Legendary Firemen: The Most Saves in a Season, Postseason and Career in MLB History
Baseball

Legendary Firemen: The Most Saves in a Season, Postseason and Career in MLB History

Jerome Holtzman couldn’t have had any idea what he started when he invented the save.

Although people were unofficially crediting relievers with saves prior to Holtzman publicizing it, he was the one who came up with the formula for giving a reliever a save.

Almost a decade later in 1969, the MLB adopted the save as an official stat. Like RBIs offensively, the save isn’t the best stat for evaluating relievers. But if a pitcher racks up a lot of saves in a season or career, he’s likely been elite.

Here are the all-time leaders in saves for careers, single seasons and postseasons.

Most Saves in a Season (All Time)

1. Francisco Rodriguez, Los Angeles Angels (62 in 2008)

“K-Rod” is the only player in history with 60 saves in a season. He’s also an illustration of how much manager usage comes into play with saves.

Rodriguez had 69 save opportunities – the most all time. Mike Scioscia almost refused to use Rodriguez unless it was a save opportunity as he only had seven appearances in non-save situations all season.

And when he was called upon, Rodriguez was very good. The right-hander had a 2.24 ERA on the season, finishing third in AL Cy Young voting and sixth in AL MVP voting.

Unfortunately, that success didn’t carry into the postseason, when Rodriguez took a loss in his first appearance that year. He gave up two runs in 1.1 innings pitched in a Game 2 ALDS loss to the Boston Red Sox.

most save chances in a season

T2. Edwin Diaz, Seattle Mariners (57 in 2018)

Diaz didn’t come from nowhere in 2018. After all, he did have 34 saves in 2017. But he did go from solid reliever to the best one in baseball, dropping his ERA from 3.27 to 1.96.

He blew only four saves that season, and he struck out 124 batters while walking only 17. Following the dominant season, Diaz was traded to the New York Mets in a blockbuster trade along with Robinson Canó in exchange for a package that included prospect Jarred Kelenic.

T2. Bobby Thigpen, Chicago White Sox (57 in 1990)

Thigpen held the saves record down for 28 years before Rodriguez broke it in 2008. His trajectory was similar to that of Diaz, going from a solid reliever (3.76 ERA, 34 saves) in 1989 to a dominant one (1.83 ERA, 57 saves) in 1990.

Thigpen’s White Sox won 94 games that season, which was good for third in the entire league. Unfortunately, they finished second in the AL West behind the Oakland Athletics in a time when only division champions advanced to the postseason.

T4.  Eric Gagne, Los Angeles Dodgers (55 in 2003)

He might not have the saves record, but Gagne has a good argument for the best season by a single-inning reliever for his work in 2003.

Gagne led the league in saves and didn’t blow a single opportunity. Combined with his stats in 2002 and 2004, Gagne saved 84 consecutive games without a blown save, which is the all-time record.

His ERA was a minuscule 1.20, and his FIP of 0.81 is the best for a season (minimum 50 innings pitched). There’s a reason he was the last reliever to win a Cy Young.

best FIP of all time

T4. John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves (55 in 2002)

Smoltz set the National League saves record in 2002, which was only his second year as a reliever. Gagne would tie it the following season, and no one in the NL has been able to match that number since.

The former starter would go on to have an even better season by ERA in 2004, dropping from 3.25 to 1.12 despite only finishing with 45 saves that year. Another 44 saves in 2005 cemented Smoltz’s legacy as one of the best pitchers of all time who pitched regularly as both a starter and reliever in his career.

  • T6. Trevor Hoffman, San Diego Padres (53 in 1998)
  • T6. Randy Myers, Chicago Cubs (53 in 1993)
  • T6. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees (53 in 2004)
  • 9. Eric Gagne, Los Angeles Dodgers (52 in 2002)
  • T10. 5 tied with 51

Most Saves in a Career

1. Mariano Rivera, 652

The best closer ever has the most saves ever. Makes sense.

Rivera only led the league in saves three times, but he was consistently excellent for the Yankees. He had nine seasons of 40 or more saves, and, after being named the Yankees closer prior to the 1997 season, failed to reach 30 saves only twice in the final 17 years of his career (both due to injury).

The 13-time All-Star was at his best in the postseason as a core piece of one of the best dynasties in baseball history early in his career and sustained his dominance for almost 20 years. He was the first player elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame in 2019.

2. Trevor Hoffman, 601

The only closer with 600 saves other than Rivera is Hoffman, who was making National League hitters miserable at the same time Rivera was shutting down the American League. And these two are so far ahead of everyone else, they’re also the only two members of the 500 club.

