In the seventh and final part of this series on the history of relief pitching, we’ll provide food for thought on both sides of the following Hall of Fame arguments?
- What’s the appropriate number of relief pitchers for the Hall compared to the number of starting pitchers and position players with plaques in Cooperstown?
- Which relief pitchers should be in the Hall of Fame?
How many relief pitchers should be in the Hall of Fame?
Currently, there are five relief pitchers in the Hall, counting Dennis Eckersley as a reliever because his 12-year career as a starter, by itself, would not have gained him a plaque in Cooperstown. In the next two years, the number will swell to seven, with Trevor Hoffman (601 career saves) almost certain to be inducted in 2018 and Mariano Rivera (652) a lead-pipe cinch to join him in 2019.
When the members of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) vote on prospective Hall of Fame candidates, they are limited to ten selections each year. This past January, 74% of all voters checked off Hoffman’s name. As it almost always happens in Hall of Fame voting, a 74% tally surges well past the 75% threshold the next year.
Also currently on the BBWAA ballot with Hoffman is Billy Wagner, who owns 422 career saves. Wagner is languishing far behind, pulling about 10% of the vote in each of the last two years. This January, Lee Smith (with 478 saves) appeared on the ballot for the final time, falling far short of the needed votes, earning nods from just 34% of the total electorate.
In any event, by the summer of 2019, there will be seven relief pitchers in the Hall, six of whom have made their mark in the last fifty seasons. As we chronicled in the first two parts of this series Hoyt Wilhelm was the only Cooperstown-worthy pitcher from the first 100 years of the sport since relief pitching was not remotely as important as it is today.
So the question is, for the players who played during the forty-five year period of 1969 to 2013, what is the appropriate number of relief pitchers for the Hall? Why those years? The answer: 1969 was Fingers’ rookie season; 2013 was Rivera’s final campaign. The actual total, with Hoffman’s and Rivera’s pending inductions, will be six (the others being Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley). Is that too generous? Too stingy?
Let’s start by looking at the distribution of 48 Hall of Fame players who have been inducted into Cooperstown on the ballots cast by the BBWAA since 1990, the year before Fingers’ first year of eligibility.
|Position||Total||Hall of Famers by Position (inducted by the BBWAA since 1990)|
|1B||4||Tony Perez, Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell|
|2B||5||Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio|
|3B||4||Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs|
|SS||4||Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin|
|LF||3||Jim Rice, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines|
|CF||3||Kirby Puckett, Andre Dawson, Ken Griffey Jr.|
|RF||3||Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn|
|C||4||Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez|
|SP||14||Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez|
|RP||4||Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage|
If you consider the building of a team to include a starting eight position players, three top flight starters and a closer then, at first glance, the positional distribution of Hall of Famers here looks about right.
Next, in an attempt to predict the future, let’s assume that Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero and Chipper Jones get inducted this year; Jim Thome might as well but, if not, will likely make it in 2019. In 2019, Rivera is a lock and I’m predicting, given it will be his last try at the ballot, that Edgar Martinez will make it as well. So what would our positional distribution look like then?
|Position||Total||Hall of Famers by Position (since 1990 with predicted additions in 2018 & 2019)|
|1B||5||*Jim Thome, Tony Perez, Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell|
|2B||5||Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio|
|3B||5||*Chipper Jones, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs|
|SS||4||Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin|
|LF||3||Jim Rice, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines|
|CF||3||Kirby Puckett, Andre Dawson, Ken Griffey Jr.|
|RF||4||*Vladimir Guerrero, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn|
|C||4||Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez|
|SP||14||Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez|
|RP||6||*Trevor Hoffman, *Mariano Rivera, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage|
|*Predicted to be inducted in Class of 2018 or 2019|
Hmm. By the summer of 2019, we’ll have seen 6 relief pitchers get inducted into the Hall of Fame over a 30-year period but just 10 players at the three outfield positions.
Now, there’s a wild card factor here and that is that there would theoretically be more position players recently inducted into Cooperstown (particularly in the outfield) if it weren’t for Performance Enhancing Drugs. Outfielders and 500-home-run-club members Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield all would be in the Hall of Fame already were it not for links to steroids. Still, even in a parallel universe in which all four were in the Hall, that would leave 14 outfielders over 30 years compared to 6 relievers. One could either look at this as too many relief pitchers or too few outfielders. Personally, I’m inclined to go with the latter but it’s a fair argument that relief pitchers have been (or will be, after Hoffman and Rivera) over-represented in the Hall in recent history.
So, there is that school of thought that relief pitchers are inherently overrated and that there should naturally be fewer closers in the Hall than at any offensive position and far fewer than from the ranks of starting pitchers. The obvious and legitimate argument against relief pitchers vs all other pitchers and offensive players is that they are on the field less. In essence, the complaint against relief pitchers is not too dissimilar to the complaint against designated hitters. The argument against Cooperstown enshrinement for full-time DH’s is that they only play half of the game.
For relief pitchers, it’s worse. In Gossage’s and Sutter’s day, a typical stopper would only play two or three ninths of a game and not every day. Even the bullpen horses would throw about half of the innings of a quality starting pitcher. In today’s game, it’s only magnified more. The games’ best closers might throw anywhere from 60 to 70 innings, about a third of the workload of a quality starter.
In 2016, the best closer in the game was the Baltimore Orioles’ Zach Britton and he was unbelievably great, going a perfect 47 for 47 in save opportunities while sporting an ERA of 0.54. All told, Britton threw 67 innings, facing 254 batters. The top starter on his team (Kevin Gausman), faced three times as many batters (757). Gausman had a solid but not great season, posting a 3.61 ERA.
That anti-reliever thought is reflected primarily through the favorite statistic of many in the sabermetric community, WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Despite having an all-time great year, Britton’s workload in 2016 earned him a 4.3 WAR. Gausman, not even a top 20 starting pitcher, had a WAR just a tick less at 4.2. So, the best closer in the game and the 47th best starting pitcher (ranked by ERA), according to WAR, provided the same value.
Of course, WAR does not adequately account for the high-leverage outings that the best relief pitchers encounter but, for a moment, let’s briefly go down a rabbit hole and have some fun. If you don’t want to play, feel free to scroll down to the main topic du jour in which we ask which relief pitchers should be in the Hall of Fame.
The highest WAR for any pitcher with at least 80% of their outings from the bullpen is (by far) Rivera, with a career pitching WAR of 56.6. According to Baseball Reference, this puts him 76th all-time among all pitchers, a little bit behind starters Bret Saberhagen, Mark Buehrle, Chuck Finley, Frank Tanana, Tim Hudson, Jerry Koosman, Dave Stieb and still-active CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. It does, however, put him ahead of Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax and sixteen other Hall of Fame starting pitchers. On balance, when adding in his post-season value, even the most fanatical devotee to WAR would have to conclude that Rivera is a legitimate first ballot Hall of Famer.
But, after the great Mariano, who else? Well, there’s Dennis Eckersley for starters, so to speak, since he started his career with 12 years as a starting pitcher. Eckersley posted a career WAR of 62.5. Ironically, over 70% of the WAR value came in his years as starter which Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe, in his book The Cooperstown Casebook, calls “WAR’s dirty little secret.”
After Eck and Mo, there’s Hoyt Wilhelm (50.1 career WAR) and Goose Gossage (41.8). Goose’s total is higher than just five inducted starting pitchers. The career WAR of Rollie Fingers (25.0) and Bruce Sutter (24.5) are the lowest numbers for any Cooperstown-inducted pitchers and there are people in the sabermetric community who feel Fingers and Sutter don’t belong in the Hall of Fame for that reason.
Because WAR is a “counting” statistic, volume matters. And, since relief pitchers have less volume (in terms of innings pitched, compared to starters), there are fewer “Wins Above Replacement” to earn. Forget about WAR for a moment or forever if you prefer. Either way, it’s not an unreasonable position that relief pitchers are inherently overrated when compared to starters or position players. They are involved with far fewer pitcher-batter match-ups than regular players or starting pitchers.
Consider this: 2016 was Trevor Hoffman’s first year on the BBWAA ballot and he got 67% of the vote. Jim Edmonds, a long-time centerfielder with 393 home runs and a penchant for highlight-reel catches, got 2.5% of the vote and has thus been booted off further ballots. Part of the criticism about Edmonds’ candidacy was that he didn’t play enough, that his 7,980 career plate appearances (and “only” 393 homers) were a tad low. Hoffman, in his career, faced 4,388 batters. Edmonds’ WAR was 60.3, Hoffman’s was 28.0. It’s fair to ask whether the writers are being blinded by the gaudy save totals: Edmonds is one-and-done and Hoffman is on the cusp of Cooperstown just because Hoffman spent most of his career in the high-leverage 9th inning and Edmonds spent too many days on the disabled list.
