Well, hell’s bells.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Mo Rivera should be the last reliever put into the Hall until someone comes and blows ol’ Mo Rivera’s records away. My Hall bullpen would hold Mo and Wilhelm, and then…um…well. Maybe Gossage? Maybe Eck (who’s only half a reliever anyway)? Those two aren’t selections that actually make me angry (as some do, sad to say), but I can’t get too excited to have them, either.

But Rollie Fingers? Closer than I once thought, but no. Lee Smith? Fun character, good relief pitcher, but not close. Bruce Sutter? I’m going to assume he’s in as some sort of weird inside joke.

Trevor Hoffman?

…Well. I’ve generally thought not, but everybody nowadays seems to disagree. He is the all-time “saves” leader and all, and still going strong (relatively speaking) at age 41. But here’s the thing — or one of at least two things — and not just with Hoffman, but with all modern relievers: from 1994-2008 (his entire Padre career, essentially), and excluding his injury-wrecked 2003, Hoffman averaged 64 innings a year. Hoffman figured into a little over 4% of the team’s innings over that entire period. He faced an average of 253 batters a season, or about the number of plate appearances you’d expect out of a right-handed platoon player and pinch hitter. Of course, the overwhelming majority of those batters faced came in games that were at least relatively close and in the ninth inning…but you could say the same thing for a lot of pinch-hitters, right? To me it’s a sign of how useless the save statistic is that guys like Hoffman and Lee Smith could rack up more than 40 of them while barely clearing 40 innings pitched.

Well, at least that’s what I thought about Hoffman until I read this by Aaron Gleeman today, comparing the only two members of the 500-saves club. Gleeman sure thinks Hoffman is a Hall of Famer, and I’m usually inclined to agree with Gleeman. And those numbers make it look awful close between Hoffman and Rivera, don’t they? For one thing, I was shocked — shocked! — that Hoffman has a better career K rate than Mo does. That changeup is one helluva pitch. And they don’t even look all that far off in ERA, as Gleeman sets it up. And of course Hoffman has all those extra saves (though Mo makes up a bunch of them with his postseason stats), and so forth.

But then you look closer. Mo has averaged 74 innings a year to Hoffman’s 64; still criminally underused, but not to nearly the same degree. I remember reading that Rivera has more saves of four outs or more than any other pitcher in the last couple decades. That really counts for something. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that if Hoffman were ever asked to pitch in the 8th inning, he’d forget where he was and/or which direction the plate was in.

And then there’s that ERA difference. As I said, Gleeman makes it look close…but it’s not. Pointing out, as Gleeman does, that Hoffman (2.76) and Rivera (2.30!!) have the two lowest ERAs since 1969 is a bit like pointing out that Tommie and Hank have the two best career home run totals in the Aaron family.

Moreover, Hoffman has pitched mostly in pitcher’s parks (the Murph wasn’t as extreme as Petco, but was still very pitcher-friendly), and in the league in which they still let the pitchers bat for some silly reason. Hoffman wasn’t facing many pitchers, of course, but he was facing pinch-hitters for pitchers, who are typically weaker hitters than most of the starting 8 (and, still somehow a little-known fact: all pinch hitters face an automatic penalty to their hitting stats. Nobody pinch-hits nearly as well as he hits as a starter). Rivera, at 197, is the all-time leader in ERA+ (min. 1000 IP); Hoffman, at 146, is 5th, but a distant fifth.

And this gets to the other thing that bothers me about putting relievers in the Hall: relief pitchers just aren’t as good as starting pitchers. Rivera wasn’t all that young (25) when he posted a 5.51 ERA as a rookie swing man, starting 10 games. Goose tried it out as a starter once; his ERA doubled from his prior year in the pen, and then halved again when he went sheepishly back to the bullpen the next season. Eckersley was a good enough starter, but nowhere near a Hall of Famer in that role. Rick Aguilera was a barely passable #4 or 5 starter, but a dominant closer. Joe Nathan was, like Mo, a terrible SP as a new big-leaguer at age 25.