Like Rivera, the peak was impressive, but the consistency even more so. Hoffman led the league in saves twice and had a runner-up finish in the Cy Young voting both times, but he also had nine seasons of 40+ saves. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018.

3. Lee Smith, 478

The all-time saves leader before Rivera and Hoffman was Smith, whose career was winding down just as those two entered the league.

Smith was a closer when relievers were often expected to go multiple innings. He had three straight seasons of 100+ innings pitched from 1982-84 with only five starts combined in those years. Rivera and Hoffman combined for one 100+ IP season in their careers.

Smith led the league in saves four times and was a seven-time All-Star. He was elected to the Hall of Fame alongside Rivera in 2019.

4. Francisco Rodriguez, 437

The aforementioned Rodriguez had 62 saves in 2008, but he was elite in several other years as well.

He had four straight seasons of 40+ saves from 2005-08 with the Angels, and then another two in 2014 and 2016 with the Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers, respectively, after he had rejuvenated his career.

Although he’s not a Hall of Famer like the guys above him on this list, Rodriguez’s 437 saves along with a 2.86 ERA across 16 seasons make for a remarkable career.

5. John Franco, 424

The top lefty on the list, Franco amazingly amassed 424 saves despite never having a 40-save season (peaking at 39 in 1988 with the Cincinnati Reds).

Franco pitched 21 seasons in the big leagues, 14 of those with the Mets. He had 13 seasons with an ERA under 3.00 and eight seasons of 30 or more saves.

  • 6. Billy Wagner, 422
  • 7. Craig Kimbrel, 392
  • 8. Dennis Eckersley, 390
  • T9. Kenley Jansen, 377
  • T9. Joe Nathan, 377

Most Saves by a Rookie

1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (46 in 2011)

Not many rookie relievers faced higher expectations than Kimbrel, as he was coming off a season in which he pitched 21 games and only allowed one earned run (he didn’t pitch enough to lose his rookie eligibility). And he somehow exceeded those expectations, with 46 saves to earn NL Rookie of the Year honors.

The amazing thing about Kimbrel is how he improved after his rookie campaign. Kimbrel had a 2.10 ERA in 2011, and his ERA was below 2.00 in each of the next three seasons. His storied career has seen several big moments since then, but it all started with the monster rookie season.

2. Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers (40 in 2010)

Feliz had a similar start to Kimbrel, as he had a 1.74 ERA in 31 innings in 2009 but retained his rookie eligibility. But then he exploded for 40 saves in 2010 en route to winning the AL Rookie of the Year.

Feliz was excellent again in 2011 but couldn’t stay as healthy or effective after that. He was really good in the postseason, posting a 1.93 ERA between 2010 and 2011 in 18 appearances.

3. Kazuhiro Sasaki, Seattle Mariners (37 in 2000)

Sasaki’s career in MLB was brief but memorable. His first season was as at age 32 in 2000, and all he did was win the AL Rookie of the Year after finishing with 37 saves and a 3.16 ERA. He’d follow that up with a 45-save season in 2001 for the 116-win Mariners.

After two more seasons, Sasaki returned to Japan to finish his career. But in his four-year tenure with the Mariners, the two-time All-Star left his mark in Major League Baseball.

4. Todd Worrell, St. Louis Cardinals (36 in 1986)

An under-appreciated reliever of the 1980s and ‘90s, Worrell saved 256 games in his career with a 3.09 ERA.

It all started in 1985, when he threw 21.2 innings with a 2.91 ERA. The next season, the three-time All-Star was installed as the full-time closer and led the league with 36 saves on the way to Rookie of the Year honors.

5. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox (35 in 2006)

Papelbon took the closer reigns in his first full season with the Red Sox in 2006 and never looked back, making the All-Star Game in his first four full seasons in the big leagues.

His rookie season was elite, as had a 0.92 ERA and allowed only three homers in 68.1 innings pitched. He’s the only player in the top five of this list not to win Rookie of the Year, however, as he had the misfortune of being a rookie the same year as Justin Verlander.

lowest ERA in a 30-save season
  • 6. Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels (32 in 2011)
  • 7. Billy Koch, Toronto Blue Jays (31 in 1999)
  • 8. Kerry Ligtenberg, Atlanta Braves (30 in 1998)
  • T9. Rich Loiselle, Pittsburgh Pirates (29 in 1997)
  • T9. Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox

Most Postseason Saves in a Season

T1. Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals (7 in 2014)

Holland was at the back end of an elite Royals bullpen in 2014, saving 46 games and making the All-Star team for the second consecutive year.

