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Top 10 Closers of the 1970s: Rollie or the Goose at Number One?

Publish Date: 07/09/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Best closers of the 1970s

The relief pitcher was not always a big-deal in Major League Baseball. That all changed by the time we got to the 1970s, which was the first decade where it was common to use relief pitchers.

10) Ron Reed

Throughout his 19-year Major League Baseball career, he alternated between being a starting pitcher during his first ten seasons and a relief pitcher during the last nine.

He predominantly pitched as a reliever during the second half of his career, beginning in 1976.

He was an unstoppable force as a relief pitcher from the start, boasting three of his most successful seasons (76-1978) as such.

Over his first three seasons as a relief pitcher, he combined to pitch 185 games, almost 10 starts and 360 innings. His impressive figures were his combined 2.49 ERA, 150 ERA+, 1.02 WHIP, 6.9 H/9 and 2.9 K/BB.

Video: Bake McBride & Ron Reed Toyota Join Phillies Wall of Fame

Bake McBride & Ron Reed Toyota Join Phillies Wall of Fame

9) Clay Carroll

He posted less than a 2.80 ERA during 11 of his 15 seasons, including each of his last five campaigns.

He was virtually impossible to score on during the 1972 season, leading the League with 37 saves.

Carroll was a career relief pitcher. He pitched every season but also had many spot starts throughout his career and ended up starting almost 30 games by the time he retired.

Help the Reds to win two World Championships.

Video: Clay Carroll to be honored in hometown of Clanton next week

Clay Carroll to be honored in hometown of Clanton next week

8) Darold Knowles 

He was a career relief pitcher, appearing in every season but one. With less than ten starts throughout his career, he earned the “relief pitcher” title.

What an incredible relief pitcher he was!

He had five to six pitches in his arsenal, such as a sinkerball, fastball and slider.

This stellar arsenal of pitches propelled him to a remarkable career and some outstanding seasons.

His best season was undoubtedly 1972 when he pitched almost 55 G of relief and over 65 IP. His 1.37 ERA, 210 ERA+ and 6.7 H/9 were impressive statistics that season.

His two best back-to-back seasons were 1969 and 1970. In those two years combined, he pitched nearly 125 G of relief and over 200 IP, compiling a 2.12 ERA, 40 saves, and an ERA+ of 166.

He had five or six outstanding seasons in his career during the decade.

He twice led his team to the postseason and later helped them capture the 1973 World Series championship. Throughout his career postseason career, he pitched almost 10 games with a 0.00 ERA, 6.8 H/9 and never allowed an earned run.

Had one of the greatest pickoff moves in baseball history.

Video: 8/11/1971 Athletics at Red Sox WHDH TV Boston broadcast 9th + 10th inn. Vida Blue Carl Yastrzemski

8/11/1971 Athletics at Red Sox WHDH TV Boston broadcast 9th + 10th inn. Vida Blue Carl Yastrzemski

7) Mike Marshall

His 1974 Cy Young award season was certainly impressive, but I believe his best season came two seasons prior, in 1972. That year he led the League with 65 G of relief and over 115 IP, posting a 1.78 ERA, 198 ERA+, 1.11 WHIP and 6.4 H/9. With these numbers at his disposal in 1974, it’s easy to understand why many consider that year his finest.

Those numbers are better than his Cy Young award season of 1974, except for G and IP.

Throughout his 14-year MLB career, he alternated between being a starting pitcher for one season and a relief pitcher for 13 consecutive campaigns.

He had an array of pitches, including a fastball, screwball and slider. Some historians still contend that Marshall possessed the greatest screwball in MLB history.

His impressive arsenal of pitches enabled him to lead the League in saves three times, compiling over 20 SV each time.

Video: 1974 WS Gm2: Marshall picks off Washington in ninth

1974 WS Gm2: Marshall picks off Washington in ninth

6) Gene Garber

Throughout his illustrious 19-season Major League Baseball career, he served primarily as a relief pitcher in each of his last 18 seasons.

He was a sidearm pitcher who spent most of his career with the Atlanta Braves, enjoying some exemplary seasons during that time.

His best season was undoubtedly 1978, which he split between the Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. Although he didn’t pitch as many seasons with Philadelphia as with the Braves, he had some outstanding seasons there, too and may have pitched some of his best ball there.

In 1978, he pitched 65 games of relief and nearly 120 IP. His record included a 2.15 ERA, 25 saves, an 183 ERA+, 0.92 WHIP, 6.5 H/9 strikeout rate, and 3.5 K/BB ratio.

Video: Rose's NL-record, 44-game hit streak ends

Rose’s NL-record, 44-game hit streak ends

5) John Hiller

His career 2.83 ERA remains the 18th-best ERA for a relief pitcher in Major League Baseball history, tied with Bruce Sutter. Hiller posted an ERA below 2.65 during nine of his 15 seasons, including five straight from 1972-1976. Before the 1971 season began, he suffered an unexpected heart attack that sidelined him for the entire year. Many never expected him to return and pitch another MLB game after such a setback; even those who believed he might return never imagined it would be the same man.