Let’s frame this in a different way. On the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot, as ranked by total saves, three of the top six relief pitchers in history (Hoffman, Smith, Wagner) were all up for the Hall at the same time. To recap, Hoffman (601 career saves) got 74% of the vote; Smith (478) got 34% of the vote in his final year of eligibility and Wagner (422) got 10%.
Now, remember, the BBWAA members can only vote for 10 players per year. This ballot contained 18 to 19 legitimate candidates (which, of course, includes several linked to PED’s). Thanks to Ryan Thibodeaux’s Hall of Fame tracker (which compiles the publicly disclosed votes of all writers), I found it interesting that 13 writers cast ballots for all three relievers. Initially, I assumed these were “anti-PED” ballots but 7 of these 13 writers also voted for Bonds and 6 voted for Roger Clemens.
I find it remarkable that 5 of these writers did not vote for either Mike Mussina or Curt Schilling, two terrific starting pitchers who have been on the outside looking in for several years. I counted an additional 26 writers who voted for Hoffman and Smith (but not Wagner) who also didn’t vote for either Mussina or Schilling. (You can link to my pieces regarding Mussina here and Schilling here).
It’s hard to understand voting for two (or three!) relief pitchers and not voting for any starting pitchers on the same ballot. It seems to me that those writers are missing the bigger picture.
I’m not making the point here that Trevor Hoffman should not be in the Hall of Fame. On the contrary, I think, on balance, that he’s worthy. But, for me, he would be waiting in line behind Mussina, Schilling and many others.
WAR is not the proper statistic with which to evaluate the value of the games’ top closers and who should be in the Hall of Fame. Total career saves isn’t either. We can now safely exit this rabbit hole.
Which Relief Pitchers Should Be in the Hall of Fame?
Finally! We get to the crux of the matter. Which relief pitchers should be in the Hall of Fame?
Besides Mariano Rivera.
Let’s quickly first dispense with the pretenders, very good pitchers who we discussed in this seven-part series and who received at least 2% of the Hall of Fame vote but did not get remotely close to even getting 50% of the overall BBWAA tallies.
|Years Pitched||HOF Vote||The Case For...||The Case Against...|
|Roy Face (1953-1969)||On ballot for 15 years, max vote 18.9%||191 Career Saves (2nd most to Wilhelm pre-1970). Went 18-1, 2.70 ERA in 1959, 3-time All-Star||3.48 ERA is high for a relief pitcher. 18 wins in 1959 included 9 blown saves with 53% inherited runners scoring|
|John Hiller (1965-1980)||On ballot once (1986), got 2.6% of the vote||134 career ERA+, 31.2 career WAR (4th best ever for RP), 10-5 with 38 saves & 1.44 ERA in 1973||Only one All-Star Game, just 125 career saves, high career WHIP (1.268)|
|Sparky Lyle (1967-1982)||On ballot for 4 years, max vote 13.1% in 1988||238 career saves (2nd most when he retired), 2.88 ERA. Won 1977 A.L. Cy Young (13-5, 2.17 ERA, 26 saves), 3-time All-Star||Low career save total, high career WHIP (1.275), high career BAA (.251)|
|Dan Quisenberry (1979-1990)||On ballot once (1996), got 3.8% of the vote||Led AL in saves 5 times, Top 3 in Cy Young vote 4 times, 1.4 BB/9 IP (best in MLB last 100 years), 146 ERA+ (3rd best for RP w/ min 1,000 IP)||Short career for his era (1,043 IP), 244 saves is low, weak post-season record, 2 blown saves (both losses) in 1980 Series.|
|Jeff Reardon (1979-1994)||On ballot once (2000), got 4.8% of the vote||367 career saves (2nd most when he retired), 3.16 ERA, closed Game 7 of 1987 World Series, 4-time All-Star||Only led league in saves once (1985), poor post-season (4.57 ERA, 3 blown saves)|
|John Franco (1984-2005)||On ballot once (2011), got 4.6% of the vote)||424 career saves (5th most all-time), 2.89 ERA, 138 ERA+ (5th best for RP w/ min. 1,000 IP), 4-time All-Star||Peripheral numbers are weak: 1.333 WHIP, .249 BAA, 32% inherited runners scored|
Next, let’s do a brief rundown of three modern closers with over 350 saves, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan. All three were released by the same team (the Washington Nationals) in the last 12 months and the Nats are a team that needs relief pitching.
Nathan’s career is finished (he’s 42 years old and just recently announced his retirement) but it’s still possible for K-Rod or Pap (in their mid-30’s) to make comebacks. And, if they have any Cooperstown aspirations, comebacks would be highly useful. If you look at the Baseball Reference page for Billy Wagner, the top three comparative pitchers, according to Bill James’ Similarity Scores (see the Glossary for an explanation) are, in order, Rodriguez, Papelbon and Nathan. Here’s how they stack up against each other.
|Francisco Rodriguez||Billy Wagner||Joe Nathan||Jonathan Papelbon|
|SV w 4+ outs||32||36||11||37|
|IR Scored %||28.7%||27.7%||32.2%||26.2%|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
Now, as we can clearly see, this is an impressive quartet. When it comes to the “rate” stats, the 5’10” Wagner rules. Besides being the best of this foursome, Wagner’s rate of strikeouts per 9 innings and batting average against are the best for any pitcher in the history of baseball with at least 750 innings pitched. His adjusted ERA+ is 2nd best in history only to Mariano Rivera.
Considering that Wagner has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for two years and only earned 10% of the vote each year, if we can clearly demonstrate that he was better than Rodriguez, Nathan and Papelbon, then it’s safe to say that those three have a snowball’s chance in you know where to get to Cooperstown. So, looking at these numbers, if you had to pick one out of this quartet, it’s pretty clear that the totality of Wagner’s career is superior to those of the other three. Wagner has a higher raw total of saves than all but Rodriguez and his rate stats are significantly better across the board. The potential caveat is that it’s still possible (though unlikely) that K-Rod or Pap could stage comebacks and pile up a hundred or more saves because they’re still relatively young.
As for Nathan, who will turn 43 on November 22nd, he is officially retired so the record is set. Nathan was highly underrated and arguably in Wagner’s class. His rate stats are worse because of 29 starts early in his career, when he was decidedly mediocre. In 761 innings as a reliever, he posted a 2.50 ERA and held opposing batters to just a .197 average. His ERA+ as a relief pitcher was 179, just barely behind Wagner’s 187 mark. From 2004-2009, his first six seasons in Minnesota, he was every bit as good as Rivera but only in the regular season. Nathan had two notable post-season meltdowns, both times against Rivera’s Yankees, in the 2004 and 2009 ALDS.
Anyway, despite the sterling credentials of these four one-inning wonders, if any one of them were ever to be elected to the Hall of Fame, he would be the first pitcher to be inducted with less than 1,000 career innings pitched. This is a problem and it’s the chief complaint by those who think relief pitchers are inherently overrated and already overrepresented in Cooperstown. Until Rollie Fingers was inducted in 1991, the fewest number of innings pitched by a man with a plaque was 1,967.1 (Dizzy Dean). Fingers, he of the famous handlebar mustache and the all-time saves leader at the time of his induction, threw 1,701.1 career innings so this wasn’t a dramatic reduction for a minimum standard. The next reliever to get into the Hall was Dennis Eckersley, but he wasn’t a pure reliever of course. He tossed career 3,285.1 innings thanks to 12 years as a starter.
It wasn’t until 2006, when Bruce Sutter was elected, that the bar was lowered to a level attainable by today’s one-inning closers. Sutter, because of injuries and ineffectiveness, only threw 64 innings after his 32nd birthday and finished with just 1,042 IP in his career. The most recent closer to get into the Hall (Goose Gossage, in 2018) was a contemporary whose career was most similar to Fingers’. Goose threw 1,809.1 innings in his 22 seasons on the mound.
So, having unceremoniously dispatched with the Cooperstown cases for Face, Hiller, Lyle, Quisenberry, Reardon, Franco, Rodriguez, Nathan and Papelbon, that leaves us with nine relief pitchers who are either in the Hall of Fame, will be inducted soon or who still have a chance.
- Already inducted: Hoyt Wilhelm, Fingers, Eckersley, Sutter, Gossage
- Will be inducted soon: Trevor Hoffman, Rivera
- Still hoping for a change in fortunes: Wagner, Lee Smith
That’s five that are in, two on the doorstep and two others on the outside.