And on and on. Whatever they tell you about the pressures of the ninth inning and all that, it’s just easier to be a good closer (that is, to throw one inning every time out) than to be a good starter (and throw 6-9 of them). Much easier. Only Hoyt Wilhelm could really swing it in the harder role, leading the league in ERA in his one year as a mostly-full-time starter. But he was a knuckleballer, so stamina really wasn’t ever an issue, and I do believe that Wilhelm was a truly great pitcher no matter how you used him.

Basically, putting a closer in the Hall of Fame seems to me a little like putting a karaoke champion on the radio or hiring a great Strat-o-Matic player to manage the Dodgers — they look great in their proper role, but put them with the big boys and they just don’t fit in at all. A great closer typically becomes a great closer rather than a middling starter, simply because he’s the very best of the not-good-enough. And that’s not what I think the Hall is for.

So ultimately, I’ve had to think about it a lot harder, but I’m back to the place I started. If you’re going to make the Hall as a 70-innings-a-season pitcher (or fewer, in Hoffman’s case), you’d better be something more than just great. You’d better be damned close to the best who has ever done it. You’d better be a game-changing sort of presence. It would help if you popularized a signature pitch that changed the game in some small way. And you’d better have a certain something else, too. An attitude or a presence or a really compelling character — something.

I hate to admit it (he is a Yankee and all), and I still think he often gets wildly overrated, but Mariano Rivera absolutely has all those things, and is easily the best pure relief pitcher who has ever played the game. And I have absolutely no hesitation about saying he’s a Hall of Famer — even if Sutter and Fingers and Eck and Goose weren’t in, Rivera would have to be the one guy you make an exception for. Even with pitching 5% of his team’s innings, I’m comfortable saying he’s one of the all-time greats, and we’ve been lucky to be around to see him do his thing.

Hoffman, though? Not so much. He’s been a great closer, and for a very long time. He’ll go into the Hall, and it won’t bother me even a little; a lot of worse selections have been made (a couple of them in the paragraph just above). For me, though, I just don’t see how he rises above the “best of the not good enough to start” bump. He’s about as good as Dan Quisenberry and John Franco, the difference being that he was used in a more extreme, get-the-save-or-don’t-pitch-at-all way than anyone in history (except late-career Lee Smith, who became almost a caricature of the modern closer). I’m just not seeing it.

Of course, the way he’s going now, maybe he’ll keep dominating with his 82-MPH stuff until he’s 47 and convert even me…

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15 Responses to “Well, hell’s bells.”

  1. Ron Rollins Says:

    Uh, Quiz?

  2. Bill Says:

    What about him?

  3. lar Says:

    First off, love the Mo Rivera Bowman card. I can't imagine pulling that from a pack back in 1993 or whenever…

    As for the rest of it, I'm not sure how to respond. I mean, I *know* you're not attacking Trevor Hoffman or saying that he's not a great player (well, maybe you are saying he's not "great"… maybe "very good"), but it *feels* that way. Which of course makes me feel like I should defend him.

    But what you're really talking about is the closer role and how it should be viewed. And I agree with your basic idea there. I'm not sure I agree with everything you say, though. Yes, the Hall should be very picky about which closers get admitted and, yes, by allowing the likes of Bruce Sutter in, they have failed to do that. But I'm not sure limiting the Hall to the Mo Rivera's of the world is the answer. Isn't that like saying the only speedy leadoff hitter-type that should be in the Hall is someone like Rickey Henderson? It's a valid way to view the Hall, but certainly not one that I subscribe to.

    Hoffman is not as good as Rivera. There's no doubt about that. But he is not just someone who has the record solely because he hung around for so long. He is more than Lee Smith. Sticking with the speedy-leadoff guy metaphor, Hoffman isn't Rickey, but he isn't Lou Brock either. He's more along the lines of Tim Raines, who, despite not being the best ever, certainly deserves his place in Cooperstown.

