Coming into a baseball game in the late innings for the sole purpose of ensuring a win takes a great deal of self-confidence, outright arrogance and in many cases, a nasty disposition. Some of the most feared pitchers in baseball have been closers. Many of these pitchers have never really been in games to work the edges of the plate and blistering fastballs have always tended to be their weapons of choice. Throw in some psychotic facial features and the ability to get hitters out to clean up another pitcher’s mess and it all adds up to make many of these pitchers downright intimidating.
Throughout the years, there have been some great relief pitchers who could be considered to be closers. Hoyt Wilhelm became one of the first closers in baseball to help pave the way for Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle and others to follow. Many of the first closers had to work two innings or sometimes more with some of their work leading to decisions or non-save situations. These pioneers had a little more time to actually pitch and work the counts compared to the positions that modern day closers are currently thrown into. From the 1980s on, the job of closing has evolved into an inning or less of work with the intention of striking out the side. This has led to the presence of some of baseball’s more intimidating figures on the mound and some wicked pitches for batters to swing at.
There are some better closers who are not on this list (Trevor Hoffman, Rich Aguilera, more), but these 10 closers had the look, the formidable presence and nasty pitches that could leave batters shaking in their cleats. The following 10 closers were more intimidating to face than they were necessarily statistically great. Some were fortunate enough to be a little of both.
Honorable Mention: John Rocker, Troy Percival, Eric Gagne, John Wetteland, Billy Wagner.
10. Bruce Sutter / 300 career saves
Bruce Sutter looked like a caveman who was looking for a batter to eat for dinner. He was not a huge man, but his thick beard and crazy head of hair made him look like he could throw at a batter’s knee caps if he ever tried to crowd the plate. Sutter used this presence and a better than average fastball to set up his split-finger fastball that he used as his out pitch.
This combination of appearance and ability to pitch worked well for Sutter as he finished his 12-year career with 300 saves and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. Sutter played for the Cubs, Cardinals and Braves during his career and led the National League in saves five times, while winning the NL Cy Young Award in 1979. Sutter struck out 861 batters with a 2.83 ERA in 661 appearances in his career.
9. Kent Tekulve / 184 career saves
Kent Tekulve looked innocent enough with his wire-framed spectacles and slender frame. He certainly didn’t have an intimidating presence or look like a relief pitcher who was coming into the game to instill fear in the hitters he was about to face. His look was more akin to a nutty professor or computer geek. Everything changed when he threw his first pitch. Tekulve had a very unorthodox submarine delivery that could scare the daylight out of batters, especially those standing on the right side of the plate. It was difficult to pick up his pitches and track their movement, which made facing him an intimidating experience.
Tekulve’s submarine delivery allowed him to pitch with less rest and set records for number of games pitched and innings pitched in a single season. He finished his career, having pitched in 1,050 games with 779 strikeouts, an ERA of 2.85, and a countless number of ground ball outs, pitching for the Pirates, Phillies and Reds.
8. Dennis Eckersley / 390 career saves
Dennis Eckersley is one of only two players in MLB history to have logged a 20-win season and 50-save season. He really elevated the role of a “closer” to what it has become today, an essential role on every MLB pitching staff. Eckersley had a whipping sidearm style of delivery that gave new meaning to the term, “lively arm.” This quirky sidearm delivery mixed with his mustache and flowing hair made him look a little like Charles Manson when he had to bear down on hitters from his elevated position on the mound.
“Eck” began his career as a starting pitcher his first 12 seasons and then earned his 390 career saves in the final 12 years of his career. Eckersley finished with a record of 197-171 and 3.50 ERA to go along with 2,401 strikeouts and only 738 walks mostly from early in his career when he was a starting pitcher. Despite his relative success at being a starter, Eckersley is best known for his work as a closer later in his career.
7. Rod Beck / 286 career saves
Rod Beck was nicknamed “shooter” and looked like he was a hunter staring at a deer. He was portly, with a mustache, beard and wild hair that made him look like he moonlighted as a bouncer at a biker bar. Beck smoke and drank, and was a throwback player who probably would have been good buddies with Babe Ruth. His appearance and intimidating stare did little to make batters comfortable in the box while they had to guess if a fastball or splitter awaited them when Beck finally did wind up.
Beck ended his career being selected a three-time All-Star and finishing with a 3.30 career ERA to go along with 644 strikeouts. He pitched for the Giants, Cubs, Red Sox and Padres, establishing his intimidating reputation more as a member of the Giants.
6. Randy Myers / 347 career saves
Randy Myers could bring the heat, despite his cold appearance on the mound. Myers was not tall, but was very muscular and fit with a glare that matched the fastball that he could throw by hitters even when they knew it was coming. Myers was part of the famous “nasty boys” bullpen of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1990s (Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble). The left-hander was as comfortable in military fatigues as he was in martial arts training sessions or reading a copy of Soldier of Fortune. He was not one to be taken lightly or messed with when he took the mound.
