It was surprising when Jim Edmonds got knocked off the ballot in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility when results were announced a couple days ago. It was surprising that Ken Griffey Jr. received he highest percentage of votes in history, or it was surprising that he wasn’t unanimous, depending how you want to look at it. It was a bit surprising, maybe, that Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines didn’t make it, and it might have been surprising how much ground Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens seemed to make up. There’s always little surprises. That’s life.
To me, though, the biggest surprise of them all was the fact that Trevor Hoffman nearly became a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his first year of eligibility, the longtime Padres closer received 67.3% of the vote, the fifth-highest total on the ballot, just behind Bagwell and Raines and just ahead of Curt Schilling, Clemens, and Bonds. History has shown us that voters who receive such a high percentage of the vote at any time in their eligibility, let alone the first year, are bound to make it in eventually. Trevor Hoffman is going to be a Hall of Famer. It might even happen next year.
There are dissenting opinions with regards to the place of closers in the Hall of Fame, and it’s probably something worth thinking about and discussing. Hard to come away worse from a thoughtful discussion. For some folks, Hoffman is a clear Hall of Famer, and should have been in on the first ballot. For others, he was nowhere near the 10 most deserving players, and might not even garner a selection with an unlimited number of votes per ballot. In the interest of full disclosure, my position has been closer to the latter than the former, though I’m open to seeing the other side. That’s what this post is for.
The opposing side of the argument, the one against the closers, has always been that, in the long run, they just don’t pitch enough to accrue the sort of value one would expect from a Hall of Famer. On one hand, Hoffman is one of just 10 relievers in the saves era (1969-present) to appear in more than 1,000 games. On the other, that still means he’s thrown just a shade over 1,000 innings, which is the equivalent to five or six seasons from a durable starter. By Wins Above Replacement, using either raw runs allowed or fielding independent numbers, Hoffman’s career worth is valued at about 25 wins. There also seems to be something of a growing belief that the better way to measure a reliever’s value is by Win Probability Added, the argument being that it does a better job of capturing the true nature of what a late-inning reliever is asked to do: perform well in high-leverage situations. By WPA, Hoffman gets a bit of a boost, with his career being valued at 33 wins. Still, though, 33 wins is about half of what we expect the typical Hall of Fame career to be worth. Thirty-three wins is Carlos Zambrano‘s career. It’s Livan Hernandez’s career. If you think win share value-type stats are the end-all, be-all, then Hoffman is nowhere near a Hall of Famer.
But WAR and WAR-type figures should never solely be the end-all, be-all, and that may be especially true in the case of a reliever. But then there’s the fact that Hoffman wasn’t even an overwhelmingly dominant reliever. By simple ERA (2.87, 71 ERA-), Hoffman ranks 48th among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched since 1969. It’s the same ERA- as Mark Melancon has right now. It’s the same ERA- with which Armando Benitez finished his career. By FIP (3.08, 73 FIP-), Hoffman ranks 28th among the same group, same as Jonathan Broxton. That Hoffman was able to maintain these numbers over an 18-year career is certainly impressive, but the difference between his dominance on the mound, in terms of pitcher vs. batter, and Mariano Rivera’s, the gold standard to which all closers will be compared, is drastically larger than their saves totals might suggest.
Yet, those saves. Can’t ignore them. When Hoffman retired, he had the most ever. Now, he’s number two. The number is 601, and that’s a massive number. And while the save may be an entirely arbitrary and mostly silly statistic, it’s also what a closer is asked to do. Closers are handed the ball and asked to save a game against a team, and Hoffman did that about as well as anyone, regardless of whether he had equally dominant pitcher vs. batter numbers. We prefer looking at things like ERA and FIP in the present, because it helps us know that Craig Kimbrel is more likely to continue converting his save opportunities than Brad Boxberger, even though Boxberger had more saves last season. But looking back at the past, and this is the part I’m really struggling with, do we really care how a closer went about getting it done? Or do we just care that he got it done? Because Hoffman got it done. Since the blown save began being recorded in 1988, there are 91 relievers with at least 100 saves. In order of save percentage:
- Eric Gagne, 92%
- Craig Kimbrel, 91%
- John Smoltz, 91%
- Mariano Rivera, 90%
- Greg Holland, 90%
- Trevor Hoffman, 89%
Hoffman has the second-most save opportunities in the history of the stat, and the sixth-highest rate of conversion. Whether or not you’d think he’d have such a high rate of conversion based on his relatively underwhelming ERA and FIP, he did everything the Padres asked him to do. So, the question is: which one matters more? Or does any of it matter at all, given the nature of the value of the closer’s role to begin with?
One more question that ties into all of this is: why isn’t a vote for Trevor Hoffman a vote for Billy Wagner? Hoffman received a vote on 67.3% of the ballots, while Wagner received a vote on just 10.5% and is in danger of being kicked off in coming years, while Hoffman seems like a virtual lock to get in. Wagner, by far, was the more dominant arm. His 53 ERA- ranks fourth all-time, his 63 FIP- ranks 10th. They had similarly prolific careers, with Hoffman serving as a closer for the better part of 15 years, racking up 1,089 innings, and Wagner serving as a closer for the better part of 12 years, racking up 903 innings. The difference, obviously, is the saves, which is telling in answering whether the voters prefer pure dominance from a closer, as opposed to “getting it done.” While Wagner’s 86% conversion rate doesn’t quite match Hoffman’s, it’s still near the very top of the leaderboard, and the main difference between their raw saves totals seems to be largely a matter of opportunity; Hoffman received an additional 174 chances in three extra years of serving as his team’s primary closer. Hoffman’s longevity should certainly count toward his favor, but that’s a surprisingly high disparity in opportunities relative to time, and with how much more dominant Wagner was on the mound, it seems odd that the voters who are so strongly in support of Hoffman aren’t also giving votes to Wagner, who still ranks fifth all-time in saves.
I’ll be honest in saying I really don’t know where I stand on this. I think I’m a little more pro-Hoffman, and by proxy, pro-Wagner, than I was before I wrote this. But I still struggle with weighing dominance vs. saves, and really the issue of whether any non-Rivera closer, moving forward, will have a compelling argument. I’m still not sure I could find room for either one with a restriction of 10 votes per ballot, and if Hoffman gets in, I tend to think Wagner should be in, too, on principle. And if Wagner is in, does that mean Francisco Rodriguez deserves to get in, when the time comes? The way we think about relievers has been changing over the past few years, and it makes the Hall of Fame case of the legendary relievers of year’s past that much more fascinating. I’m genuinely interested in what our readership has to say. Let’s have a discussion.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.