After coming just five votes shy in 2017, Trevor Hoffman was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Wednesday, earning 79.9% of the vote. Hoffman will be a part of a six-pack of newly minted Hall of Famers, joining Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero as BBWAA inductees, along with Eras Committee inductees Jack Morris and Alan Trammell.
Perhaps because of the inherent bias against relief pitchers in general among members of the analytics community, Hoffman didn’t blow the doors off Cooperstown, gaining just 20 more votes than he received in 2017. By comparison, 2nd-year inductee Guerrero zoomed from 71.9% of the vote in ’17 to 92.9% this year. Guerrero, with the awesome combination of home run power (449 career HR) and a high career batting average (.318), set a record for a 2nd year vote.
Cooperstown Cred: Trevor Hoffman
- 601 career saves (2nd best in MLB history to Mariano Rivera)
- Saved 40 or more games 9 times
- Career 2.87 ERA (141 ERA+)
- 2-time N.L. Cy Young runner up (1998 & 2006)
- 7-time All-Star
(Cover photo: San Diego Union Tribune)
Trevor Hoffman is just the second pitcher in the Hall who never started a game in the majors (the other being Bruce Sutter) and just the sixth who was primarily a relief pitcher (alongside Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm). Although he made it into the Hall fairly easily (only Eckersley and Fingers took less than Hoffman’s three years on the ballot), Hoffman was not an obvious Hall of Fame candidate to everyone.
The chief argument in favor of Hoffman, of course, is the 601 career saves. That’s a lot, 123 more than the man in 3rd place on the all-time list (Lee Smith). Some critics have called him a “compiler,” that he wasn’t dominant in the way his contemporaries Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner were. In terms of ERA and other run-prevention numbers (see below), that’s true. But what Rivera and Hoffman provided was consistency and long-term certainty to their teams.
Rivera had 9 seasons with over 40 saves and an ERA under 3.00. Hoffman did it 8 times. No other relief pitcher has done that more than 4 times.
For 15 years, the managers of the San Diego Padres (Jim Riggleman, Bruce Bochy and Bud Black) didn’t have to think about who was going to finish their teams’ close games in the 9th inning. Except for the strike-shortened 1994 campaign and 2003 (when he was injured), Hoffman saved 30 or more games 14 times (the last season being with Milwaukee in 2009). Only Rivera had more 30-save seasons (15 times).
“What he did for the San Diego Padres, the city, myself. I’m probably still managing because of Trevor Hoffman. That’s what I think about him. Every year, he just made our bullpen better and he took guys under his wing.”
— Bruce Bochy (on MLB Network radio)
Bochy has, as the skipper of three World Series champions in San Francisco, become highly respected as a master of bullpen management. You can only manage the men you have and, with Hoffman, he managed him brilliantly.
From Minor League Infielder to Hall of Fame Closer
Trevor Hoffman, a Southern California native, is the younger brother of Glenn Hoffman, a former major league player and manager. The younger Hoffman was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 11th round of the amateur draft in 1989. He was drafted as a shortstop, the same position played by his older brother. As Trevor’s career was just getting started, Glenn’s was ending; 1989 was his final major league season.
After two years in the minor leagues as a light-hitting infielder, Hoffman was convinced by one of the Reds team scouts that his strong arm would be a better ticket to the major leagues on the mound. So, in 1991, he started pitching, armed with a 95 miles per hour fastball.
After the 1992 season, he was selected in the expansion draft by the Florida Marlins and made the team out of spring training in 1993. Hoffman spent only a couple of months with the Marlins; in June he was traded to the San Diego Padres in a five-player deal that brought Gary Sheffield to Florida.
In 1994, Riggleman made Hoffman the team’s full-time closer, a position he held through the 2008 season, relinquished only in 2003 when he was injured.
During the strike of ’94, Hoffman injured his right shoulder playing football on the beach. The following spring, Hoffman’s 95 MPH fastball no longer existed, replaced by a lower velocity version. Desperate, he tried a new grip on his changeup, something he learned from teammate Donnie Elliott. As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote recently, “so was born a Hall of Fame pitch, a signature weapon that will rank somewhere behind Mariano Rivera’s cutter and next to Bruce Sutter’s splitter as one of the great pieces of any closer’s arsenal of all time.”