They were correct; he wasn’t the same, but far better. After returning during the 1972 season – his first season back after a heart attack – he went on to have what some historians consider to be one of baseball’s most incredible five consecutive season streaks for a relief pitcher.

Video: John Hiller from

John Hiller from “Echoes of Tiger Stadium” … Memories of the Detroit, Michigan Baseball Ballpark

4) Tug McGraw

His best back-to-back seasons were undoubtedly 1971 and 1972, when he pitched 105 games and almost 220 IP. With a 1.70 ERA, 199 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP, and 6.0 H/9 ratio in those two seasons combined.

By the time his career was complete, he had achieved numerous successes and six or seven seasons that genuinely stood out.

Amazingly, he guided his team to the playoffs seven out of 13 seasons from 1969 to 1981, including winning the 1980 World Series championship!

His combined postseason numbers include over 25 games of relief and 50 innings, a 2.24 ERA and 6.5 H/9, impressive career postseason numbers.

Video: WS1973 Gm5: Tug McGraw gets the final out

WS1973 Gm5: Tug McGraw gets the final out

3) Sparky Lyle

Unbelievably, he managed to post an ERA below 2.80 during nine of his first 11 seasons, including four straight from 1971-1974.

By the end of his career, he had amassed almost 240 SV and led the League in savestwice, each time surpassing 20 SV. Additionally, five out of eight seasons from 1970-1977 saw him record at least 20 SV each season.

He won the Cy Young award as a relief pitcher during the 1977 season, leading the League with 72 G of relief and nearly 140 IP. With a 2.17 ERA, 26 saves, and an ERA+ of 183, he had an impressive resume to go along with it.

His 1977 Cy Young award season was certainly one of his best seasons, but even better was three seasons prior, in 1974, when he pitched 65 games of relief and almost 115 IP. That season saw him record a 1.66 ERA, 215 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP and 7.3 H/9!

Video: 1977 ALCS Gm4: Lyle tosses 5 1/3 scoreless innings

1977 ALCS Gm4: Lyle tosses 5 1/3 scoreless innings

2) Goose Gossage

Gossage spent his tenure with the White Sox shifting between starting rotation and bullpen duties; in 1975 he earned his first of four consecutive All-Star selections (and 9x overall), posting a 9-8 record, league-high 26 saves, 1.84 ERA (212 ERA+), 1.19 WHIP, and 130 strikeouts in 141.2 innings pitched to finish sixth for AL Cy Young honoree. The following year, however, he started 29 games and struggled with a 9-17 record, 3.94 ERA (91 ERA+), 1.36 WHIP, and 135 strikeouts in 224.0 innings pitched – yet was once again named an All-Star. At the end of the year, Gossage was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates with Terry Forster for Silvio Martinez and Richie Zisk; returning to his familiar closer role, he was dominant once more, posting an 11-9 record and 26 saves with a 1.62 ERA (244 ERA+), 0.96 WHIP, and career-high 151 strikeouts in 133 innings pitched. After just one season back in Pittsburgh, he returned home as a free agent signing with New York Yankees.

Gossage quickly became one of baseball’s premier closers during his time with the Yankees – saving 20+ games nine times during a decade, including 18 saves in one year alone. His first year back in 1978 saw him earn another All-Star selection and win the Rolaids Relief Man Award while finishing fifth for AL Cy Young with a 10-11 record, 27 saves, 2.01 ERA (181 ERA+), 1.09 WHIP and 122 strikeouts in 134.1 innings pitched. Moreover, Gossage would post two more top-five Cy Young finishes with his beloved Yankees during back-to-back All-Star seasons during his prime:

Video: Goose Gossage - Baseball Hall of Fame Biographies

Goose Gossage – Baseball Hall of Fame Biographies

1) Rollie Fingers

His career total of 341 saves still ranks in the top 20 all-time in Major League Baseball history and was an MLB record at his retirement. During three of five seasons from 1977-1981, he led the League in SV with over 25 SV each time.

He recorded at least 20 saves in 10 of his 12 seasons from 1972-1984 and over 20 SV during each of the first four years of the 1980s, from 1980-1984.

His career 1.16 WHIP remains the 18th-best WHIP in MLB history for a relief pitcher. Throughout 10 of his 13 seasons from 1971-1984, including six consecutive years from 1971-1976, he posted less than a 1.18 WHIP.

That places Fingers among the top 20 all-time leaders in two critical statistical categories, save percentage and whIP.

Video: Rollie Fingers Athletics Career Highlights

Rollie Fingers Athletics Career Highlights

Honorable Mention

Rawly Eastwick

Will McCenany

Ron Perranoski

Willie Hernandez

Bruce Sutter

Bill Campbell

Pedro Borbon

 

 

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