That leaves us with seven Hall of Fame closers as of July 2019 with two others on the outside. Wagner is still on the ballot (and has up to eight years more of eligibility) but, thus far, is languishing at 10% of the vote. Smith spent fifteen years on the ballot, peaking at 51% in 2012, finishing at 34% this January.
Let’s go through the Cooperstown Cred for each of these nine. I’m going to list them in order, the order being a result of a blend of subjective analysis and objective methodology researched by the author:
1. Mariano Rivera:
I don’t think I need to do a whole lot of convincing here. Anybody who would not put Mariano Rivera on the top of the list of relief pitchers doesn’t have any business writing about baseball. He’s the Babe Ruth of relief pitchers. Besides having the best regular season and post-season numbers (by a mile, in both cases), Rivera was the epitome of class and sportsmanship.
On April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier, Jackie Robinson’s uniform #42 was retired throughout the game of baseball, the exception being that any player currently wearing the number on their back could continue to do so for as long as they wanted. At the time, 13 different MLB players wore #42. When Mo Vaughn retired after the 2003 season, Rivera was the last of the 42’s. For a decade, he was the only player in baseball with the honor of wearing that sacred number on his back and Robinson’s widow and descendants could not have wished for a man more worthy of wearing it.
As far as his ranking among all relief pitchers. there’s no need to go through all of Rivera’s numbers again. He stands atop almost all of the charts throughout this series and will again as we discuss the other relief greats in the game.
The question I would like to ponder here is where Rivera ranks among all pitchers (whether starter or reliever) and, albeit a more difficult task, how his value stacks up against the game’s best position players. On the most basic level, if we are to consider being a team’s stopper a “position” on the team, as shortstop is a position, we can start with the fact that he is on a list that includes Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner of players for whom there is virtually no debate about whether they’re the best ever at that position.
Then there’s the “ring” factor. He’s got five, tied with many others (including his New York Yankees teammates) for the most for any player in the LCS era (1969 and beyond). And, as we’ll see, nobody came close to contributing more value to those five titles in the Bronx.
Let’s re-introduce the concept of WPA (Win Probability Added). This is very different from WAR and easier to understand how it’s calculated. It’s also really important when evaluating relief pitchers, especially in the post-season.
A full explanation of WPA can be found here in the Glossary. Here is the short version: at every point in every game, there is a statistical “win probability” for each team to win the game. Generally speaking, f your team is ahead, your win probability will be greater than 50%; if you’re losing, less than 50%. If you’re a closer and you enter the game on the road in the 9th inning with a 3 run lead and no runners on base, your team has approximately a 96% chance of winning that game. If you win, you get 0.04 Win Probability Added for taking your team from 96% to 100%. If you give up four runs and your team loses, you get -0.96 Win Probability Added because you snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Therefore, as a relief pitcher, you have to succeed far more than you fail to generate a positive WPA. The statistic exists for hitters as well. In 1988, Kirk Gibson got a 0.87 WPA for hitting his two-out, two-run home run off Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series. In that same at bat, Eckersley’s WPA was –0.87.
So, with that background, take a look at the role that Rivera played, compared to his teammates, in the Yankees’ five World Series Championships.
|1996, 1998-00, 2009||WPA||*Rings|
|*Rings with Yankees|
You can take any three of Rivera’s teammates and their play-by-play contributions to the wins that led to those five rings do not match the Sandman’s.
Now, let’s take a wider view. How do Rivera’s post-season contributions to the Bronx Bombers compare to all other players in the LCS era (since 1969)? This chart shows all post-season games, including title years and years where the players’ teams fall short.
|All Post-Season (LCS era)||WPA||*Rings||Statistics|
|Mariano Rivera||11.7||5||8-1, 0.70 ERA, 42 SV|
|Curt Schilling||4.1||3||11-2, 2.23 ERA|
|John Smoltz||3.6||1||15-4, 2.67 ERA, 4 SV|
|Andy Pettitte||3.5||5||19-11, 3.81 ERA|
|David Ortiz||3.2||3||17 HR, 61 RBI, .947 OPS|
|Jon Lester||3.2||3||9-7, 2.55 ERA|
|Albert Pujols||2.9||2||19 HR, 54 RBI, 1.030 OPS|
|Orel Hershiser||2.8||1||8-3, 2.59 ERA, 1 SV|
|Madison Bumgarner||2.7||3||8-3, 2.11 ERA, 1 SV|
|Wade Davis||2.7||1||4-0, 1.40 ERA, 8 SV|
|Lance Berkman||2.7||1||9 HR, 41 RBI, .949 OPS|
|Pete Rose||2.6||3||.321 BA, .388 OBP|
|Orlando Hernandez||2.6||4||9-3, 2.55 ERA|
|Roger Clemens||2.5||2||12-8, 3.75 ERA|
|Rollie Fingers||2.5||3||4-4, 2.35 ERA, 9 SV|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
Again, a complete domination of all other players by Mariano Rivera. In October baseball, no three other players combined match the contributions on the diamond contributed by Rivera.
Next, again using WPA, we see that, using the regular season only, the Great Mariano ranks 4th among all pitchers going back to 1930 (the first year Baseball Reference tracks the statistic for regular season games):
|*For WPA, does not include 1925-1929|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
When you add up all of the batter-pitcher match-ups in the game since 1930 and you factor in “what’s at stake” with respect to the game score and inning, Mariano Rivera, despite pitching a mere 1,283.2 innings, added more value to his teams than all but three pitchers over the last 86 years. If you add in the post-season, real games in which he had a real impact, he’s second only to Roger Clemens. This is not to say that Mariano was necessarily a better pitcher overall than Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson. Could Rivera have won 300 games as a starter or dominated batters for seven innings at a time as Pedro did during his prime? The answer is “probably not.” The point here is that Mariano was so magnificent in his role that his impact on wins and losses was in the league of these all-time great starters.
And finally, to compare Rivera to the great hitters of the last 88 years, we’ll use WPA for both pitchers and hitters, adding in the post-season. Although, by adding October games, I’m rigging it in Rivera’s favor, post-season baseball is the most important part of the game’s history. If I really wanted to rig this chart, I would multiply the players’ post-season WPA’s by a factor of five or ten because the games are so much more important, they’re more memorable, and they put the Fame in Hall of Fame. So here we go:
|Rk||Career WPA||Reg Sea.||Post||ALL|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
Now, there is a big whopper of a caveat to this list and it’s that, for position players, it only measures their contributions at the plate and on the base paths. Defense is not included. So I’m not going to say that Mariano Rivera added more value to his teams than Rickey Henderson, who was an excellent defensive player until his mid-30’s. But when you compare Rivera to a mostly one-dimensional slugger with a similar regular season WPA, such as contemporary Frank Thomas (60.6 career WPA), it’s entirely reasonable to put Rivera in a class one rung above because of his post-season accomplishments.
Mariano Rivera, a skinny kid from Panama who discovered his legendary cutter by accident, will be a first-ballot inductee in the Hall of Fame Class of 2019. Because he has had a greater impact on post-season baseball than any other player in the history of the game, the only question is whether he gets 100% of the vote, something no player in history has attained. In the summer of ’19, The Sandman will enter the hallowed halls of Cooperstown and he will be one of the most deserving inductees ever.
2. Goose Gossage:
Richard “Goose” Gossage was, simply put, the most intimidating relief pitcher of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. He intimidated long before growing his famous Fu Manchu mustache. He intimidated with a 100 mile per hour fastball in an era where that was a rarity.
Some of Gossage’s career rate stats (3.01 ERA, 1.232 WHIP) are lower than you would expect, thanks to many years that he spent in the twilight years of his career as a set-up man. In 1988, he picked up his 302nd save with the Chicago Cubs, his fifth Major League team but not his last. He then pitched for five MLB clubs from 1989-1994 and also spent a year in Japan (1990).
Statistically speaking, it’s Goose’s nine-year prime (from 1977-1985) that holds the key to his Cooperstown case. And, because it’s not continuous (interrupted by his ill-conceived ’76 campaign as a starter), those ranks don’t count his 1975 season when, in 141.2 innings pitched, he saved 26 games with a 1.84 ERA.
|Gossage 1977-'85||Total||Rank||Leader or 2nd best||Total|
|SO/9 IP||8.6||2nd||Mark Clear||8.9|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
All told, during his peak years, the Goose was the dominant reliever in the game and a mainstay of the Mid-Summer Classic, making 9 out of 11 All-Star squads from 1975 to 1985. Oh, and by the way, in one of the two years he missed (1979), he was injured for most of the first half of the season. Among relief pitchers, only the Great Rivera appeared in more All-Star Games.
