Archive for the ‘Rivera’ Category

Well, hell’s bells.

July 1, 2009

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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