    Regarding the issue of closers-in-the-Hall as a whole, I don't know what else to say. Yes, it does seem a little odd to honor someone who pitches in only 4-5% of the team's innings, but I think it's impossible to ignore the closer as a significant piece of the baseball landscape. Like the DH, the closer isn't going away and the greatest of them should be honored as such even if they aren't the "complete" player that others might be.

    Plus, I can't get over the feeling that saying this about closers is the same as saying that pitchers (starting or otherwise) should not be allowed, on principle, to win the MVP award, and that's just plain wrong in my mind (does *anyone* think that Pudge was more valuable in 1999 than Pedro?).

    (That's all I've got right now, Bill. I hope it's cogent… oh, and according to FanGraphs, Hoffman has come into higher leverage situations than Mo has throughout his career. Mo's still the better pitcher, but it's interesting to note that.)

  4. Ron Rollins Says:

    How do you leave off Quiz for Hall consideration? He's the one that set the standard for all that came after, but did in lots of games and innings.

  5. Bill Says:

    Ron- I just didn't mention Quiz with the others because he didn't really get serious Hall consideration, whereas Fingers and Sutter are in, and Smith has some pretty strong support.

    Quiz was definitely a great one. I'd put him (and Franco) in about the same class as Eck, Goose and Hoffman — certainly right up among the best closers of all time (miles better than Sutter and Smith), and it [doesn't really bother me that/wouldn't really bother me if] they're in, but my own personal Hall would set the bar crazy high. It's just me.

  6. Bill Says:

    Lar- My apologies. I completely forgot that Hoffman was a Brewer now, and thus that this post would be risking the wrath of Lar. 🙂

    Kidding. You make some great points and have given me a lot to think about. I might have to digest it over a few days and write a follow-up post.

    But I think the difference between this and your counterexamples is really pretty significant. A leadoff hitter plays the game just as much as (actually more than, technically) a cleanup hitter does. If there were some set of rigidly-followed criteria for a leadoff hitter, as save totals are for closers, that was virtually unrelated to winning baseball games — if for example everyone still considered the five most important qualities of a leadoff hitter to be (1) speed (2) speed (3) bunting (4) speed (5) batting average — then I certainly wouldn't be in favor of putting guys in the Hall solely based on their place among the top leadoff hitters of all time.

    But the fact is that we can judge leadoff hitters based on essentially the same criteria by which we judge everybody else. Whether you want to use things like WARP and WAR and Win Shares or just cobble together your own comparison of OBPs and so forth, Raines clearly ranks among the best to have played the game, and probably Ichiro now too, despite both being well behind Rickey. Trevor Hoffman, meanwhile, has fewer career Win Shares than Bret Saberhagen, Kenny Rogers and Jeff Conine (side note: a google search for "Trevor Hoffman win shares" gives a post from your site as the #1 result :)).

    Similar deal with the pitchers-as-MVPs thing. If a pitcher actually has an argument that he had the most quantitatively valuable season of anyone in the league, he absolutely should win the MVP. Pedro was definitely a better choice than Pudge, and maybe should have won (though the real contest should've been between Pedro and Jetes). But Pedro faced 835 batters that year, 3 1/2 times more than an average Hoffman season (and certainly more total impact than your average first baseman or outfielder, but I digress). Hoffman will pass Sutter to become the Hall of Famer with the second-fewest career innings pitched, but has no hope of catching Fingers at #3 even if he does pitch to 47 (though he might end up pretty close to Mo's total too). The lowest SP on the list is Dizzy Dean, who pitched nearly twice as many innings as Hoffman. So I don't see the comparison to the pitchers as MVP argument, really.

    And you're ignoring the second part–I can't shake the feeling that (a) any good starter can be a great closer and (b) most great closers would struggle to even be good starters. History sure seems to bear that out. Putting one of them in the Hall feels like rewarding him solely because some manager happened to decide to use him as his closer rather than a #3 starter.