By my count (see the Lee Smith comment below), Gossage was one of the best three relief pitchers in the game seven times in ten relief pitcher seasons between ’75 and ’85.
Unless you don’t believe in relief pitchers as Hall of Famers in general, Gossage is an easy call for Cooperstown.
3. Dennis Eckersley:
I could have ranked Dennis Eckersley second on this list, or last.
His career was so unique that he doesn’t fit into neat classifications of different types of relief pitchers. Having spent the first 12 seasons of his career as a very good (but not great) starting pitcher, he was transformed by Oakland A’s manager Tony La Russa into an unstoppable force out of the bullpen. In a sport of numbers and firsts, Eckersley has a lot of them…
- First and only pitcher to win 175 games and save 350 games
- With a smaller standard, first and only pitcher to win 125 games and save 250 games
- First pitcher to make at least two All-Star teams as starting pitcher and two as a reliever
- First pitcher to finish in the top 5 of Cy Young Award voting as both starter and reliever
- First pitcher to win 20 or more games in a season and save 40 or more games in a season
- First relief pitcher with four seasons of 45 or more saves
Eckersley wasn’t the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young and the MVP in the same season (Rollie Fingers beat him to that) but, in the year in which he achieved that feat, he had just completed a five-year run of relief pitching that the game of baseball had never seen before.
From 1988-1992, Eckersley went 24-9 with 220 saves, converting on 89% of his save opportunities while sporting an ERA of 1.90 and a microscopic WHIP of 0.792. That five-year run with his 1.90 ERA was, at the time, the best five-year stretch for a relief pitcher since Wilhelm posted a 1.74 ERA from 1964-1968 during a slow offensive era.
Why did I say that I could rank Eckersley last on this list? The reason is that, for the totality of his time in the bullpen, Eckersley was not quite as great as the legend we remember. He had a solid year as a middle reliever in 1987 and then those five spectacular years from 1988-1992. But, in his final six seasons (1993-1998), Eck had a middling 4.15 ERA for a relief pitcher (ballpark-adjusted to a 104 ERA+). Based on his reputation, Eckersley was still his team’s designated closer for five of those six seasons (three in Oakland and two in St. Louis). He collected 150 of his 390 career saves in those five seasons (with his last save in 1998 back in Boston). Remember, La Russa left the A’s after the 1995 season to take over the Cards in 1996 and, in what we’re sure was not a coincidence, the Redbirds traded for La Russa’s favorite ace reliever.
Now, it’s possible that I’m projecting my own thoughts and biases on a large segment of the baseball writers who inducted him, but I feel that the great irony of his career is that people didn’t remember how good a starting pitcher he was and, because of the huge save totals and the brilliant five-year run, tended to overrate his career as a relief pitcher.
Even as one of the prototypes of a one-inning closer, his overall numbers as a reliever don’t match those that followed him. Repeating a graphic from Part Four of this series, these are Eckersley’s numbers as a reliever compared to six others who logged between 700 and 1,000 innings out of the bullpen.
Eckersley’s numbers don’t look so great compared to those that followed him but the other five names on this list didn’t win 151 games as a starter with a 3.67 ERA. The other names on this list didn’t start their careers with eleven seasons in the starting rotation in which they kept company like this…
|ERA+||113||Tied-7||Blyleven, Palmer, Carlton, Guidry, Seaver, Rogers|
|Wins||145||8th||Carlton, P. Niekro, Seaver, Sutton, Guidry, Ryan, J. Niekro|
|Strikeouts||1490||9th||Ryan, Carlton, P. Niekro, Blyleven, Seaver, Tanana, Sutton, Guidry|
|WHIP||1.201||7th||Sutton, Seaver, Guidry, Palmer, Carlton, Blyleven|
|WAR||43.8||5th||P. Niekro, Blyleven, Carlton, Seaver|
|WPA||16.7||6th||Palmer, Guidry, Seaver, Carlton, Blyleven|
You’ll notice that the vast majority of the names on this list, the ones with numbers better than Eckersley’s, are Hall of Famers. The ones that aren’t (Steve Rogers, Ron Guidry, Frank Tanana, and Joe Niekro) probably would be if they too had saved over 300 games in the second acts of their careers.
Neither his career as a starter nor his career as a reliever are, by themselves, Coopertown caliber. But, when you combine both acts and for all of the “firsts” of his 24 years on the mound, there’s no doubt that Eckersley deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.
4. Rollie Fingers
Rollie Fingers is in the Hall of Fame for four reasons and only four reasons:
- He was the all-time leader in saves for over a decade
- He helped the Oakland A’s win three consecutive World Series from 1972-74
- He won the MVP and Cy Young in 1981 with the Milwaukee Brewers
- He had one of the greatest mustaches in the history of the sport
By the way, don’t think that #4 is unimportant. Being instantly recognized is a part of being famous and his signature handlebar mustache, as much as anything else, made Fingers famous.
I started paying attention to baseball when I was 8 years old, which was in 1975. My parents weren’t fans so the game was never on our family TV but I was playing softball in the 3rd grade, was pretty good, and picked up my love of the sport from my classmates. I started collecting baseball cards, became a fan of the Oakland A’s for one reason only: I liked the mustaches. I was 8, completely incapable of growing one, and I thought they were cool.
Being just 8 years old, I was fickle and, when the 1975 A’s lost in the ALCS to the Boston Red Sox, my allegiance quickly transferred to the Red Sox. You see, they had a facial-haired star of their own, Luis Tiant, the side-winding Cuban starting pitcher with the Fu Manchu ‘stache. My love of the Red Sox stuck; I remain a fan to this day.
Why am I torturing you with this trivial information? Because, to understand Fingers’ 2nd ballot induction into the Hall of Fame in 1991, you have to understand the saves, the rings, the hardware and, yes, the mustache.
Forgetting the ‘stache for a moment, the basic case is simplistic but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right: most saves ever, 3 rings, MVP, Cy Young. Period. Done. Plaque in the Hall.
But as the years go by and sabermetrics take root in the analysis of the sport, Fingers’ place in Cooperstown is questioned. He’s considered by many to be overrated. To play devil’s advocate, if you just look at his regular season numbers and pretend that the save statistic never existed, Fingers’ overall statistical profile is not Cooperstown-worthy. Let’s not apply retroactive standards from the era of one-inning closers and just look at how Fingers’ numbers looked at the time of his induction (the winter of 1991-92). This is how he ranked in a variety of statistical categories, stats that we knew about in 1991 and some that we didn’t.
This is a forty-year view, starting with Wilhelm’s rookie year.
|IP||1701.1||5th||Wilhelm, McDaniel, Giusti, Stanley|
|Wins||114||5th||Wilhelm, McDaniel, Gossage, Stanley|
|ERA||2.90||8th||Wilhelm, Quisenberry, Perranoski, Sutter, Hiller, Tekulve, Lyle|
|WHIP||1.156||4th||Dick Hall, Wilhelm, Sutter|
|SO||1299||4th||Wilhelm, Gossage, McDaniel|
|BAA||.235||8th||Wilhelm, McMahon, Gossage, Reardon, Hiller, Bedrosian, Sutter|
|ERA+||120||13th||Wilhelm, Quisenberry, Sutter, Hiller, Tekulve, Gossage, Lyle, Reardon, Righetti, Lavelle, Perranoski, Carroll|
|WAR||25.1||7th||Wilhelm, Gossage, Hiller, McDaniel, Stu Miller, Tekulve|
|WPA||16.1||9th||Gossage, Wilhelm, McGraw, Quisenberry, Miller, Sutter, Righetti, Reardon|
Well, there you have it. The numbers don’t lie. Statistically speaking, for the regular season only, this is not a Hall of Fame resume. The only category in which Fingers (as of the end of the 1991 season) ranked even in the top three is in saves, in which he was the all-time leader.
There is big BUT, however. A bigger BUT than even Sir Mix ‘a Lot would like because, as you know, he likes big butts. Of course, that “but” is that it’s all about the post-season, baby. It’s the three rings. Most of the names ahead of Fingers in those many statistical categories own one World Series ring, some have none at all. Only Ron Perranoski and Don McMahon have two titles to their names but neither played a significant role in either of their teams’ titles.
Three years ago, Houston Mitchell, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, penned a piece entitled “You’re out! The case for cuts in baseball’s Hall of Fame.” It’s an interesting piece and many of Mitchell’s “cuts” were Veterans’ Committee selections from the over-represented first half of the 19th century. But he included Fingers among his cuts, writing “do we really think the Oakland Athletics won three straight titles in the 1970s because of Fingers?”