From 1995 to 2008, excluding his injured 2003 campaign, Hoffman the changeup specialist averaged 41 saves per season in San Diego for his new manager Bochy and his successor Black.
Hoffman spent the last two years of his career with the Milwaukee Brewers, His 2009 campaign, even at the age of 41, was one of his best; he saved 37 games with a 1.83 ERA. 2010 was not so good; with an 5.89 ERA, he lost the closer’s job to John Axford. Still, he got a few save chances and recorded his 600th career save on September 7th. He pitched only three more times in his career,
Getting the Hall of Fame Call
As it is for every Hall of Famer, the “call” on announcement day is preceded by angst and uncertainty. This was more true for Trevor Hoffman than for Guerrero, Jones or Thome. Because of Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, everyone has a general idea about who is going to make and who is not going to make the Hall of Fame. Of the 247 ballots that were made public before the vote, Hoffman’s name was checked on 78.5% of them, a total far too close for comfort, offering no certainty that the “Hall call” (from BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell) was coming. For the others, who all were tracking at over 90%, the call was a near certainty.
“You hear Mr. O’Connell’s voice on the other line, and you get blasted with a lot of emotions. You think about your teammates, you think about the grind that you go through on a daily basis that this game demands of you. And that’s the fun part. That’s the journey that you embrace.”
— Trevor Hoffman (the San Diego Union Tribune)
For a franchise that has never won a World Series and has only appeared in two in 49 years of existence, Trevor Hoffman will be the third Hall of Famer to wear a Padres logo on his Cooperstown plaque, following Dave Winfield and his longtime teammate, the late Tony Gwynn.
As it was with Gwynn (Mr. Padre), Hoffman is enormously popular in San Diego. Whether it was during the final years of Jack Murphy Stadium (later known as Quallcom Stadium) or the first few years at PetCo Park, Trevor Hoffman was the franchise’s most popular player.
With the rocking soundtrack of AC-DC’s Hell’s Bells trumpeting every walk onto the field from the bullpen, Hoffman’s entrance into any home game usually meant the Pads were going to win the game.
It’s well known in San Diego that Trevor Hoffman is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. As the Coordinating Producer for Up Close from 1998-2000, I met him several times. He had become a big star but never turned down a request to appear on our show. On a personal level, I’m delighted to see Hoffman get inducted into the Hall of Fame.
But I will admit, and feel bad about writing the words, that I didn’t always feel that Hoffman belonged among the Cooperstown elite.
The Case Against
For a long time I didn’t think Trevor Hoffman was a Hall of Fame player. That viewpoint was influenced by his relative lack of success in the games that mattered the most. I always viewed Hall of Fame closers with the images of winning championships. The previous five Cooperstown inductees as relief pitchers (Gossage, Sutter, Eckersley, Fingers and Wilhelm) all pitched for World Series champions.
In the regular season Hoffman was superb, converting 88.8% of his 677 regular season career save opportunities, a success rate bettered only by Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan for pitchers with at least 300 career saves. How far behind was Hoffman? A whopping 0.3%; Rivera and Nathan succeeded in 89.1% of their chances.
What the Great Mariano had that neither Hoffman nor Nathan had was a superlative record in October baseball. Nathan had a 8.10 ERA in 10 playoff appearances; Hoffman’s was a little better (at 3.46) but he blew 2 out of 5 save chances, most notably in Game 3 of the 1998 World Series against Rivera’s Yankees. Rivera, as we all know, is the greatest post-season history in the history of the game, with an 8-1 record, a 0.70 ERA and 42 saves in the post-season.
Hoffman also has the notable blemish of the 2007 N.L. tiebreaker game, when he blew a 2-run lead in the bottom of the 13th inning to the Colorado Rockies, costing the Padres a playoff berth. As a fan of the New York Mets, I had also watched Hoffman blow two saves out of three tries at Shea Stadium the preceding August. Also, I remembered how he blew the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park.