    That said, I certainly didn't mean to disparage Hoffman at all. He's been a great closer, right up there among the best (but certainly after Rivera and Wilhelm, at least), and will fit right in with most of the other closers already in the Hall. (And it's certainly not his fault that he came up in this era or was used in this ridiculously limited way.)

    I'm just not a big believer in the "since guy A is in, guy B has to be in" argument (kind of a perpetual mistake machine, isn't it?), and I'd lean toward barring the door after Mo. But like I said, I'll think about it and maybe revisit it later. 🙂

  7. Ron Rollins Says:

    Fair enough, Bill. He alwasys seems to get left out of most discussions. I just like to get his name in where I can.

  8. lar Says:

    You've said a lot, Bill, and they're all good points. My problem right now is that, while I agree with much of what you've said and disagree with some of the rest, I don't really have a strong, well-formed rebuttal ready because it's not something that I've thought too hard about. It's more of a feeling that I'm going off of right now.

    A couple of things about the points you bring up:

    I'm aware that the leadoff-hitter metaphor isn't too strong or complete. I wasn't trying to use it to equate the closer (a well-defined, small-scale and esoteric role) to a leadoff hitter (who, obviously, has a much broader role in the game). I was more just trying to use it to illustrate that, within their own contemporaries, there is a middle ground between the greatest (Rickey, Mo) and the merely long-lasting (Brock, Smith). Your arugment is about whether those contemporaries (ie, the closers) even belong in the first place.

    With the pitcher MVP point, I was again trying to use it to illustrate something, and I didn't mean for it to be an exact metaphor. With it, I was just saying that award-voters (HOF, MVP, etc) should not put a blanket exclusion on a whole group of players – pitchers, closers, etc – from their award voting "on principle". That's what a few people do every year with pitchers in the MVP race (and that's why Pedro didn't win that year, because two writers left him off their ballots completely because they felt, on principle, that pitchers cannot be an MVP). Your cutting off the HOF discussion by any closer lesser than Rivera seemed to be treading awfully close to this line, and that's why I brought it up.

    It appears, though, that your perspective is that closers, pitchers, etc can all be compared against each other, but they must use a pretty rigid baseline in that comparison. Which does make sense.

    But aren't you punishing pitchers ni general by doing that? What about positional adjustment? As a Joe Mauer fan, I'm sure you can appreciate the need to consider the context of a player's stats before ranking them. It's not the pitcher's fault that he can only contribute once very 5 days, or the closer's fault that he can only work 3 or 4 outs at a time. They work within their roles, and some are obviously much better than others.

    (I'm starting to ramble here, so I apologize… a couple quick things still)

    If you compare Hoffman to Rivera in their role as full-time closer through their age 38 seasons (since Hoffman, being older, has a couple of decline years that Mo doesn't), Mo's innings pitched only come out to 15 or so extra outs a year. That's 1 extra out every 4 appearances or so. I'm not sure that makes Hoffman all that different than Mo.

    And I'm not ignoring the second part. I just don't know what to say about it. It certainly seems true, but that's because the vast majority of closers are lesser players, like Armando Benitez or Rod Beck or Jose Mesa or whoever (and those are the *better* closers). But I don't feel that that proves anything. Curt Schilling failed as a closer but thrived as a starter. When you start talking about the exceptional people in any population, all bets are off. I imagine there are some good/great pitchers, other than Schilling, who would've failed as relievers, and vice versa.

    I think that's all for now. I spent way too long typing this out, and I'm still not even sure that I said anything different than you or that I even made sense…

  9. Bill Says:

    Lar, that definitely makes sense, and you make some very good points.

    I don't think what I'm doing is "a blanket exclusion on a whole group of players." It's not that I've got a bias against closers. If a closer brings enough value to a team to justify the Hall of Fame (or the MVP Award, or Cy Young, or whatever), he should get it.