With all due respect, Houston, we have a problem. Let’s be clear about this: YES, the Oakland Athletics won three straight titles in the 1970s because of Rollie Fingers.
For those who may have skipped Part Five of this series, let’s look again to what a crucial role Fingers played in the three titles of the Oakland A’s. In the three title runs, he posted a 1.55 ERA over 46.1 innings, earning 3 wins and 8 saves over 24 games. Clearly, for most Hall of Fame voters 25 years ago, that, plus being the all-time saves leader and the 1981 MVP/Cy Young Award winner, was good enough to give him a plaque.
As we saw in Part Five, Fingers’ Win Probability Added (WPA) was 2.8 for the 1972-74 post-seasons, the most (by far) among any members of the Athletics.
How did Fingers get to that 2.8 WPA and the 1.55 ERA in the three title runs? Simply put, he played a key role in 3 of the A’s 9 wins in the ALCS for those years and a key role in all 12 wins in the World Series. In 1972, all four A’s wins against the Cincinnati Reds were by one run. In 1973, two wins against the New York Mets were by one run, one win was by two runs, and one win by three. In 1974, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, three of the four wins were by just a single run, the other win by three. There were no blowouts.
During the A’s dynasty years, the team did not win a single World Series game without a meaningful contribution from Rollie Fingers, who posted a 0.77 ERA in those wins. In 7 of those 12 wins, the A’s closer entered the contest with just a one-run lead. In those wins, six times he entered the game with the tying run on base, four times with the tying run in scoring position.
Let’s run down what Fingers did in these twelve team wins (and the four losses in which Rollie appeared) and then tell me that you think the A’s would have won all three World Series without him:
|Year||Gm||Inning||Outs||Runners||Score||What Rollie Fingers did||A's Result|
|1972||1||Bot 6||0||2nd||Up 3-2||Stranded runner on 2nd, 1.2 scoreless IP||W, 3-2|
|1972||2||Bot 9||2||1st||Up 2-1||Got final out to strand runner on 1st base (save)||W, 2-1|
|1972||3||Top 8||1||1st/3rd||Dn 1-0||Stranded both runners, total 1.2 scoreless IP||L, 0-1|
|1972||4||Top 9||0||1st||Dn 2-1||Stranded runner, scoreless IP, A's won in bottom 9th (win)||W, 3-2|
|1972||5||Top 5||2||1st||Up 4-3||Stranded runner, two scoreless IP before giving up tying run in 8th, winning run in 9th (loss)||L, 4-5|
|1972||7||Bot 8||0||2nd/3rd||Up 3-1||Gives up Sac Fly, otherwise 2 scoreless IP (save)||W, 3-2|
|1973||1||Top 6||0||None||Up 2-1||3.1 scoreless IP, Darold Knowles gets last 2 outs||W, 2-1|
|1973||2||Top 10||0||None||Tie 6-6||2 scoreless IP, then gives up RBI single to Willie Mays & 2 UER in 12th (takes loss)||L, 7-10|
|1973||3||Bot 11||0||1st||Up 3-2||Strands runner, gets 3 outs for the save||W, 3-2|
|1973||5||Bot 7||0||None||Dn 2-0||2 scoreless IP||L, 0-2|
|1973||6||Top 8||2||1st/3rd||Up 2-1||Strands both runners, pitches perfect 9th inning (save)||W, 3-1|
|1973||7||Top 6||1||2nd||Up 5-1||Strands runner, 3.1 innings, gives up UER on E3 in 9th, Knowles gets last out||W, 5-2|
|1974||1||Bot 5||1||1st/2nd||Up 2-1||Strands both runners, gives up 1 run in 4.1 IP, Hunter gets final out (Fingers gets the win)||W, 3-2|
|1974||3||Top 8||1||None||Up 3-1||1.2 IP, gives up 1 run, would have been credited with save under current rule||W, 3-2|
|1974||4||Top 8||2||1st/2nd||Up 5-2||Strands both runners, gets 4 outs for the save||W, 5-2|
|1974||5||Top 8||0||None||Up 3-2||Two scoreless innings to get save and clinch Series||W, 3-2|
Of course, this being the ’70’s, Fingers wasn’t a one-inning closer. He pitched the final two innings of Game 7 in 1972; he tossed 3.1 innings late in Game 7 in 1973 (before, wearing down, he was replaced by Darold Knowles for the final out); in 1974, he preserved a one-run lead in the decisive Game 5, getting the final 6 outs.
Fingers wasn’t perfect. He did allow the Reds to tie Game 5 of the ’72 Series in the 8th inning and then take the lead in the 9th, but even in defeat he shined: his 8th and 9th inning blemishes happened after he had already tossed 2.1 scoreless innings from the 5th through the 7th. The only other foible was in Game 2 of the ’73 Series. He lost the game in the 12th inning, again, shining in defeat, because he had already pitched a scoreless 10th and 11th.
Want more? In his entire post-season career (spanning 30 games), Fingers entered the game with 30 runners on base. Just 2 of those 30 inherited runners crossed the plate. Two out of thirty. And, oh, by the way, 16 of those inherited runners were in scoring position; just 2 scored. (Rivera, by comparison, even in his greatness, allowed 10 of 53 inherited runners to touch home plate in post-season play).
Fingers was the MVP of the 1974 World Series and, with all due respect to Reggie Jackson, he arguably should have earned MVP honors in the ’73 Fall Classic as well. Reggie drove in two runs in both Game 6 and Game 7 but Fingers played a crucial role in all four wins.
So you can take Fingers’ so-so ERA (for a Hall of Fame reliever) and good but not great regular season WAR and all I have to say is “three rings, played a role in all twelve wins to earn them.” Take that plus the fact that he did hold the career saves record for over a decade and the Hall of Fame without Rollie Fingers is unthinkable. Of course he belongs in Cooperstown.
5. Trevor Hoffman
If you look at their regular season statistics, Trevor Hoffman would rank ahead of Rollie Fingers on a list of the greatest relief pitchers of all-time. On my list, he’s just behind and it’s because of October. Period.
While Fingers was the 2nd greatest post-season relief pitching hero in MLB history, Hoffman was decidedly not. Whether its the 1996 NLDS, the 1998 World Series, or the 2007 tie-breaker game in Colorado, Hoffman’s career in October was a significant disappointment. As I wrote in the piece Trevor Hoffman: Closing in on Cooperstown, my initial thought was that Hoffman, because of the lack of post-season accomplishments, fell short of the standard for a Hall of Fame closer. In that same piece, I explained why I changed my mind about him. When he gets inducted in the summer of 2018 (it’s almost inevitable that he’ll get in), I’ll be very happy to see him there. He was one of the really good guys in baseball and had a long and productive career.
Although he entered his games at home in San Diego to the heavy metal soundtrack of AC-DC’s Hell’s Bells, Hoffman wasn’t flashy. He rarely put up super-gaudy numbers. Just twice did he post a ERA under 2.00. At the same time, during his twelve-year peak (1996-2007), his ERA was over 3.00 just one time. In his best season (1998), he posted a 1.48 ERA, saved 53 games, and finished 2nd in the N.L. Cy Young voting, losing barely to Tom Glavine.
Besides being the owner of 601 career regular season saves (2nd best in history) and a 7-time All-Star, there are a few other statistical nuggets that call to Hoffman’s consistent excellence and worthiness to have a plaque with his name on it in Cooperstown.
Among relief pitchers with at least 1,000 career IP, the minimum standard for Baseball Reference leader-boards:
- Allowed only 20.2% of all inherited runners to score (out of 346 runners): best ever
- Converted 88.8% of save opportunities: 2nd best ever (to Rivera)
- .211 batting average against (BAA): tied for best ever (with Rivera)
- 141 ERA+ is fourth best (behind Rivera, Wilhelm and Dan Quisenberry)
- 1.058 WHIP is second best ever (to Rivera)
- 9.36 career rate of strikeouts per 9 innings (SO/9): 3rd best ever (to Kerry Wood & Oliver Perez)
Now, there’s a big qualification to mention. If you lower the minimum from 1,000 to 900, Hoffman’s rankings in these categories drop, from 1st to 5th in SO/9, from 2nd to 3rd in save opportunities converted, from 1st to 4th in BAA, from 4th to 7th in ERA+ and from 2nd to 3rd in WHIP. So, it’s fair to ask if it’s a significant enough difference, for instance, between Billy Wagner’s 903 innings to Hoffman’s 1,089.1 innings, to put one of them at 74% in the Hall of Fame vote and the other at 10%.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison:
Needless to say, if you’re looking at run and base-runner prevention metrics (ERA, WHIP), Wagner’s are superior. His strikeout rate is significantly better. But when it comes to results, what actually happened with respect to wins and losses, Hoffman’s numbers are better. Besides the raw total in saves, Hoffman had a higher success rate and also has been the best reliever ever in terms of keeping inherited runners from scoring.