He was even more impressive in the postseason, allowing one run in 11.0 innings, including an ALCS in which he saved all four games of the Royals’ four-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. Unfortunately for Holland, the Royals fell short in the World Series, losing in seven games to the San Francisco Giants. And when the Royals won the World Series the following year, Holland missed the postseason with an elbow injury.

T1. Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies (7 in 2008)

In 2005, Albert Pujols hit a home run off Brad Lidge in the NLCS that still has not landed.

While this would be the defining postseason moment for a lot of pitchers, Lidge didn’t let it break him. He put together a season for the ages just three years later. Lidge was a perfect 41 for 41 in save opportunities that year and saved seven more games in the playoffs while allowing just one run in 9.1 innings for the Phillies. He got the save in the World Series-clinching Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, striking out Eric Hinske to end the season as a champion.

T1. Troy Percival, Anaheim Angels (7 in 2002)

Percival was a good reliever for a long time, but 2002 was his best season. He saved 40 games and had a 1.92 ERA.

It was also the only time Percival pitched in the postseason in his career, and he did not disappoint, saving all seven of his opportunities. The last save came in Game 7 in the World Series, leading to the only World Series win in Angels history.

T1. Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox (7 in 2013)

Not many relievers win postseason awards, but Uehara was an exception in 2013 when he won the ALCS MVP.

He pitched in six innings in five games, striking out nine without allowing a run. For the postseason, Uehara saved all seven of his opportunities while allowing one run in 13.2 innings for the World Series-winning Red Sox.

T1. Robb Nen, San Francisco Giants (7 in 2002)

Barry Bonds stole the headlines in the 2002 World Series, but the closer matchup was dynamic. Along with the aforementioned Percival, Nen was electric that year with 43 saves and a 2.20 ERA. Nen allowed just one run over the entire playoff run for the Giants in nine innings, saving seven of his eight opportunities.

He threw three scoreless innings in the World Series and saved two games, but it wasn’t enough as Percival, not Nen, was on the field for the final out in Game 7. After two injury-plagued seasons in which he didn’t throw a pitch in the regular season, Nen retired in 2005 after never throwing another pitch following the 2002 season. But three scoreless outings in the World Series is hardly the worst way to end a career.

  • T1. John Wetteland, New York Yankees (7 in 1996)
  • T7. Nine pitchers with 6

Most Postseason Saves in a Career

1. Mariano Rivera, 42

Rivera’s postseason save record is going to be tough to beat. He’s amassed over double the saves of anyone else in the playoffs, a product of playing on a Yankees team that played deep into October most years.

He was World Series MVP in 1999 and ALCS MVP in 2003. Most of his postseason stats look like a misprint. His postseason ERA is an unfathomable 0.70. And in 96.0 innings, he allowed two postseason home runs. Sandy Alomar and Jay Payton deserve a medal for hitting those home runs.

Although his teammate Derek Jeter got most of the credit for clutch play, few players hold a playoff resume as impressive as Rivera.

2. Kenley Jansen, 19

Nineteen saves don’t seem quite as impressive when comparing it to Rivera, but Jansen holds the National League record as a stalwart in the Dodgers bullpen for years.

3. Brad Lidge, 18

As highlighted above, Lidge rebounded nicely from a low postseason moment in 2005 to establish himself as one of the best postseason relievers ever. He had a career 2.18 ERA in the playoffs with 62 strikeouts in 45.1 innings.

4. Dennis Eckersley, 15

Eckersley had the misfortune of being on the pitching end of one of the most exciting playoff home runs of all time when Kirk Gibson took him deep in 1988. But part of the reason that moment is so iconic is because Eckersley was one of the best pitchers of his generation at the peak of his powers. He was coming off a runner-up finish in the Cy Young voting that season and an MVP award in the ALCS.

And Eck would get his World Series ring the following year, saving the Game 4 in the Athletics’ sweep of the Giants.

T5. Jason Isringhausen, 11

Isringhausen did most of his postseason damage with the Cardinals, with three saves each in 2002 and 2004. He had a 2.36 ERA across 23 playoff outings.

T5. Robb Nen, 11

Nen got all his saves in two years, with seven in 2002 and four in 1997 for the Florida Marlins. Although he struggled in the 1997 World Series, he pitched 1.2 scoreless innings in Game 7, helping set the table for Edgar Renteria’s walk-off single.