    But the problem is that they never, or very nearly never, do, at least in the way we basement-dwellers generally define "value." The FanGraphs folks have noted that even the very best closer in a given year will be about 2.5 wins above replacement, or approximately (as a totally random example) what Stephen Drew gave the D-Backs in 2008. Now, a healthy Stephen Drew is a fine player, but 15 or so seasons of Stephen Drew ca. 2008 probably doesn't make a Hall of Famer.

    With the whole "starters are better" thing, the thing I always go back to is Brad Penny starting the All-Star Game a couple years ago. Good pitcher having a very good year, but he would remind no one of 1999 Pedro or '68 Gibson. But he came out that day, knowing he would be limited to 1-2 innings, and was throwing nearly 100, absolutely blowing away the best hitters in the game. I'm sure not literally all starting pitchers could do that (I'm not sure what Jamie Moyer would change if he knew he only had to throw one inning…maybe take a few more MPH off his changeup? :)), but I do think the vast majority of capable starters could. Of course I can't prove it. But the huge number of so-so SPs who have become good-to-great RPs seems to lean that way. And I'd like to believe it's limited to the Benitezes and Becks and that Hoffman is special, but look at Nathan. And Papelbon, who profiled as a #3 starter at best in the minors. Even a lot of the truly elite closers have been OK to awful as starters or long relievers.

    Wow, look at this getting impossibly long again. I think a big part of the disagreement probably comes from what I said above about Stephen Drew — you seem to be saying in part that that sort of apples-to-apples rigidity (2.6 WAR shortstop = 2.6 WAR closer) isn't the appropriate way to look at it, that we should consider closers for their own important place in the game and make room for them even if they don't match up in a pure runs-saved-or-created sense. And that's an entirely valid viewpoint that I totally understand. The more I think about this, actually, the more I think it's probably right. I think my tendency to lean the other way comes from (a) my distaste for the "save" statistic (I can never even type it without the quotes :)) and (b) my desire not to see Smith, Franco, Wagner and the like join Sutter in the Hall's WTH wing. Hoffman really isn't the problem, and there are lots of good reasons to put him in. I would just probably just barely leave him out if it were up to me, a fact which should mean absolutely nothing to anybody. 🙂

  10. lar Says:

    Yeah, how do these responses get so long? Typing in the comment reply box doesn't help, either, at least using Firefox.

    The Stephen Drew comment does get to the heart of it. I do think it's best to consider closers (and DHs, for that matter) "for their own important place in the game and make room for them" based on that. But we do have to be discriminating when doing, and make sure that only the best of the best are admitted. To me, that's Mariano and, for DHs, Edgar Martinez (ie, if any DH is ever going to be in the Hall, it's Edgar). I think Hoffman meets that criteria, too, and it's not just because he holds the saves record (which, I agree, is an almost meaningless stat). Hoffman was really, really good for a really long time, and that changeup is incredible. He's more than just Billy Wagner or Francisco Rodriguez. But if you see Hoffman more like Harold Baines (great closer/DH, but not good enough to be in the Hall), then I can understand that.

    I'm not sold about the pitchers as closers thing, though. I understand the Brad Penny anecdote and how that type of thing can make you feel that way, but I'm still not sold. Aren't there just as many examples of big time starters coming into the All-Star Game (or in a meaningful, extra-inning postseason game) and struggling because they're just not the type of guy who can handle the "dropping into the firefight" mentality of a closer? When you watch the ASG in a couple of weeks, look for the pitchers who show up in the 6th or 7th inning… it takes them 2 innings to get warmed up, and then they still struggle. There are the Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson examples from recent postseasons, but, again, that's judging a whole population by their most exceptional specimens. I don't think that works.

    Anyway, this is already longer than I meant it to be. Thanks for the discussion. It was fun. I wish there was an easy way to actually study this stuff empirically, but I don't think that's really possible…

  11. Avenger-in-Chief Says:

    Here's a San Diego perspective:

    Trevor Hoffman will get his #51 retired by the Padres and more than likely have a bronze statue placed out next to Tony Gwynn's…..but he DOES NOT belong in the HOF.