In terms of how their managers’ used them, Hoffman was asked to put out far more fires. In his career, he entered the game with 346 runners on base; Wagner only inherited 166 runners in his entire career.
|Career Statistics||Trevor Hoffman||Billy Wagner|
|Situation when entering the game||Saves||BSV||SV %||Saves||BSV||SV %|
|9th (or extra) inning w/ 2 or 3 run lead, no runners||308||21||94%||232||12||95%|
|9th (or extra) inning w/ 1 run lead, no runners||172||40||81%||129||32||80%|
|With Runners on Base||115||14||89%||56||21||73%|
Incidentally, Hoffman’s success rate of 89% with runners on base is also eight points higher than Mariano Rivera’s.
When you take into account the fact that Hoffman was asked to pitch (and succeeded in) far more “runners on base” situations, it’s fair give credit to the volume of his work over the precision and excellence of Wagner’s. Billy the Kid may have tossed more perfect innings, struck out more batters and allowed fewer meaningless runs but, in terms of doing the job of “closing,” Hoffman simply did more.
Finally, to make the sabermetric case, we return to my favorite metric when evaluating relief pitchers, WPA (Win Probability Added). The chart below shows the top 20 in career WPA for all pitchers for as long as the metric has been measured by Baseball Reference (since 1930):
Hoffman finds himself on this list, the one that measures how much a pitcher added to or subtracted from his team’s chances of winning each game, in the top 21. That puts him ahead of all 5 currently enshrined relief aces and 16 starting pitchers whose careers began in 1930 or later (the beginning of WPA tracking).
To add one more sabermetric credit to Hoffman’s resume, fivethirtyeight.com’s Nate Silver’s “Goose Egg” piece (referenced earlier in Part Six of this series) includes his version of “Goose Egg” WAR (which he calls GWAR). Without explaining how Silver came up with these numbers, he ranks Rivera first (of course), Hoffman 2nd, Gossage 3rd and Wagner 4th.
Taking these two metrics with 601 career saves, his high success rate in save situations, and his prevention of inherited runners from scoring, I think we can all safely applaud Trevor Hoffman’s inevitable induction into the Hall of Fame next summer.
Now, revisiting the question from the first section of this piece, what’s the right number of relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame? As we saw, going back to the 1988 vote, by the time Hoffman and Rivera have been inducted, we’ll have seen six relief pitchers put into the Hall over a 30-year period, a level of representation higher than all eight starting offensive positions.
6. Hoyt Wilhelm:
I’m not old enough to have seen Hoyt Wilhelm pitch so I’ve only got the numbers and the contemporary historical impressions to go with. What I see is a pioneer, the most important relief pitcher of the first 100 years of the sport.
|Wilhelm 1952-72||Total||Rank||1st or 2nd best||Total|
|WHIP||1.125||2nd||Dick Hall (#1)||1.102|
With 2,254.1 innings pitched in his career, Old Sarge had enough volume to negate any issues regarding his workload as a relief pitcher. His career ERA of 2.52 is 3rd best for anybody who spent their entire career pitching in the last 100 years (and with at least 1,000 innings pitched). Only Rivera and still-active Clayton Kershaw are ahead. Sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.
7. Bruce Sutter
The sixth of those six relievers who will have been inducted in the Hall of Fame from 1988 to 2019 (the third of them chronologically to actually be inducted) is Bruce Sutter. When compiling this “top 9” list in order, it was pretty easy for me to rank Rivera, Gossage, Eckersley, Fingers, Hoffman and Wilhelm. For the final three (Sutter, Lee Smith and Billy Wagner), I can see valid arguments for listing them in any order. Smith has the third most saves ever. Sutter pioneered the split-fingered fastball and dominated the league for several years. Wagner has some of the greatest run and base-runner prevention stats in baseball history.
Ultimately I settled on Sutter at #7, Wagner 8th and Smith 9th for reasons I’ll share below.
I was and still am on the fence about Bruce Sutter as a Hall of Famer. If the baseball writers over the past three decades had seen fit to induct a few more starting pitchers and position players I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I’m a “Big Hall” guy who feels that the players of the second half of the 20th century should be represented in Cooperstown at levels similar to the representation for players from the first half of the century. In that version of the Hall of Fame, Sutter is an easy call. During his peak (from 1977 to 1984) he was best relief pitcher in the National League and the second best in baseball (to Gossage). During those eight years, he made 6 All-Star teams, won a Cy Young Award and finished in the top 6 on four other occasions.
Having said that, Sutter’s Cooperstown case is, in my opinion, the weakest among all who are inducted or are about to be. The reason is simply because Sutter’s career was so relatively brief. After his spectacular 1984 campaign in St. Louis (45 saves, 1.54 ERA), he signed a massive free agent contract with Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves, a contract with so much deferred money that, according to his SABR Bio, he was paid $44 million over 36 years. Sutter, who only pitched 152.1 innings over three seasons with the Braves (in a 6-year deal) is still getting that annuity today.
To reprise a pair of graphics from Part Three of this series, here is a side by side comparison between Sutter and Dan Quisenberry, the side-arming closer for the Kansas City Royals who was, statistically, the best relief pitcher in the game for an eight year period (1980-1987). For those eight years, Quisenberry was tops in saves, ERA, WAR and WPA and 2nd in WHIP to Gossage.
First, the career numbers for Sutter and Quiz, who pitched nearly an identical number of innings in their relatively brief careers (12 years each).
The only difference between the two is in the raw number of saves compiled and specifically, that Sutter reached the 300 save milestone and Quisenberry fell short. But this is solely due to the fact that Sutter’s managers gave him more opportunities throughout his years on the mound and, specifically, his four different managers in Atlanta kept running him out as their teams’ closer even though his performance had fallen off a cliff, likely because of the millions he was being paid to do that job and the reputation he had earned.
So, look at the last three seasons pitched for Sutter and Quisenberry:
It’s apparent that here’s a legitimate case to make that Dan Quisenberry was every bit as good as Bruce Sutter. They both had five seasons in the top 6 of their league’s Cy Young voting, they both had eight-year peaks of dominance and they both were members of a World Series champion. The only difference is in the total number of saves, which is a reflection of the number of save opportunities. It was Sutter’s manager in Chicago, Herman Franks, who in 1977 decided that he was pretty much going to only use him in games in which his team had the lead. And then there were those three unfortunate summers in Atlanta when he was ineffective but saved enough games to hit what was then the magic number of 300.
The larger point I’m trying to make here is, based on the voting over the last three decades and the expected voting of the next two years, that maybe there’s one relief pitcher too many, compared to other positions. I’m happy Bruce Sutter is in the Hall of Fame,. He was a great pitcher and an important part of the story of Major League Baseball in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. What I’d like to see is a Hall of Fame that values catchers, shortstops and center fielders as much as it values closers.
8. Billy Wagner
Ranking Billy Wagner behind Bruce Sutter wasn’t an easy call and I may change my mind about it in a few years. They pitched in completely different eras and, as we’ve already seen, it’s not easy to accurately or fairly compare the closers of the 1970’s/1980’s to those of the 1990’s/2000’s. If you just stack up the numbers of the two, Wagner rules by a mile.
As we’ve seen already, Wags’ rate of strikeouts per 9 innings and WHIP (walks + hits per 9 innings) are the best in the history of baseball for any relief pitcher with at least 750 innings thrown and his park-adjusted ERA+ is the 2nd best only to Rivera’s. The problem is that he is now being surpassed in these categories. If you lower the minimum threshold to 400 innings, he’s behind Craig Kimbrel (and Rivera) in ERA+, behind Kenley Jansen, Kimbrel and Sergio Romo in WHIP, behind Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Jansen in Batting Average Against and behind Chapman, Kimbrel, Jansen, Rob Dibble and David Robertson in strikeouts per 9. Since most of these pitchers are still active, they have the time to push up to over 750 innings or approach Wagner’s 903 IP. So we need a few years to appreciate how truly great Wagner’s rate stats are in the era of one-inning closers.