In the absence of deep reflection and study, how we feel about a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy is often colored by the moments we remember best. As a Mets and Boston Red Sox fan, I didn’t see how good Hoffman was on a daily basis with San Diego. I remembered the big game failures. Fortunately, baseball is a game that keeps detailed records. When evaluating a player that we didn’t see on a daily basis, those records are vital.
Trevor Hoffman vs. Billy Wagner
Those records, however, show that Hoffman might not even have been the best relief pitcher on the 2018 BBWAA ballot. The left-handed flame-thrower Billy Wagner was also on this year’s ballot. Like Hoffman, Billy the Kid was also taking his third bite at the BBWAA apple but hasn’t done nearly as well as the change-up master. A year ago, Wagner’s name was checked on just 10% of the ballots, compared to 74% for Hoffman. In the 2018 vote, Hoffman passed the 75% finish line while Wagner barely creeped up the ladder, to 11%.
When you look at their run-prevention numbers, it seems a little out of whack that the vote disparity was so great.
Hoffman obviously has 179 more saves (due in part to 186.1 more innings) and a very slightly higher save rate but Wagner’s edge in ERA, park-adjusted ERA+, walks + hits per 9 innings, strikeouts per 9 innings, and batting average against is significant. In fact, for relief pitchers with at least 600 innings thrown, Wagner is the best all-time in WHIP, SO/9 and BAA and second best in ERA to Super Mariano.
Besides the big game blowups, the primary case against Hoffman for the Hall of Fame is that his ERA and peripheral numbers don’t look so extraordinary today in the era of the one-inning closer.
The final argument against Hoffman is that relief pitchers are inherently overrated because of the low number of innings they pitch. The one statistic that is designed to measure all players against each other is WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Hoffman’s career WAR is 28.4, which put him in 26th place on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, just behind luminaries Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hudson and Kevin Millwood. Wagner, incidentally, was in 28th at 28.1. As we’ll see, WAR is inadequate for measuring relievers; there’s another similar-sounding metric which gives closers credit for the high-leverage situations in which they almost always pitch.
Trevor Hoffman’s Hall of Fame Case
Is the 179 extra saves enough to justify a Hall of Fame plaque for one relief pitcher (Hoffman) and 11% of the vote for another (Wagner)? My answer is yes but that’s far from the only reason. First of all, the 179 save difference is a significant. Hoffman had 29.8% more saves. It’s the same as the difference between 755 home runs and 530 home runs. It’s the same as the difference between 300 wins and 211 wins. For a starting pitcher, 300 wins punches an automatic ticket to Cooperstown; 210 wins puts you in the “maybe” or “not good enough” category.
Wagner retired after the 2010 season, at the age of 39, and he was at the top of his game, going 7-2 with 37 saves and a 1.43 ERA in his swan song (with the Atlanta Braves). He retired to spend more time with his family. That was his choice but if he’d put together three more quality seasons and finished with over 500 saves, his Cooperstown chances would be a lot better. But there’s no guarantee that he would have kept pitching that well. You can only play the “if only” game with a Cooperstown case so far.
There are no minimum thresholds for plate appearances or innings pitched for Hall of Fame players. The only requirement is 10 years of MLB service. Still, when Hoffman gets into the Hall, his 1,089.1 innings pitched will be the second fewest (Sutter logged 1,042 innings). Wagner, at 903 innings pitched, is below the bar of 1,000 innings that Baseball Reference uses for its leader boards for pitchers.
When you use that minimum standard (1,000 innings pitched), here is how Hoffman ranks among all relief pitchers in the history of the game:
- 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 SO per 9 innings (SO/9): 3rd best to Kerry Wood & Oliver Perez
- Allowed only 20.2% of all inherited runners to score: best ever
Hoffman the Fireman
That last point is immensely relevant. Until the advent of the one-inning closer, one of the primary jobs of each team’s top relief ace was to come into games with runners on base and keep them from scoring. This is why they were called “firemen.” Starting in the late 1980’s, in a trend that continues mostly to this day, the vast majority of save opportunities for each team’s “designated closer” comes in a “clean” 9th inning; the closer enters the game with nobody on base and nobody out. 1-2-3, save!
