Trevor Hoffman saved 601 games, more than anyone not named Mariano Rivera, 179 more than Billy Wagner, with whom he goes on the Hall of Fame ballot this year for the first time.
Voters, much like batters who faced Hoffman and Wagner, aren’t sure what to make of them.
Hoffman, according to one on-line tracker, is a yes on more than 60% of the ballots, more than six times as many as Wagner, which seems at odds with the possibility that Wagner was the better pitcher.
That’s because of Hoffman’s bundle of saves. It’s similar to the 2014 results when Tom Glavine, with 305 wins, decidedly outpolled Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina, arguably better pitchers.
Glavine’s plaque is safely ensconced in the Hall, while Mussina’s and Schilling’s supporters lobby for votes.
Much of the talk of this election is about PEDs, but it’s like listening to campaign coverage for 16 months on cable TV. It doesn’t take long to get monotonous, and all the viewpoints have been taken.
How the voters view relievers is the more interesting feature of this election, the results of which will be announced Wednesday, certain to approve Ken Griffey and likely to Mike Piazza. Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell have reason to be nervous.
There are five pitchers in the Hall who made it because of their relief work: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage and Dennis Eckersley. Rivera will be the sixth when he’s elected on the first ballot of 2019.
But of the first five, only Eckerskey comes from today’s generation of relief usage — predominantly an inning per appearance and limited to the ninth inning or tie games — and he was more a hybrid in his candidacy, with 151 wins as a starter followed by 390 saves as a relief.
Even after Fingers’ final start in 1973, he pitched more than 100 innings the next five seasons, with a low of 107.1 in ’78. That would be two seasons of work for Hoffman and Wagner.
So how valuable were Hoffman and Wagner? And how viable for the Hall?
Wagner is overshadowed by Hoffman and underappreciated by voters for the same reason Mussina and Schilling were by Glavine: the latter compiled. Hoffman pitched until he was 42 and had a 5.89 ERA.
Like Mussina retiring after winning 20 games, Wagner left after 2010 with a 1.69 ERA, 37 saves, 104 strikeouts in 69.1 innings and a .493 OPS against. He was 39 when he threw his last pitch, probably at a high speed, and it’s safe to guess he had a few more.
It might be better for your legacy to leave a season too soon rather than a season too late, but not for your Hall of Fame candidacy.
By most other meaningful measures, Wagner was the better pitcher. He had a 2.31 career ERA to Hoffman’s 2.87, a .558 career OPS against to Hoffman’s .609, a 187 ERA+ to Hoffman’s 141 and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings to Hoffman’s 9.4.
Wagner never had an ERA above 3.00 in a full season, had four seasons of less than 2.00 and had 63 more strikeouts than Hoffman in 186.1 fewer innings. (He also had several poor postseasons, one in New York, though his entire sample size is 11.2 innings).
Hoffman pitched about three more seasons and they all would have to have been like his last one for Wagner’s advantages to diminish fully, had Wagner gone on.
Wagner pitched 903 innings in a 16-year career, Hoffman 1,089.1 in 18 seasons. That’s about five seasons of work for Mussina or Schilling, or little more than a third of their careers.
“Hoffman was put in the bullpen because nobody thought his stuff could play as a starter,” wrote Joe Posnanski last month. “He started only 12 games in the minors and never started even a single game in the majors. At first, nobody thought he could. And then, he was so good as a one-inning guy nobody would dare move him.
“The statistical analyst Tom Tango puts it this way: On this year’s ballot, you have starter Mike Mussina and closer Trevor Hoffman. There is no doubt Hoffman will get much more support. But, if the two switched roles, who would have the better chance of success? Is there even a question? It’s not hard to imagine Mike Mussina having Trevor Hoffman’s career. It is all but impossible to imagine Hoffman having Mike Mussina’s career.”
Therein is the conflict. If Tango is correct, how do you vote for Hoffman or Wagner over Mussina when Mussina might have done their job as well but they couldn’t have done Mussina’s?
But what if Tango used Rivera for his comparison? Doesn’t it hold just as true for someone who stuck pretty exclusively to one pitch? Good luck to the voter three years from now who uses that rationale to deny Rivera a vote.