I still have Sutter ahead of Wagner for two reasons, one of which is somewhat arbitrary. The arbitrary reason is that they’re pretty close to tied in my mind and, therefore, the tie goes to the guy who already has his plaque. The second reason is that the degree of difficulty for Sutter’s 300 saves was vastly greater than the degree of difficulty of Wagner’s 422. As we saw earlier in Part Six of this series, Sutter saved 130 games while gaining six or more outs. Wagner did this just 4 times. Sutter also got 58 saves or 4 or 5 outs; Wagner did this 32 times. All told, the bearded right-hander pitched 41.2 more innings in his 300 career saves than the short but flame-throwing lefty did in his 422.
Sutter had a short career (retiring at the age of 35); the only reason he has more innings logged than Wagner is that he pitched in the multi-inning era. In his first ten seasons, the split-fingered specialist average 98 innings pitched per year; Billy the Kid averaged 64 IP in his first twelve seasons. Sutter threw over 100 innings five times; Wagner only made it over 70 innings five times (with a career high of 86).
To reprise a graphic from the piece Billy Wagner and the Cooperstown Closer Debate, I went through the game logs of all of the top relief pitchers of the last 50 years, sorted them on an Excel spreadsheet and, very loosely, split each of their career saves into “easy” and “tougher.” I defined “easy saves” as the ones in which the closer entered the game in a clean ninth inning (no runners on) and at least a two-run lead. Even an average closer will usually succeed more than 90% of the time in those situations. I defined “tougher saves” as everything else, a 9th inning one-run lead, entering the game in the 8th or earlier or entering the game with runners on base.
|Career||Total Career Saves||Total Career "Easy" Saves||"Easy" Save Success Rate||% of Career Saves labeled "Easy"||Total Career "Tougher" Saves||"Tougher" Save Success Rate|
So, again, we see why it’s so hard to compare closers across eras. Without breaking down every single appearance, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the “tougher” saves for Fingers, Gossage, and Sutter were quite a bit tougher than Wagner’s.
A final point: as I’ve said, more context is needed to determine whether Wagner’s superb “rate” stats will stand the test of time. Take a look at the numbers of three of the current crop of top closers (through their age 29 seasons, which is 2017 for all) compared to what Billy the Kid had accomplished through his age 29 season, which was in the year 2001.
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman all have accomplished much more through their age 29 seasons than Wagner had accomplished by the end of his age 29 season. Putting it another way, all three are well ahead of the pace set by Wagner. Whether all or any of them can sustain such a high level of excellence, of course, is the whole key. If none of them can, if Wagner’s rate stats stand the test of time, you’ll have a really good case for a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
9: Lee Smith
I took a really deep dive into the careers of all of the top relief pitchers of the past 50 seasons and was forced to conclude that Lee Smith did not, compared to his peers, have a Hall of Fame caliber career, despite being third on the all-time list with 478 saves. I put him 9th here to honor his longevity as a dependable closer but, as we’ll see, there’s a strong case that he should rank behind Joe Nathan (and possibly one or two others).
Big and tall (at 6 feet 5 inches tall), Lee Arthur Smith took over the job as the Chicago Cubs’ closer in the middle of the 1982 season and, in Chicago and with four other teams, he was somebody’s “designated closer” all the way through the end of the 1995 season.
For over thirteen years (early in 1993 until close to the end of 2006, when he was passed by Trevor Hoffman), Smith was the sport’s all-time leader in saves. On 8 different occasions he was first or second in his league in saves. He was a 7-time All-Star. Four times he was in the Top 10 in the Cy Young Award balloting; three times he was in the Top 5. He finished his career with a 3.03 ERA despite spending his first eleven seasons pitching half of his games in Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.
He never got hurt and, until his very last, he never had a bad year. For fourteen consecutive years, he was entrusted with the precious final inning of his teams’ ballgames and not once did he fail to convert on at least 75% of those opportunities. From his SABR Bio, Smith said that Joe Torre once gave him the greatest compliment a closer could ever receive, telling him “Lee Smith is one of two relievers I never had to worry about, and the other is Mariano Rivera.”
It sounds like I just laid out a pretty good case for a Hall of Fame plaque. A great number of BBWAA members (though not enough) agreed. Smith debuted on the writers’ ballot in 2003 and got 42% of the vote. In the previous history of Hall of Fame voting, only Steve Garvey debuted with over 40% of the vote and didn’t eventually cross the threshold of 75% to get inducted into Cooperstown.
42% as an opening salvo should have been good enough. Bruce Sutter got just 24% of the vote in his first try; Goose Gossage got 33% in his. Both were eventually elected by the writers. But not Smith.
Why is it that, despite his credentials, that I and the majority of BBWAA voters don’t consider Lee Smith a Hall of Famer? The answer is that you have to go past his final totals and look instead at each season individually. Smith was very good for a long time but, in only one season (1983), was he truly great. In that ’83 All-Star campaign, despite pitching for a bad Cubs team, Smith led the N.L. with 29 saves while posting a 1.65 ERA (park-adjusted for a 229 ERA+) in 103.1 innings. For his efforts, Smith finished 9th in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting.
So, in those very early years, he very much looked like a Hall of Famer in the making. The problem is that Smith was never able to repeat that season. In 1984, the team was good enough to make the playoffs (for the first time in nearly 4 decades) but ultimately lost a heart-breaking 5-game series to the San Diego Padres, in no small part because Smith gave up a walk-off home run to Garvey in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 4. He spent three more years in Chicago before a trade to the Boston Red Sox.
The ’88 Sox were a competitive team and Smith, as their new closer, was crucial in helping them to the A.L. East title. He saved 29 games for the season including 9 in the month of September as the team held off four others to win the division title by a game. Smith pitched two full seasons in Boston before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in May 1990. At the time of the trade, he was tied for sixth on the all-time saves list (with 238). He was 32 years old. There was no reason to think he was someone who would get any consideration for the Hall of Fame or that he wasn’t even halfway to his ultimate career save total of 478.
But, in St. Louis, pitching mostly for Torre, he had a bit of a mid-career rejuvenation. Freed for the first time from home ballparks named Wrigley and Fenway and armed with a new pitch (a forkball), Smith had his best campaign since 1983, finishing with a 2.06 ERA between his games with the Red Sox and Redbirds. From the time of the trade in 1990 until he was dealt to the New York Yankees in August 1993, Smith piled up 160 saves (in 186 opportunities, for a solid conversion rate of 86%).
Leading the majors with 47 saves (while posting a 2.34 ERA) in 1991, he finished 2nd to Tom Glavine in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting. In 1992, he saved a N.L. best 43 games (with a 3.12 ERA) and was 4th in the Cy Young vote. In 1994 (with Baltimore), he was 5th in the A.L. Cy Young vote, saving an ML-best 33 games (with a 3.29 ERA) in the strike-shortened season. Smith had one more big save season left (37 with the California Angels in 1995) before two final campaigns as a set-up man.
So, from 1990 to 1995, his age 32 to age 37 seasons, Smith saved 237 games, more than any other closer, including Eckersley, and three times was in the top 5 of his league’s Cy Young voting.
So, again, why NOT a Hall of Famer?
The answer is in the folly of the save statistic as the sole means of measuring relief pitching greatness. If you want to know who saved the most games in a given season, the answer almost always is the same pitcher who had the most opportunities. In 2008, Francisco Rodriguez set the all-time single-season record with 62 saves. Why has nobody matched him since then, even though we’re deep in the era of the one-inning closer? The answer is that no pitcher since 2008 has had even as many as 60 save opportunities. Kind of tough to get 62 saves if you don’t get 62 save chances, don’t you think?
Yes, Lee Smith had the most saves from 1990 to 1995. That’ not insignificant but guess what? He also had the most save opportunities. In baseball history, only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman saved more than Lee Smith’s 478 games. It should now not be surprising to learn that they are also the only two pitchers with more save opportunities in their careers than Smith had in his.
Take a look at the numbers for the five pitchers who had the most saves from 1990 to 1995. As your eye goes from left to right, would you not conclude that Smith’s numbers were, overall, at the bottom of the pack except for the sheer volume of games saved?
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
In this colorful chart, the statistics in green indicate when each listed closer was the best (among those five) in that category. The statistics in red indicate when that pitcher was worst in the category. Tom Henke has the most green (except for the raw save total); Smith has the most red (except of course for the raw save total).
Now, it is entirely fair to point out that, in order to be given 581 career opportunities to save a game by multiple managers over fourteen seasons, you have to be pretty darn good. The role of “closer” in MLB is traditionally volatile, featuring dozens of pitchers who have one or two great seasons and then fade into the dust. So, to last that long, as Smith did, is a legitimate feather in his cap.