    REGULAR SEASON:
    Mariano Rivera has spent his entire career saving regular season games that MATTER. From 1994 to 2004 Trevor only felt real pressure in '96 and '98. The Padres were in contention from 2004 to 2007 but TH's duties were made a bit less stressful by pitching in a very pitcher friendly park. When comparing his regular season to Rivera's I don't believe there is an equitable comparison of "stressful innings". As a Padre fan ,I watched in pain when ever Trevor Hoffman pitched. I was never so sure a guy would blow a save than when he took the hill.

    It was also mentioned in your post that MR's 4 inning saves only accounted for a few extra innings a year. But if it was so few extra innings why didn't TH ever enter in the 8th? Trevor never came into a stressful 8th inning situation..why? He's horrific entering games with runners on base. Anytime he was forced to enter a game in the ninth that a middle reliever couldn't hold he would invariably cough up the runs that he inherited. Bring him into a tie game? Usually disaster(I'm becoming angry just thinking about these scenarios).

    POST SEASON:
    Rivera's numbers speak for themselves. He threw cutter after cutter and dominated everyone. If he never pitched in the post-season we wouldn't be having this conversation…but he did. He will get into the HOF because of his career saves but more importantly due to his post season dominance.

    Trevor Hoffman on the other hand had his most dominant season in 1998 and then gave up an oppo HR to Scott Brosius in the WS for a blown save. In 2007 he had the opportunity to wrap up a WC spot for the Padres and blew game 161 against the Brewers. He came back in game 163 and blew a save against Colorado when he had a 3 run lead in extras….in the biggest games he failed and that should keep him out of the hall.

    Lenny Harris and Mark Sweeney lead the world in pinch hits but they sure-as-shit better not get into the HOF.

    I respect Trevor but NOT a Hall of Famer. Most specialists (specifically closers) should not be given consideratin unless, like you said, they are the ABSOLUTE best at what they do.

    (this was an extremely painful experience to discuss the '98 meltdown and the '07 disaster

  12. Avenger-in-Chief Says:

    I think my last point suggests that "Specialists" should get into the HOF if they are really good.

    Strike that comment from the record counselor.

  13. Avenger-in-Chief Says:

    sorry…meant to put this link in:
    http://www.619sports.net/padres/2009/6/30/hoffman-or-rivera.html

    A couple of the guys in town who covered Hoff's career actually did a podcast on "Hoffman or Rivera"…Who would you choose with the fate of man kind hanging in the balance?

  14. Bill Says:

    Avenger:

    Thanks for commenting again! While we generally agree here, I have to say I've never given much extra credit to things done in "games that MATTER." A mop-up reliever for the Nationals still faces more pressure and scrutiny on a daily basis than many or most people will face in their lifetimes. If you can do it in the Big Leagues, I'm going to assume you can do it in any situation until you prove otherwise (and Hoffman hasn't had nearly enough chances to do that). I can't give extra credit to Mo because he happened to spend his entire career with the Yankees and Hoffman didn't.

    That said, I don't think there's any doubt who you'd choose "with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance." Rivera's just very easily the better pitcher of the two.

  15. Avenger-in-Chief Says:

    Bill:

    I have to disagree with you on one point.

    You have to take into consideration the acute difference between a Padre closer who blows a save in a meaningless September game and has to face the city's ONE beat writer the next day and Rivera blowing a game against the Red Sox in a pennant race—and then faces the NY media throng as well as the national (ESPN) coverage. Those scenarios are not equal and one is definitely more difficult.

    Having said that, Hoffy has shown remarkable resiliency in bouncing back from the saves he has blown. He has one of the most important characteristic traits of a solid closer….a very short memory. 500 saves are not fathomable without this trait so he deserves to be mentioned as a HOF candidate he just shouldn't get in (your example: Lee Smith saved 479 and there's no way he should get into the HOF).

    Keep up the interesting posts and have a good 4th.

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