Although, like most closers of his time, Hoffman primarily was used in one-inning save situations, he did occasionally come in to put out fires and, with only 20% of his inherited runners coming in to score, he was remarkably efficient. Hoffman only allowed 20% of his 346 inherited runners to score. By comparison, Rivera allowed 29% of his 367 inherited runners to score. Wagner allowed 28% of his 166 inherited runners to cross the plate. That mark is not only 40% worse than Hoffman’s but it’s also notable that he was asked to strand 180 fewer runners in his career.
So, let’s take a look at Hoffman’s record in save situations with runners on base and compare him to the other top relief aces of the past 50 years:
Now, this chart is not meant to slam Hall of Famers Gossage, Fingers and Sutter, who have low save percentages when entering with runners on base. They all entered many, many games with runners on base in the 6th, 7th or 8th innings, when they had to not only put out a fire but keep the fire out until the end of the game. But Hoffman’s numbers again are significantly better than his contemporary Rivera and near-contemporary Eckersley.
Win Probability Added: Putting Perspective in a Closer’s Work
Finally, in the sea of advanced metrics in the game today, some of which require a degree from MIT to decipher, there’s one that I really like because it directly correlates to winning and losing the game. It’s a stat that doesn’t measure how good the formula thinks the player is, it measures what impact that player actually had on the game that was played in the real world.
This metric is called WPA (Win Probability Added). You can look at any play in nearly the last 100 years (in the game logs on Baseball Reference or Fan Graphs) and it will tell you to what degree that play increased or decreased the player’s team’s chances of winning. If you’re a relief pitcher entering the game with a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th inning, your team has about a 80% chance of winning. If you enter with a a three-run lead in the bottom of the 9th, your team’s odds are at about 96%. So, if you close out a one run win, you have increased your team’s chances of winning from 80% to 100% and thus are awarded with 0.20 WPA points. If you think about this logically, you’ll realize that it can also go the other way: you can have -0.80 WPA points if you blow that one-run lead and your team loses.
Anyway, WPA is the best statistic you can use to compare the relative value each pitcher added to his team based on the context of the game situations for each batter-pitcher confrontation. It’s also a way to compare relief pitchers to starting pitchers. Although starters throw vastly more innings, they throw a huge number of those innings in low-leverage situations while elite closers most often pitch with the outcome of the game on the line.
WPA measurements on Baseball Reference goes back to 1930, the first year with complete play-by-play data. Despite the disadvantage of vastly fewer innings pitched than starting pitchers, Trevor Hoffman’s WPA for pitchers is 21st best in MLB history.
14 of the 20 pitchers ahead on this list in the Hall of Fame. The 6 who aren’t? Roger Clemens, MIA for obvious reasons, Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina (both who are on the current ballot and absolutely deserve to be in), still-active Clayton Kershaw, Mariano and the late Roy Halladay, both of whom will be on next year’s ballot in December 2018.
There are 25 Hall of Fame pitchers (20 of them starters) who are behind Hoffman on this list.
In what is a bit of a coincidence, Trevor Hoffman will be the third Padres relief pitcher to be enshrined in the Hall (along with Gossage and Fingers). And, since Hoffman spent his final two seasons in Milwaukee, he’ll be the second Brewers closer (with Fingers) to have a plaque.
It’s good that it’s Trevor time for Cooperstown this year. Remember, the incomparable Rivera hits the ballot in 2019 and it will be fitting that the great Mariano will be the only closer on the dais next summer.
Also, there’s this. There are still many people in the analytics community who feel that Rivera is the only relief pitcher worthy of a plaque (because of the low innings pitched by relievers in general). If Hoffman missed this year, it’s possible that the inevitable comparisons to Mariano would have depressed his vote and kept him on the outside for years.
That’s not what happened. Trevor Hoffman is going into the Hall of Fame this summer and his presence will do honor to the great museum in Cooperstown.
Thanks for reading.