Myers racked up 884 strikeouts on his way to 347 saves and a 3.19 career ERA. He was a hired gun who played for 7 different teams during the course of his 14-year MLB career. Myers was a four-time All-Star who was a World Series Champion in 1990 and a NLCS MVP in that same season.
5. Mariano Rivera / 652 career saves
Any team that faced the prospects of having to deal with Mariano Rivera was left wondering about all the missed opportunities that were blown earlier in the game. Rivera was and continues to be a nice guy who has been recognized by the MLB and the New York Yankees for his devoted work with charities. What happened to make Rivera intimidating was his reputation for giving batters nothing to hit and getting them out, often following empty swings or incredulous looks at called third strikes. He was stoic and confindent on the mound and was unafraid to work the plate with his unbelievable stuff.
Rivera could flat-out pitch, with his mid-90s cut fastball and ability to locate all his pitches. He finished his career with 1,173 strikeouts versus only 286 walks in 1,283 innings pitched. Rivera was also selected as a 13-time All-Star, World Series MVP (1999), five-time World Series Champion and five-time Rolaids Relief Man of the Year throughout his career. He also posted a record of 82-60 with a low 2.21 ERA.
4. Lee Smith / 478 career saves
There were very few hitters who could ever measure up to Lee Smith and his 6’6″, 265 pound frame. Built like a defensive tackle in the NFL, Smith had a fastball that was clocked in the mid 90s that made him even more intimidating to face. Besides his hulking presence on the mound, Smith also had a menacing glare that made hitters worry about what he might be like if they were to ever get a hit off him. Smith had a very productive 18-year career spent with eight different teams in the majors.
Smith finished his career with 1,251 strikeouts and a 3.03 ERA in 1,022 games that he appeared in. He was a seven-time All-Star and Rolaids Relief Man of the Year three times (1991, 1992, 1994). As a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, Smith topped 43 or more saves in three consecutive seasons.
3. Tom Henke / 311 career saves
The “Terminator”, Tom Henke, was a large (6’5″, 225 pounds) and rather imposing figure on the mound to start with. He also wore these outdated wire-rimmed glasses, making him look a little like a surgeon when he stared down a hitter at the plate. Henke was all business when he came into the game and hitters who dared to catch up to his fastball would earn a forkball and strikeout for their troubles. When Henke finally got his opportunity to start closing games with the Toronto Blue Jays, he didn’t allow a run in his first 11 appearances.
Henke was very consistent throughout his career, finishing with 861 strikeouts and a 2.67 ERA. He pitched for the Rangers, Blue Jays and Cardinals and was selected as an All-Star twice, was a World Series Champion (1992) and the AL Saves Leader in 1987. In 1995, after being selected the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year, Henke surprised everyone by retiring after having one of the most productive seasons of his 14-year MLB career.
2. Rob Dibble / 89 career saves
Rob Dibble was the big 6’4″, 230 pound member of the Cincinnati Reds “nasty boys” from the early 1990s. Dibble had a well-known temper and a blistering fastball to match. He was an intimidating presence on the mound and used a high-leg kick windup that would add extra juice to each pitch, while acting to distract batters that much more. Dibble’s career was cut short by injury, but not before he left his mark of intimidation throughout the league. From locker room fights with his manager (Lou Piniella) to brawls that were started following one of his purposely errant pitches, Dibble was a formidable hurler with an unsavory reputation to match.
Dibble only played for only 7 seasons, but did manage to strike out 100 or more batters in four of them. Dibble finished his brief Reds career with 645 strikeouts and a 2.98 ERA, which would have been much lower without taking into account his last two years.
1. Goose Gossage / 310 career saves
The “Goose” was one of the first great intimidating relief pitchers of the modern era. Scruffy and less than refined on the mound, Gossage craned his neck to get a better look at the catcher’s signs giving him the appearance that he was also staring down the opposition at the plate. He looked mean and bothered, dispensing a fastball in the high 90s that could lead hitters to wobble at the knees. Gossage had it all from an intimidating appearance to blazing fastball that evoked fear in hitters that always had to wonder what might happen if the pitch was far off the inside part of the plate.
Gossage was even as good at pitching as he was at intimidating foes. In 1,002 appearances, he had a record of 124-107, an ERA of 3.01, 1,502 strikeouts and the 310 saves. Gossage pitched in a different era where he averaged almost two innings of work per outing. He had fewer save opportunities working during the 70s and 80s with six seasons of having 16 or more decisions. He was a nine-time All-Star. the 1978 AL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year and 1978 World Series Champion.