Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in baseball history. This statement is more or less accepted as fact, right? But should it be universally accepted that Rivera is the best closer of all time? Another New York Yankees legend, Rich “Goose” Gossage, has stirred up quite a bit of controversy in criticizing Rivera and modern-day closers in general while implying that he may actually be the greatest closer in baseball history.
If nothing else, Gossage deserves a great deal of credit for being one of the trailblazers of the modern-day closer. He played a major role in changing the role that relief pitchers have in the game and the impact they’re capable of making. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was one of the first so-called “firemen” who would enter the game in a sticky situation with runners on base and be responsible for getting out of the inning with the lead intact.
Gossage became the model for many of the great relievers who followed. He grew crazy facial hair, took the mound with a menacing scowl used to intimidate hitters, and most importantly, he threw the ball hard. Much like Rivera, Gossage had one pitch that he used almost exclusively. Gossage regularly threw his fastball in the upper 90s and triple digits. For the most part, it was the only pitch he needed to become a dominant reliever.
“He’s all arms and legs and he’s not looking at you. That doesn’t make you feel good when he’s throwing 100 miles an hour. I don’t mind a guy throwing 100 miles an hour if he’s looking at you. I’ll tell you it’s a lot better playing behind him.”
When Gossage joined the Yankees in 1978, he soon paired with teammate Ron Davis in becoming one of the first late-inning relief duos akin to the setup men and closers in today’s game. Together, Davis and Gossage would often combine for the final three innings of a game, sometimes longer. At one point, the Yankees won 77 of 79 games when leading after six innings, in large part because of Davis and Gossage being able to close out games.
Of course, the difference between Gossage and the closers of today is that Gossage was often tasked with getting more than three outs. Today’s closers may do that a few times a year, but if it happens too often, the perception is that they’re being overworked. For Gossage, pitching two or three innings at a time or entering midway through an inning with runners on base was just another day at the office.
Gossage finished his career with more saves in which he was asked to pitch at least two innings than saves in which he had to record three or fewer outs. On 53 occasions, Gossage recorded seven or more outs to save a game. Rivera did that just once in his distinguished career. There were four times during his career that Gossage threw over 100 innings in a season working solely as a reliever. Rivera did so just once, doing so in his second big league season.
“Don’t tell me Mariano’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”
It’s the belief of Gossage that his extensive workload and the degree of difficulty of many of his saves are factors that make him the greatest closer in baseball history. In fairness, it’s not the craziest theory.
Pitching for 22 seasons, recording 310 career saves and over 1,500 strikeouts, and making nine All-Star teams doesn’t hurt either. Whether it’s enough to say he’s the best closer of all-time is another matter, but it should be enough to spark a debate and at least challenge the assumption that Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time.