The specialization of relievers into ninth-inning pitchers four times a week has made them as difficult to evaluate as they were to hit. Are we comparing them to the five in the Hall? Lee Smith, in his 14th year on the ballot but never having surpassed 50.6% of the vote? Or starters like Mussina and Schilling?
I’d vote no for now on Hoffman and Wagner, in part because there are plenty of candidates to fill out even a 10-player ballot. I’d do it without much conviction.
Here’s the other first-year candidates:
- Ken Griffey: He’s batting 1.000. Get ready for some social media shaming when the no voters are revealed. Yes.
- Jim Edmonds: Closer than the casual fan might think. Hit 393 home runs, had a .903 OPS, 132 OPS+, won eight Gold Gloves, had a 60.3 WAR. Curiously, despite all the Gold Gloves and memorable catches, just a 5.9 defensive WAR. Either the metrics or the memory is wrong. No, but …
- Jason Kendall: If the Hall needs someone to be hit by a pitch, Kendall is the guy. Hit by 254 in his career, which helped him to a .366 career on-base percentage. They could put a dent in his plaque. Kendall is not a Hall of Famer, but it’s fair to wonder what might have happened without the injuries. Kendall hit .300, .294, .327 and .332 when he dislocated his ankle at age 25; came back to hit .320 and slug .470 but after that he only slugged more than .400 once for the rest of his career. 41.5 WAR, with a unique combination of average, doubles power, on-base, baserunning (22-for-25 stealing in half a season before the ankle injury) and defense. No.
- Troy Glaus: Not yet 40, might be the youngest guy on the ballot. Like Kendall, what might have been. Hit 109 home runs by his 25th birthday, had five seasons of 30 or more and 320 in all, but batted for the final time not quite two months after his 34th birthday. How many more homers might he have hit? No.
- Mike Hampton: Once signed a Hall of Fame contract of 8 years and $121 million with the Rockies, for whom he won 21 games and had a 5.75 ERA in two seasons. Even by 2016 standards, that’s a lot of money. When will they ever learn? No.
- Luis Castillo: Circling the Hall as he did Yankees popups, sure to fall down. Pretty good leadoff hitter (.368 on-base), who twice led the NL in steals, won three Gold Gloves and a World Series. No.
- Randy Winn: As has been often noted, players are frequently the opposite of their surname. Prince Fielder can’t, Frank White and Bud Black aren’t. Hence, Randy Winn. No.
- Garrett Anderson: Glaus, Anderson and David Eckstein. What a weekend this might have been for fans of the 2002 Angels. Anderson was a pretty good hitter (lifetime .293 average). Unfortunately, that meant he kept hitting and rarely taking. Had 93 more doubles in his career than walks. No.
- Mike Lowell: How many players come through the Yankees’ farm system and win World Series elsewhere? Lowell did with the 2003 Marlins and 2007 Red Sox. Came with Josh Beckett in the Hanley Ramirez deal but didn’t leave as bad a taste with Red Sox fans. No.
- Mark Grudzielanek: Lifetime .289 hitter who reached 2,040 hits, though not a Hall of Famer, which is a good thing. Doubtful his name would fit on a plaque. Maybe they could take the vowels out, as used to be done with narrow boxscores. No.
- Mike Sweeney: Had four straight .300 seasons, culminating with a .340/.417/.563 triple slash in 2002 that earned him one vote and a tie for 20th in the MVP vote. Those were the PED days (Jim Thome, with a 1.122 OPS was seventh. Not to revisit a bad vote, but eight of the top 20 had higher WARs than winner Miguel Tejada, who got 21 first-place votes). Career .297 average. No.
- David Eckstein: Might have been helped if Judge Landis had added hustle to the character clause. Listed at 5-foot-6, ran out every groundball, which still left him 1,586 hits short — no pun intended — of 3,000. No.
- Brad Ausmus: Played 18 seasons despite a career .669 OPS. Threw out 35% of opposing base stealers. Hit 80 home runs, or in two decades what Mike Piazza hit in his two best years. No.
If I had a ballot, and sent it back on time, I’d check off Griffey, Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mussina and Schilling, wouldn’t object to Alan Trammell and reserve the right to change my mind on Wagner and Hoffman. But Wagner first.
Editor’s note: Due to an editing/human error, the last graph was omitted from an earlier version of this post.