The problem here is that Smith was really good for a long time but he was rarely great and, to be a Hall of Famer, you need to be great, at least for a couple of years. I went through the numbers of all relief pitcher seasons dating back to 1969, when MLB expanded from 20 to 24 teams and the leagues split into two divisions. What I did during this research was go through the process of ranking the ten best relief pitchers per season. In doing so, I went through all relief pitchers’ ranks in eight different statistical categories, weighting some more than others. Essentially, I created an objective methodology but one that is subjective in terms of which statistics I used and how they were weighted.
In compiling these lists, I used eight different statistical metrics: Saves, ERA+ (to adjust for park effects), OPS+ (batters’ OPS adjusted for park effects), BAA (batting average against), WHIP (walks plus hits per 9 innings), SO/BB (strikeout to walk ratio), WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and WPA (Win Probability Added).
Remember, these are my Cooperstown Cred subjective lists. However, if you go through the exercise yourself, I think you’ll find that the rankings are pretty accurate. The key here is that there are eight categories, not just saves, upon which we’re judging relief pitcher performance. By including saves as a category, I’m putting set-up men at a disadvantage against “designated closers.” This was done deliberately.
Currently, there are no set-up men in consideration for the Hall of Fame. I’m purposely giving the closers the statistical benefit of simply being the guy their teams turned to for closing out the games. The vast majority of the time, I went with the number rankings exactly. In certain cases, however, I made common sense adjustments, especially when a pitcher was dramatically ahead in a certain category than his peers.
So, I ranked every season in all eight categories from 1-to-10 (with minimum innings pitched requirements suitable to each season) and, below, have compiled the following list for the top 10 saves leaders of all-time, the existing Hall of Famers and Dan Quisenberry, since he came up in the Sutter comment. The chart below shows how many times each closer was the #1 relief pitcher in baseball (according to Cooperstown Cred), how many times they were 2nd best, how many times 3rd best and how many overall top 5’s or top 10’s.
|Blended average of ranks in 8 categories per season||Best in MLB||1st or 2nd Best||3rd or Better||5th or Better||10th or Better|
Hold your mouse over the 1st place numbers to see which seasons Cooperstown Cred ranked each relief pitcher #1.
A quick aside: in a recent piece on his website, sabermetric pioneer Bill James ranked Joe Nathan as the 6th best relief pitcher all-time, noting how many “high impact” seasons he had and that he’s the guy who “always gets screwed in these discussions.” Clearly, James’ methodology (which I will assume is vastly more scientific than mine) reveals how superb Nathan was during his peak years. For now, I’m still ranking him below Wagner because their profiles are essentially the same but Wags pitched more out of the ‘pen and just behind Smith because of Lee Arthur’s longevity.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand: this chart, in a nutshell, reflects why my opinion is that Lee Smith is not a Hall of Famer pitcher. Strictly by the methodology, Smith was the 2nd best reliever in his breakout 1983 campaign, barely ahead of Jesse Orosco (Quisenberry was #1).
Because the Mets’ lefty had a 13-7 won-loss record (Smith’s was a poor 4-10), the Cy Young voters put Orosco 3rd and Smith 9th. I did not include wins and losses in these rankings because relief pitcher wins are often deceptive. In this particular case, however, the argument for Orosco is compelling. Only one of his 13 wins came after a blown save, the other 12 came when he entered the game with a tie score or with his team behind, held the opposition scoreless and got credit for the win when the Mets scored. Those are real wins, not “vulture” wins. A “vulture” win is when a pitcher blows a save (costing another pitcher the win) and then gets credit for the win when his team scores in the next inning.
Anyway, whether you put him 2nd or 3rd, 1983 was a great year for Smith. He was 3rd in the majors in saves (first in the N.L.), 2nd in WAR, 2nd in ERA+, and 2nd in opponents’ OPS+.
Unfortunately, it was a year he would never duplicate, despite coming in the top 5 of three future Cy Young Award votes. By my rankings, Smith was the 9th best relief pitcher in 1986, 8th best in 1990, and 10th best in 1991. In every other season of his career, he was not even one of the 10 best relief pitchers in the game. In total, only once in his entire career was he one of the seven best relievers. This is why I don’t feel that he had a Hall of Fame career. He was better than average in all but his final season, which is why he held the role of closer for so many years but he was only truly great in one MLB season.
Before finishing, let me address the inevitable pushback on ranking him 10th in 1991 (when he was 2nd in the N.L. Cy Young vote) and not in the Top 10 in either 1992 (4th in the N.L. Cy Young vote) or 1994 (5th in the A.L. Cy Young vote).
In 1991, Smith led the majors with 47 saves, a total that was also (at the time) the most ever for a National League pitcher, while posting a solid 2.34 ERA. For this he finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting, behind 20-game winner Tom Glavine of the pennant-winning Atlanta Braves. In that same year, this is how he ranked among all 105 relief pitchers who threw at least 55 innings (with at least 80% of their total appearances coming out of the bullpen).
- 3rd with a 5.2 Strikeout/Walk Ratio
- 4th with a 3.5 WPA
- 16th with a 158 ERA+
- 18th with a 2.3 WAR
- 25th with a 1.137 WHIP
- 58th with a .249 BAA
If I messed with the methodology, deleting a couple of pesky categories, I could make a case for Smith being 5th or 6th in 1991 but certainly not high enough to be second in the Cy Young vote.
In 1992, Smith led the N.L. with 43 saves, posted a 3.12 ERA and finished 4th in the voting (behind Greg Maddux, Glavine, and teammate Bob Tewksbury). Again, among 94 relief pitchers with a minimum of 55 innings pitched…
- 58th with a 110 ERA+
- 58th with a 0.6 WAR
These were the worst two statistics but Smith not did rank higher than 25th among all MLB relief pitchers in any of the eight chosen statistical categories except for saves. And for this he was the 4th best pitcher in the National League? This was an epic fail by the baseball writers.
How about 1994, the strike-shortened season, in which Smith saved a ML-best 33 games for the Baltimore Orioles (with a 3.29 ERA)? For this he was 5th in the Cy Young balloting, behind David Cone, Jimmy Key, Randy Johnson, and Mike Mussina. OK, to be fair, he got a total of one vote so no hate mail for the writers in total.
- 20th with a 153 ERA+ (minimum 35 innings pitched)
- 44th in both WAR (0.8) and WPA (0.5)
Oh, and by the way, Smith pitched just 38.1 innings that year. It was just one vote but, if you just glance at his Baseball Reference page, CYA-5 is a Cooperstown credential (until you look into it further).
All told, going category by category, Lee Smith, in his 18-year career, finished in the top 10 for reliever ERA just two times (the second time was 1990, when he finished 8th). His third best season was in 1991, when he finished 11th in ERA. Two times in the top 10 is not good at all; the result is the same if you park-adjust with ERA+.
For the record, here are the number of times Smith ranked in the top 10 of the seven other categories among all relief pitchers (minimum 70 innings through 1987, minimum of 55 innings thereafter when relievers started pitching less):
- Saves: 12 times (this, of course, is his chief Cooperstown credential).
- Strikeout/Walk ratio: 7 times (this is good).
- WPA: 5 times (this is not great for someone who had so many save opportunities).
- WAR: 3 times (this is not good).
- Opponents’ OPS+: Just 2 times (this is bad).
- Batting Average Against: 2 times (so is this).
- WHIP: just once (yikes).
There’s nothing subjective about those numbers. It’s what they are. This is not a Hall of Fame career. Ultimately, the baseball writers agreed. In 15 tries, the maximum vote total was just over 51%, well short of the 75% needed for induction to the Hall of Fame.
Smith will likely get a second chance via one of the “Eras Committees,” today’s version of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committees. This year the “Modern Baseball” Committee will examine the credentials of ten candidates whose primary impact occurred between 1970 and 1987. Next year, the “Today’s Game” Committee will take up the cases of players whose impact was in 1988 and beyond. Smith straddles both of those timelines so he may have another chance at induction this December when the “Modern Baseball” Committee meets or next year when the “Today’s Game” Committee meets.
Throughout his career, Lee Smith played the role of the tortoise while many others (who piled up 300 saves fast but fell far short of Smith’s 478) played the role of the hare. If, in your mind, the Hall of Fame “race” ends at 450 saves then Smith as the tortoise made it while so many of the hares burned out and fell short. Smith was a very good closer for a long time, he just never was a truly great one.
There you have it. Thanks for reading. If you made it through all seven parts of this series, you truly deserve to get into the Hall of Fame for readers.