuhiro Sasaki BayStars 1998 (Central)
Genji Kaku Dragons 1988 (Central)
Yutaka Enatsu Fighters 1981 (Pacific)
Yutaka Enatsu Carp 1979 (Central)


  1. ^ a b Zimniuch 2010, p.169
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Jenkins, Chris (September 25, 2006). "Where's the fire?".  
  3. ^ Jack Moore "On the Closer Position: The Save and RP Usage" Fangraphs, Dec. 30, 2009
  4. ^ Greg Couch "Last three outs require mental toughness on the part of a closer" Baseball Digest, August 2004;col1
  5. ^ Zimniuch, Fran (2010). Fireman: The Evolution of the Closer in Baseball. Chicago:  
  6. ^ a b  
  7. ^ Morris, Peter (2006). A Game of Inches: The Game on the Field.  
  8. ^ McNeil 2006, p.53
  9. ^ a b Marchman, Tim (January 11, 2006). "Mr. Sutter Goes To Cooperstown...".  
  10. ^ a b Baseball Prospectus 2007, p.59
  11. ^ a b Posnanski, Joe (September 14, 2011). "The Meaning of Mariano". Archived from the original on January 11, 2011. 
  12. ^ a b Baseball Prospectus 2007, p.60
  13. ^
  14. ^ Zimniuch 2010, p.143
  15. ^ a b McNeil, William (2006). The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball.  
  16. ^ Dickson 1999, p.194
  17. ^ Dickson 1999, p.396
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Caple, Jim (August 5, 2008). "The most overrated position in sports". Archived from the original on February 25, 2011. 
  19. ^ Zimniuch 2010, pp.xx,81
  20. ^ Schecter, Gabriel (January 18, 2006). "The Evolution of the Closer".  
  21. ^ Red, Christian (March 13, 2010). "Modern Yankee Heroes: From humble beginnings, Mariano Rivera becomes the greatest closer in MLB history".  
  22. ^  
  23. ^ Zimniuch 2010, p.97
  24. ^ Baseball Prospectus 2007, pp.72–73
  25. ^ Tango et al. 2007, p.221
  26. ^ Tango et al. 2007, pp.215-16
  27. ^  
  28. ^  
  29. ^ Zimniuch 2010, pp.72,156
  30. ^ Zimniuch 2010, pp.155–6
  31. ^ Zimniuch 2010, p.161
  32. ^ Zimniuch 2010, pp.166–8
  33. ^ Lueck, Thomas J. (August 25, 2002). "Hoyt Wilhelm, First Reliever in the Hall of Fame, Dies". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 17, 2013. 
  34. ^ Zimniuch 2010, p.227
  35. ^ Zimniuch 2010, p.229
  36. ^


  • Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts (2007). Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. New York: Basic Books.  

External links

  • Major League Baseball Career Saves Leaders
  • Major League Baseball Single Season Saves Leaders
  • Major League Baseball Active Saves Leaders

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